Pluto: Kids’ Comics for Grownups

May 29th, 2009 by | Tags: , , ,

In a just world, Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka would be a game changer.

For the past twenty or thirty years, Marvel and DC have made a business out of telling mature stories with characters that were originally aimed at kids. While they have had some runaway successes, the majority of their output has been less than quality. The characters began growing older, going through increasingly extreme trials and tribulations, and rapidly speeding away from anything resembling “appropriate for all ages.”

In Pluto, Naoki Urasawa does it right. I recently finished the first three volumes He avoids the sensationalism and grime that tends to accumulate around stories that reinvent kiddie characters for an adult audience. I can’t judge its faithfulness to Osamu Tezuka’s “The Greatest Robot on Earth.” I’ve never read that story, and probably won’t until I finish Pluto. However, as a story in and of itself, Pluto is excellent.

pluto-atomPluto is, essentially, a re-telling that shifts the focus of the original story. My understanding of the original work is that it was an Astro Boy story that featured several guest stars. As of volume 3 of Pluto, Urasawa has elevated Gesicht, a detective, to the same position as Astro Boy in the original work, while Atom and another character serve as something between supporting characters and lead protagonists.

You could say that the story is about Gesicht and his search for a serial killer, but that would be selling it short. It is about Gesicht, Atom, Atom’s sister Uran, and various other characters. The serial killer, whose identity isn’t truly revealed until the end of book three, simply serves as a convenient way to move these characters into situations where they have to interact with and bounce off each other.

I’m very fond of the relationship that Atom and Gesicht have. The inversion of the traditional “wise old man” works very well. Gesicht comes across as child-like next to the more technologically (and emotionally) advanced Atom. He’s full of questions and conjecture, and eager to pick Atom’s brain. He comes across almost rude in his probing, but he’s coming from a good place.

pluto-atomfaces-01Atom, on the other hand, is impossibly self-assured and confident. He knows his abilities well, and is content with his life. His “real boy” demeanor never comes off as false or forced. When he sees a floating UFO and get distracted, or when he digs into a bowl of ice cream, he genuinely enjoys it. Boiling him down to something as simple as a robot is doing him an injustice, because he is clearly so much more. Just the fact that the first thing he orders is ice cream is telling.

One of the best scenes in the series so far, from an emotional and artistic perspective, involves two of the strongest robots in the world, Brando and Mont Blanc. Urasawa begins the scene with wide shots of bits of wreckage and Brando’s battle suit. Brando himself is a heavyset man who resembles his armor. Urasawa plays with angles and scale in the scene, causing Mont Blanc to seem enormous next to a man who can fairly be called “large.” Mont Blanc stays motionless while Brando approaches, and doesn’t speak when Brando greets him. When Brando asks him how many he killed, there’s a close-up panel of Mont Blanc’s emotionless face, which is followed by a panel that’s even closer while Mont Blanc simply says “A lot.” The next page is a two page spread of devastation. Robots lay dismembered and unrecognizable. No robot is whole in this scene except for Mont Blanc and Brando, and neither are scratched. It was clearly a slaughter.


This four page sequence is just a sample of how Urasawa makes Pluto work. There is action, yes, but the real action, the action you care about, is in the drama. It’s in the despair in an emotionless face, and in the way that a robot, a machine built to be precise, simply answers “a lot.” It doesn’t matter how many robots he killed, because the only true answer is “a lot.” He’s fighting in a war, but he’s also struggling with his faith in that war. It doesn’t matter that he killed 3,022 robots. It just matters that he killed a lot. The specifics don’t measure up to the reality.

The follow-up sequence to this examination of war features a televised broadcast of Atom and his role as a member of the peace-keeping forces in this war. The old warhorses (Mont Blanc, Brando, and a third named Hercules) talk about how easy he has it. He’s an “Emissary of Peace.” He isn’t stuck fighting for someone else’s hate, an emotion they don’t even understand. They came to fight for justice, but found something hate in its place. The kind of hate that forces three robots to destroy almost ten thousand of their kin in one day. After Hercules asks “What is this thing they call hate?” they look out over the battlefield and broken robot bodies and the answer is clear.

