Pluto: Kids’ Comics for Grownups

May 29th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

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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Pluto: Pinocchio Was Already A Real Boy

May 20th, 2009 Posted by david brothers


Pinocchio is probably my favorite Disney movie, bar none. It isn’t the one I’ve seen the most. My little brother watching Lion King four times a day for two years straight means that there’s no chance of that. I’m sure that there are some deep psychological connections which betray a stunning lack of _____ on my part, but the fact of the matter is that I genuinely enjoy it. The story hits my buttons, the animation (from what I remember) is good, and Jiminy Cricket was a great sidekick. I can’t reliably whistle to this very day, and that was a shortcoming that bothered me as a kid.

I read Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka, Volume 1 a few weeks back, and received volumes 2 and 3 from Amazon last week. I’m going to give the series a thorough review later, but I wanted to talk about something that leapt out at me in Volume 2. Pluto is Naoki Urasawa’s re-telling of a classic Osamu Tezuka tale, The Greatest Robot on Earth. It was the story of a robot killer named Pluto who wanted to destroy the 7 greatest robots on Earth. Deb Aoki of About.com explains the deal here. Urasawa is the man who created Monster, one of my all-time favorite books.

I’m not exactly familiar with Astro Boy. I know the basics, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie or tv series, or even read the originals. So, for me, Pluto is an introduction to both Astro Boy/Atom and Tezuka himself. Bear with me if this is something you’ve heard before.

atom01While reading Pluto v2, I realized that Atom is what happens when Pinocchio gets to be a real boy, while Gesicht, the inspector and star of the book, has only gone partway down that path. It was a gut feeling that struck me when Atom scanned Gesicht’s memory chip. Rather than discussing what he saw that bothered him, he came up with an excuse to go to the bathroom, where he began bawling his eyes out. That scene quickly became one of my favorite scenes in comics. I’ve had comics that are purely emotionally manipulative, but this scene was honest and extremely sad.

That moment, when combined with the anti-robot bigotry of a police detective and probing questioning from Gesicht, made me realize why Atom is a “real boy,” despite being wholly artificial. The bigoted detective kept asking Atom questions, trying to prove that robots can’t feel genuine emotion or appreciate beautiful things. Gesicht wasn’t as rude as the other detective, but he also wanted to know about Atom’s feelings.

Both detectives want Atom to quantify these very fleeting feelings as a way of either proving his humanity or his robothood. “Do you really feel that? What is this like? You can’t appreciate this, can you?” Atom can’t articulate what these feelings mean. Either he can’t pin them down or he doesn’t know. Either way, he can’t express how the emotions work or what effect they have on him.

However, humans are the same way. We have dozens, if not hundreds, of ways to say that food tastes good. There are high level ways to say it. Food is delicious, tasty, appetizing, or succulent. There are more specific ways, as well. Food can be spicy, tangy, sour, or sweet. If you asked someone to describe why they liked pepperoni pizza, they’d probably use some of these words. If you asked them to describe why the spicy pepperoni tastes good, what would they say?

Can you turn “I like it” into something quantifiable? What about love? Art? I think that you can approach it, and you can certainly give reasons why, but when it comes down to it, you like things because you like them. They touch something inside of you. You can try to figure out exactly why and explain it to others, but you can’t communicate some things. You can only approach it. Describing “sad” as a bio-chemical reaction in your brain is one thing, but does it actually cover “sad”?

Judging by Urasawa’s other work, this reading is almost definitely intentional. Atom can’t articulate certain things inside him, and he isn’t human, but he is not human in a way that all humans are not human. He can’t reliably articulate the same things we can’t, and that is what makes him human.

Gesicht is the opposite. He’s a robot who wants to know all about how Atom isn’t a robot, and how that relates to Gesicht’s own robothood. He’s picking Atom’s brain to see where he stands.

He’s essentially a Pinocchio who hasn’t realized that he is a real boy. Where Atom knows that he’s a robot and accepted “fake it until you make it” as something he can do, Gesicht isn’t comfortable with faking it, and therefore isn’t comfortable in his own humanity.

Obviously, I’m only two books into a multi-part series, but at the moment, I’m completely fascinated by Atom. Everything about him, from his tousled hair and innocent looks to the contrast between his robotic skills and very human demeanor makes him a character that I just have to see more of.

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