Two from a bestseller: Jog on some new hit manga

Oh Naoki Urasawa, how many thousands of comics did you move while I was out for coffee? You all know what I'm getting at, right? I think we're at the point now where most readers of this site have at least a passing familiarity with the Urasawa name, a font of manga megahits since the mid-'80s - no less than 100 million copies have been sold, which Japan's Daily Yomiuri helpfully notes is terribly close to one book for everyone in the country.

But just four years ago, Urasawa was nearly unknown in the US; the first I'd heard of him was through an essay by our own Abhay Khosla, who surveyed the artist's works through the still-growing 'scanlation' scene of 2004. All that was legitimately available of Urasawa's stuff back then was a lone out-of-print VIZ compilation of the 1985-88 sentimental comedy/action series Pineapple Army, which Urasawa illustrated from scripts by Kazuya Kudô of Mai the Psychic Girl. It wasn't particularly representative of his body of work.

No, Urasawa had long ago become synonymous with longform suspense manga aimed at a slightly older audience - many forget that even his breakthrough 1986-93 sports manga, Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl, was serialized in Big Comic Spirits, a weekly anthology aimed at adult men, and home to the diverse likes of Junji Ito's Uzumaki, Taiyō Matsumoto's Tekkon Kinkreet and Kazuo Koike & Ryoichi Ikegami's Crying Freeman (not to mention the food opus Oishinbo). Urasawa eventually began exercising more authority over story concepts, initiating his 'mature' period with the debut of the cliffhanger-crazed 1994-2002 thriller Monster, which eventually became the first of his works as a writer/artist to appear in English, again courtesy of VIZ, in 2006.

Urasawa hasn't slowed down at all in Japan. His new series, Billy Bat (launched just this past October), turned some heads by pretending to be a full-color funny animal comic for its first two chapters, before revealing itself as the story of a Japanese-American funny animal cartoonist in the 1940s. Heaven knows when a mangaka has released his own rock album in the past year he's well and truly beyond anyone telling him what the hell to do, an attribute that apparently extends to English-language releases of his work - it was allegedly the artist himself that disallowed VIZ from releasing any of his newer works before Monster was published in full, so as to prevent a more experienced version of himself from 'competing' for reader attention.

However, it seems attitudes have relaxed, since VIZ has recently released two of Urasawa's newer series to bookstores. Direct Market retailers will have them on Wednesday. 20th Century Boys Vol. 1 (of 24): Friends

Do note that the "of 24" I inserted above is inexact, I admit; the last two volumes of this 1999-2007 saw the title change to 21st Century Boys, with vol. 23 dubbed vol. 1 and vol. 24 serving as vol. 2. Many sources treat it as a discreet 'sequel' series, although it appears to be simply the conclusion to the main series, set off by a hiatus in production. I'm just treating it all as a single 24-book series. Hopefully VIZ has licensed those last two volumes; I suspect we won't want to miss anything.

Lingering fan qualms about its finale aside -- I haven't read it, so don't ask -- 20th Century Boys is generally considered to be Urasawa's magnum opus. It remains visible in the public eye today; the second installment of a six billion yen live-action movie trilogy from director Yukihiko Tsutsumi opened at #1 in Japanese theaters two weeks ago, and an in-joke comedic story-in-the-story just ran in Big Comic Spirits (again the serializing anthology), presumably in support. For a while it was quite the hot item on the English scanlation circuit, and I suspect its readily available breadth did wonders for establishing Urasawa among English readers in the know as an artist to watch.

But even from this very, very introductory 216-page book -- $12.99 with fancy softcover flaps, that kind of release -- the ambition is obvious. Chapter one alone features sequences set in at least four separate decades, with short additional segments possibly taking place adjacent to longer scenes, or maybe dozens of added years in the future or past. You'll turn the page and not even know what country you're in; that kind of sprawl. There's a huge cast that obviously isn't even fully introduced, with many characters appearing in multiple time periods at different ages. The series' title is taken from the T.Rex song, which get covertly played over a lunchroom's speakers in 1973, in the series' opening pages, the first rock music heard by most of those kids. And it's surely no coincidence that Urasawa, born in 1960, was just the right age to hear that song, in that lunchroom, at that very time. Though conceived with a collaborator (editor Takashi Nagasaki), 20th Century Boys stands with the unmistakable poise of an author aiming to address his generation, to take stock of where people his age have been, and where they're going as the age passes. It's a millennial work, heavy on cloudy portent and shaking from cataclysm nerves, but also a grand, funny human story about growing up and then preparing, futilely, to grow old, a personal evolution no less scary than any 2000 A.D. apocalypse. It's also an unabashed pop comic, entertaining as all hell and weird and thrilling and everything.

