Somewhere in the middle of the sixth volume of Monster I was hit with a wave of feelings that I’m not used to experiencing from a manga. It was something akin to what Roger Ebert talked about when he described a truly great movie as an “out-of-body experience.” You’re not simply reading the story. It’s happening to you, connecting with you on a primal level that doesn’t require analysis.
I’d read Volume 6 before, when I sat down withthe first eight volumes and burned through them all in one sitting. On re-reading it, though, I wound up feeling far more than just the initial rush of fascination for the story. The world that Naoki Urasawa has created here, and the characters he’s populated it with, they envelope you completely and become your world too.
At the close of the last volume, Dr. Tenma had been cornered by the obsessive Inspector Lunge, but at the last minute one of Lunge’s other targets — the killer responsible for murdering the Joppes — stabs the detective in the side and leaves him for dead. Anyone who’s followed the series thus far knows that Tenma cannot pass up a wounded man, and so the good doctor bundles Lunge in a car and drives off with him. Weak and bleeding, Lunge accuses Tenma of being the sinister Johan, a split personality who kills and cures in equal measure (shades of MPD Psycho there). But we know Johan and Tenma are not the same, and so despite the risk to his safety, Tenma patches him up and leaves him at a hospital. Lunge’s response to the whole affair is to grow even more fascinated with this man: What could be more fun than to pursue someone like this?
Another character whose obsession with Tenma reaches disturbing heights is Eva, Tenma’s former love, now sunk down in alcoholism and self-hatred, stumbling down from one new low to another. When we first see her this time around, she’s been thrown in jail for vagrancy and has run out of cash for her rented room. Her first course of action: find some man who’ll sleep with her for money and do her best to find out where Tenma is. She encounters Roberto — older, charming, and curiously fixated on a series of photos in one of the albums Eva has been toting around. Said pictures featured Tenma and a young boy whose life he saved — yes, Johan. Eva may be a souse or even a degenerate, but she’s also no fool, and she knows how important Johan is to certain people. Through him, and via a bit of nasty blackmail, she finds out where Tenma is now: taking care of a former highly-placed man in Germany’s financial underworld who survived a bullet.
This man knows of Johan as well, in a roundabout way. The young Johan was apparently responsible for a money-laundering operation that serviced many of Germany’s criminal empires. Then Johan vanished, and probably snickered up his sleeve as everyone else tore each other to pieces over what was left. The story’s interrupted when Eva shows up packing a gun — the better to have Tenma hand himself over to the police alive, and maybe redeem herself in the process. She takes a bullet to the leg, but Tenma, true to form, risks getting shot himself to make sure she’s taken care of. It’s the one thing we know we can depend on from Tenma: if there’s one part of him that absolutely will not bend, it’s his sense of duty to a potential patient.
The second half of the volume — yes, all of the above has just been in the first half! — switches to the University of Munich, where a different plot is in the works. Various students on campus have been recruited to read to Hans Schuwald, a blind old man of immense wealth, sporting the nickname “The Vampire of Bavaria.” At night he sneaks money off to a woman who’s been scamming him, pretending to be the one who sired his children. They learn of another young man, “Thursday’s Boy,” who also reads to Hans (on Thursdays, as the name implies), but before they can speak to him they find him dead in his room, an apparent suicide. And then they run into the boy who reads to Hans on Fridays. It’s none other than Johan, affable and pleasant — and who knows what he’s plotting to do with all of them…
The beauty of Monster is how elegantly it navigates all this material and makes it not just coherent but riveting. We’re not just witnesses to the story, but active participants in it. Urasawa assumes the reader’s smart and willing to follow along, not just be led gamely by the nose. That’s the right approach, and the results prove it.
There are so few comics that get everything exactly right. With Monster, everything is in synch: the artwork, the storytelling, the pacing, the themes, the characters, the underlying concepts. It’s like listening to an orchestra get through all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies without botching a single note.