Even the scenes focused around the serial killing are more about the people involved than the murder. Atom’s encounter with a bigoted detective serves to tell us as much, if not more, about Atom’s character and depth of compassion as it does about the case itself.

It’s hammered home in scene after scene: the characters are what matter. It isn’t about the why, or the what. It’s about the who. The latter third or so of the first volume is dedicated to the story of North No. 2, his new master, and both of their attempts to regain, or attain, their humanity. It’s almost complete lacking in action until the last few pages, and even that action is kept mainly off-screen.

Our first meeting with the killer of the book is played the opposite of the way these scenes usually are done. Rather than a scene which would normally begin with slam-bang action and end in pithy farewells and threats, Urasawa pens a meeting that is disconnected and more than a little sad. Urasawa’s choice for the character who meets the killer first is a keen one in light of that character’s special ability.

The killer, rather than being a thoroughbred monster, is more like a lost animal. He’s confused and detached, not entirely sure of who he is or what he can do. He’s at a different level of humanity than Atom or Gesicht. Gesicht is curious about being human, Atom accepts his humanity, and the killer has lost his, if he ever had it in the first place.

This is where Pluto shines. It’s more than just a murder mystery, and sometimes borders on a subtle meditation on the idea of humanity. Gesicht, Atom, Uran, Brando, Hercules, and the killer are all functioning as different aspects of humanity, and this makes their interactions all the more interesting.

pluto-atomfaces-02pluto-atomfaces-03Urasawa takes an idea that has been run into the ground and manages to pull it off. Every other mature book starring a kids’ character needs to sit up and take notice of how it is actually done. Urasawa doesn’t show us Atom waist-deep in the blood of the fallen to get a rise out of us. There’s no leering, drooling rapist of a villain lurking around in the background to raise the stakes. And despite that, the regret is clear as day on Atom’s face and in the awkward pause after he talks about his role in the 39th Central Asian war.

Where Marvel and DC failed in this is that they went for the cheap shock. A wife of a superhero was raped, a Robin beaten to death, another Robin grew up and became a victim of sexual assault, and if a hero doesn’t die in an event, that event is a failure. They went for the thing that would rile people up, rather than get them talking.

Urasawa gets me talking. I’d barely finished the scene of Atom and Gesicht in the diner before I got online to say something about it. Urasawa has a lot to say in Pluto, and he’s doing it in a way that draws you in without going for the cheap shock of Atom punching through a bad guy.

If you aren’t reading Pluto, you are missing out on some of the best comics around. Volumes 1, 2, and 3 are available now, while 4, 5, and 6 drop in July, September, and November respectively. I assume that Viz is going to keep up a monthly schedule for the series, which means it will conclude in March 2010 with volume 8.

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7 comments to “Pluto: Kids’ Comics for Grownups”

  1. […] More David Brothers on Pluto. I hope he keeps it up for the entire series. Must […]

  2. I love the way Urasawa handles all the various deaths in the series. There is one death I was dreading near the end of the series because it had a huge potential of being cheapened, but I was thankfully proven incorrect.

  3. There are three panels in volume two that just stick out so much when it comes to impact. “Your family’s waiting for you… Are you really sure you want to go?”

  4. […] subtitles for an interview with Urasawa, originally broadcast on French television. Also, David Brothers reviews the first three volumes of Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki’s take on Osamu […]

  5. […] 1 of Pig Bride (Manga Recon) Sandy Bilus on vol. 1 of Pluto (I Love Rob Liefeld) David Brothers on vols. 1-3 of Pluto (4thletter!) Julie on vol. 5 of Sand Chronicles (Manga Maniac Cafe) Brad Rice on Sundome […]

  6. […] it with the maturation of American comics, or rather the immaturatization, kind of like I did a while back. At the same time, I fell in love with the fact that one of the central conceits in the book, […]

  7. […] there are Japanese comics that do not include tails, so perhaps it’s a stylistic choice. But many do and isn’t the advantage of GloBL that we can take the best of both worlds? I don’t care […]