The more-or-less 'main' character is Kenji, an ex-guitarist (hmmm, know any mangaka who put out a late-blooming rock album?) who's settling in to minding the family store -- not to mention his absentee sister's infant child -- now that he's staring down middle age in 1997 - and god, how many genre comics can you name with a cast that's mostly pushing 40? There's weddings to attend and small regrets to nurse, along with a heaping helping of flashbacks to Kenji & co.'s youth in the 1960s. But strange things are beginning to happen: a troubled boy-turned-science teacher commits suicide out of the blue and high tech professors and students go missing or turn up dead. Nasty disease crops up in foreign locales, and dodgy religious leaders are knifed in public.

Most crucially, a certain symbol starts popping up. It's oddly familiar to Kenji, but we readers are allowed more access than him - it seems someone has literally started a cult around the miscellany of childhood in Kenji's part of Japan, with Kenji's circle of friends. Indeed, the mystery cult leader is addressed by acolytes as only My Friend -- and maybe it's better the series came out this late, so as to skip 1001 John McCain jokes -- espousing wisdom centered around the US moon landings and reciting manga-fed childhood vows to always protect the world. And through the magic of flash-forward, Urasawa reveals that something really did threaten the world, and, moreover, that someone really did save it. Still, you know what they say about manga - it's always the journey more than the destination.

This is a VERY GOOD one, so far. Urasawa's visuals are as clean and appealing as ever, with great little character touches - you'll never mistake this manga for something else. Despite juggling one million characters over a timeline spanning half a century, the storytelling never confuses, although VIZ kindly includes a character chart up front as a courtesy (skip it 'till you've read the story, though!). Even Urasawa's semi-infamous tendency to mash emotional buttons like next week brings the bathos prohibition is kept mostly in check - sure, at one point a childhood outsider can only prove himself to the gang by saving them from certain death, but in this work it seems more a fitting expression of heated childhood emotions -- the impulse to vow to save the world, say -- which grows to a fire in adult retrospect.

Such is the core of Urasawa's work here. You can probably draw some comparison to Stephen King's It or something, wherein childhood trauma forces adults to band together to confront a danger, but the childhoods glimpsed here aren't much more traumatic than usual. It's what people do with the stuff of their childhood that matters, and Urasawa duly presents many views of potential lost, prominence gained, dreams faded and ideals kept alive, even to the point of bringing the most absurd elements of a J-pop childhood to life, even past the threshold of sanity.

Perfect stuff for a comics artist determined to speak for and of his generation, and I can't wait to see how it plays it out.

Pluto Vol. 1 (of 8)

Note too that the "of 8" above is an estimate; the Japanese vol. 7 is due to arrive next week or so, and the series is technically still ongoing (in the biweekly Big Comic Original), although it's set to conclude in April, unless something changes. That'll make it Urasawa's newest completed work (2004-09), and easily the shortest of his 'major' projects. But then, it's an odd duck in other ways.

Pluto was initially cooked up in 2003 as part of the celebrations surrounding the in-story birthday of Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka's famed creation. It's a wildly expanded, thoroughly modified adaptation of a single popular storyline from Tezuka's original, The Greatest Robot on Earth (available in English through Dark Horse's Astro Boy vol. 3), starring a marginal character from the original, who encounters updated, more 'realistic' versions of All Your Favorites. Given the year of its debut, I don't think it's out of line to call it Ultimate Astro Boy - the similarities are many, and I said as much when I did a longish review of a big clump of chapters back in 2005; there's spoilers in there, although some of my guesses at future plot points turned out to be inaccurate. Anyway, I stopped following the scanlations after a while.

