With all those names on the front cover of the first volume of Pluto, I feared I was looking at a case of Too Many Cooks Syndrome. Sure, manga can be a collaborative art form, and typically is: any given issue of Naruto usually only has Masashi Kishimoto on the cover and no mention of his stable of art assistants. The poor guy can’t meet his deadlines without them. But to explicitly credit not only Naoki Urasawa but Osamu Tezuka (actually, his son Macoto Tezuka), co-author Takashi Nagasaki and “the cooperation of Tezuka Productions”, all right up front — well, I got … I dunno, edgy. Twitchy, even.
Reading about the what-and-why of the story put some of my twitch a little less on edge. One day Urasawa got it into his head to get in touch with the Tezuka estate and pitch them a story idea: a reworking, in his own fashion, of the Astro Boy / Tetsuwan Atomu (鉄腕アトム) story “The Greatest Robot on Earth”. To his surprise they loved the idea — and who in their right mind says no to someone like Urasawa? — and so the gears were set a-turning. Knowing all this, I felt something like performance anxiety in reverse when I opened the cover: with the pedigree of the people involved, you’d throw yourself off a bridge if it turned out to be a mess.
Perish the thought. Pluto wears the names of all its creators with pride, and any fan of either Tezuka Elder or Younger, or Urasawa, should put this down on their shopping lists. No, it isn’t perfect; in fact, there are some things about it that quite frankly bug me. But — again, a happy sort of irony at work here — they’re the kinds of flaws that I think will cause people to enjoy the work all the more because of them and not in spite of them.
Pluto is set in the universe of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro-Boy, where robots and human beings exist side-by-side. Robots have civil rights, and their AIs have more than passing resemblances to full-blown consciousness: they dream, they worry, they even marry each other. None of this, from what the story hints at, is just more pieces of their programming; it comes as spontaneously out of these robots as the same things come out of us. Despite all this, robots are of course still the subjects of prejudice and misunderstanding — after all, it’s been thousands of years and the human race still has endless trouble with stuff like various languages and gods and skin colors, so the idea that robot prejudice is waiting for us sometime in the future just seems like a given at this point.
Someone, or something, has begun to target the most famous and advanced robots in the world for destruction. The first victim is the Swiss robot Montblanc — war hero, defender of children, all-around good ‘bot for the people. He’s found torn to shreds on a mountainside, with a pair of branches planted on either side of his severed head — “like horns,” as one of the inspectors puts it. Not long after that an advocate for robot rights is also murdered — a human being, but the corpse has been mutilated in the exact same way as Montblanc’s. This is, as you can well imagine, only the beginning of far greater evil at work.
One of the detectives on the case, Gesicht, is himself a robot, human in every outward aspect including his marriage. Unlike Inspector Lunge — the monomaniacal detective character from Urasawa’s Monster — Gesicht is determined and dogged, but also sane and grounded enough to be able to remember things like his wife and their marriage. He’s also a cracking good detective, as we see in an opening showdown where he confronts a suspected cop-killer and handles the whole thing with deeply ingrained professionalism. He is a cop first and everything else, including a robot, after that.
Gesicht’s detective work takes him far afield. In a scene that owes some of its inspiration to Silence of the Lambs, he visits a Hannibal Lecter-esque robot held in a maximum-security correctional facility. This machine may know something about one of the murders committed — including whether or not it was performed by a human, or another robot. The latter would be in blatant violation of human and machine law, of course, but that scarcely matters when you’re dealing with something of this scope. He also meets with an old friend, a human living in Turkey who pilots a wrestling robot for a living — which gives us a nifty sideways peek into another aspect of life in an age where robots and humans coexist on multiple levels. And at the very end there is our first peek at Astro himself — who, I must admit, doesn’t look anything like we remember him, but that’s part of the fun.
I don’t think I’ve come away from any collaboration without spending at least some time trying to pick out who was responsible for what aspects of the whole. It’s clearly Tezuka’s world and Urasawa’s characters, but the best moments in the come when the whole question of who contributed what becomes moot. The long middle section of the first volume is a perfect example of this: it’s a side story not directly related to Gesicht’s plotline, in which a former war robot (“North #2”) finds work as a butler for a reclusive composer. The composer’s very much a hard-line humanist and despises North #2 more or less on principle. Bad enough that this pile of junk was once a murderer, but now he has pretensions of becoming a butler — or, worse, a musician himself. But over time a curious bond forms between them, one that ties deep into the composer’s own past, and the climax of that particular arc is — for lack of a better word — thoroughly Tezuka-esque.
Art: When writing the reviews for Monster and 20th Century Boys, I had the worst time finding a single adjective to sum up Urasawa’s artwork. Now I think I have it, and the word is mature. Not just in the sense that Urasawa has come completely into his own with his style and can pretty much do anything he sets his mind to (much as, say, Takehiko Inoue seems to be doing with Vagabond) — but mature in the sense that his adults look like, well, adults and not overgrown teenagers the way so many other manga artists seem to be compelled to do. Gesicht in particular — again, like Monster’s Lunge before him — is a convincing detective just standing there. (Think of how an actor like Gene Hackman or Morgan Freeman can give a role weight merely by being cast in it; the same sort of thing is at work here.)
It’s in the artwork, ironically, that I also have my one reservation — or nitpick — with the series. The one place where Urasawa’s style gives way to Tezuka’s is with some of the robot designs, and it can be rather jarring. Case in point: when Gesicht visits the robot wife of a slain police officer, the fact that this is a robot is something we can accept — but the look of the robot is such a throwback to an earlier style of design that it’s distracting. I should say that by the time I finished the first volume, this wasn’t an issue for me anymore; and Urasawa does compensate for it by presenting even these things in the same matter-of-fact way as everything else. But I wouldn’t blame someone if they were tempted to giggle.
Translation: For a book of this stature, you want to bring it into English in the best possible way, and that’s more or less what VIZ did. They tapped Frederick L. Schodt and Jared Cook to do the translation, and it’s superlative work, since there was never a moment when it felt like I was dealing with a translation in the first place. The effects and possibly some signage (it’s difficult to tell since most of the book does not take place in Japan) have been retouched on the page, but the baseline quality for this kind of work has risen to the point where only another pro can really tell what changes were made. The original right-to-left formatting was also retained, although with anything Tezuka-related I’ve learned to accept that if it’s “flopped” that’s sometimes done at the insistence of Tezuka’s estate.
The Bottom Line: Tezuka and Urasawa fans alike, you're going broke this year. Between the conclusion of Monster, the beginning of 20th Century Boys and now Pluto, the reissues of Black Jack and whatever else Vertical or VIZ see fit to snap up from Tezuka's back catalog — you get the idea. If you are not already a fan of either of the above, Pluto may not grab you as immediately — some of the tics and eccentricities I mentioned might seem a bit much to swallow cold. But get past those things and the heart of the work shines right through.
I should point out that if you’re inclined to pick this up, do not repeat do not feel as though you also need to run out and drop bales of long green on back issues of Astro Boy to get up to speed. Sure, the original comic has been coming out regularly in a fine set of paperback editions thanks to the folks at Dark Horse, but Pluto is self-contained enough — and annotated well enough — that no homework on your part is needed to enjoy it. Okay: it wouldn’t be a bad idea to check out the first volume of Astro Boy anyway, since it’s about as essential as manga gets all by itself. But consider that an extra-credit exercise.