I think some damage was done, though. Reading a huge chunk of scans -- like, two and a half volumes' worth -- gives you a very different experience than sticking to the collections (or a serialization for that matter). If you follow that Abhay link above, you'll notice that he didn't think much of Pluto at the time (2004). Frankly, if I'd only had the seven chapters presented in this book (200 pages, $12.99), I wouldn't have gotten a much better impression; I was a bit shocked at how poorly the stuff holds up on limited re-reading.

Now, granted, some of that effect is probably due to my knowing a whole lot of story twists ahead of time, but I was still struck by how slowly Pluto builds. The premise -- with editor Nagasaki now credited below Urasawa as a full-blown co-author (co-writer, I presume), a rather material fact I certainly don't remember seeing in the scans! -- concerns humanoid robot Gesicht, a detective based out of Urasawa's beloved Germany, who takes on an odd murder case that seems to be connected to something much bigger: the systematic destruction of all the world's most powerful robots, a list he's on!

A devil seems to be on the loose, an impossible being that cares not for human laws or robot rules against killing humans, so Gesicht sets out to check up on many mechanical parties of interest, ranging from the mad, murderous Brau 1589 -- impaled-yet-alive like St. Sebastian, imprisoned-yet-dangerous like Hannibal Lector -- to the surviving remainder of the world's strongest robots, including a certain mighty Atom from Japan.

That's really all that goes on here, but the journey isn't nearly as fine as with 20th Century Boys. In fact, if the prior project seemed to somehow keep Urasawa's soppier tendancies down, this one's proximity to Tezuka's special brand of unbridled humanism appears to have driven the artist hog wild, culminating in a 76-page side-story about a blind composer who was abandoned as a child and can't compose and his new robot butler is a war machine that only wants peace and to play the piano but the composer hates him at first and abuses him and the robot goes away and the composer's garden starts to die, but then there's mommy issues and growing friendship and forgotten tunes of childhood innocence and TRAGEDY STRIKES AT A CRUCIAL MOMENT, OH CRUEL CRUEL FATE, OH ROBOTS AND HUMANS AND MUSIC AND DREAMS!!

It's the type of head-spinning melodrama that rarely manifests without the direct participation of Lillian Gish, pushed straight to the brink of camp by the fact that the robot butler has a face like a luchador mask and wears a cape to hide a torso made of knives and guns. Wait, am I making this sound awesome? Eh, I guess it is kind of awesome, taken that far (it'll be something to see how Urasawa tackles the ending of this fucking thing, oh my god), and like I noted back in '05, the artist's sheer skill with visuals is often enough to keep things vivid - a page setting bursts of piano playing against rhythmic panels of robot fighting is a standout.

But I've read a lot of Tezuka since 2005, and I can't help but feel Pluto may be missing something vital about the master's work. Always, even in the most emotionally-charged moments of his most 'important' work, Tezuka had a way of inserting rude, loud humor, brassy slapstick that never failed to accentuate the lightness of being - humans, robots, lions and everything else was connected in that manner, as part of the God of Manga's cosmology of whimsical pictures, the manga (translated literally) he invented.

Pluto, in contrast, is a self-serious work about how serious things are for fantasy robots from children's comics. Tezuka's children's comics were damn serious too, at times, but never only serious. At risk of projecting my Western funnybook perspective too brightly, it all seems especially like certain American superhero comics (maybe even some Ultimate issues) where everyone glowers all the time so as to demonstrate how important and serious the superhero genre can be. Here, Shōnen Manga is Serious Business too, with frowns on nearly every face when tears won't do, and any fleeting smile set against a hopeless, inevitable doom, which is so totally odd for a book with Osamu Tezuka on its cover.

Again though, my reading is skewed. I didn't get anything better than an OKAY impression from this book, although the craft is solid and I readily concede that the shock of the new might give you a better experience. Plus, I'm confident (having not re-read it, ulp) that Pluto does really start to cook very soon, when the suspense mechanics have warmed up and Urasawa gets to unveil his Big Idea for the series - Tezuka's war/peace, man/machine struggle set against the United States' continuing conflict in Iraq!

That's right, get ready to relive all those wonderful memories of weapons inspections and such with Astro Boy and all of his friends! It's still stone-solemn, and prone to some of Urasawa's worse creative instincts, but it has a way of growing on you. I hope it gets under my skin all over again.