Pluto Vol. 1

Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka , Vol. 1 by Naoki Urasawa.
As much as the I've grown to appreciate Osamu Tezuka's importance to the comics medium, it's safe to say that my younger self wasn't exposed to his work at anywhere near the level that a certain generation of Japanese fans were as children. So I can only guess at the visceral reactions from anyone over the age of thirty when Naoki Urasawa's interpretation of Atom was revealed in the pages of Pluto. If hardcore Japanese fans are like hardcore fans everywhere else, some must have hailed Urasawa a genius while others must have wanted to strangle him for desecrating their precious childhood memories. As a long-time Star Trek fan, I was tempted to make comparisons with the case of J.J. Abrams recent re-imagining of the original Star Trek cast. But this is the frickin' god of manga we're talking about, so I wont.

Pluto is Urasawa's retelling of the very popular and influential "The Greatest Robot on Earth" arc from Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy (Atom) manga series - something capitalized on by crediting both Urasawa and Tezuka in the title's byline. For those interested in reading the original Tezuka story in English Dark Horse published this story several years ago in paperback format. While it would be considered a model of brevity by today's standards, it is considered the first Astro Boy story to be told on an epic scale. The action-based tale of fighting super robots thrilled its preteen audience while building on Tezuka's arching themes of robot-kind's struggle for acceptance in a human world that treats them as slaves. Even the world's most destructive and villainous robots are but tools under the control of corrupt and greedy humans.

While Tezuka's robot combat could be seen as a metaphor for the arms race that took place during the Cold War, Urasawa's recall the more recent Gulf Wars. Some of the robot characters in volume one are veterans of the 39th Central Asian War - an invasion carried out to bring stability to the "Persian Kingdom." As the built-in programming known as the Robot Laws prevents the taking of human life, the robots fought and destroyed one another. The returning robots have been living amongst the general human population for several years when the story begins. But an unknown enemy starts targeting seven of the world's most powerful robots for elimination. One of those robots is main protagonist inspector Gesicht, a Europol detective investigating the case.

Graphically, Pluto pays homage to Tezuka, even utilizing his star system. Urasawa is very adept at facial expressions, and he seems to have relished adapting and expanding on Tezuka's considerably large ensemble of characters. Urasawa's more heavily cross-hatched and stippled style is less likely to provoke the accusations of racism that were raised against the more caricatured Tezuka approach (Although Urasawa still draws too many Westerners with large noses for my tastes). At the same time what he saw buried in the original story that appealed to him starts to become apparent. Firstly while Urasawa is able to draw objects which mimic that sleek futuristic design aesthetic typical of the 60s, what he really excels at and loves to illustrate is that decaying Central European ambience: Old neighborhood houses with narrow streets, classical facades, crumbling castles, ordinary people at work, large family gatherings in tiny rooms and children at play.

Secondly while volume one alludes to underlying tensions between the larger human population and the more powerful robots, the human-robot dichotomy is used to bring to the forefront Urasawa's interlocking pet themes: the nature of evil, the power of memory, and the indelible stamp of childhood on someone's identity. Robots were programmed not to harm humans. But as robots become more sophisticated, they acquire more human characteristics: They sleep, dream, eat, drink, get stressed and fatigued, fall in love, marry, and raise families (Volume one doesn't go into detail how any of this works). Isn't it possible they could learn to develop murderous intentions towards humans as well as other robots?

These themes converge in the set piece of this volume - the relationship between North 2, one of the seven robots, and Paul Duncan, a composer living in seclusion in Scotland. North is hired to be Duncan's butler, but what North really wants is to learn music from the master. Meanwhile Duncan is undergoing a creative crisis which is related to a childhood trauma regarding his belief that he was abandoned by his mother. North stoically endures Duncan's constant verbal abuse and disbelief that a weapon of mass destruction could want to be something more. The conclusion to their tale, which has North managing to uncover crucial information about Duncan's past, is heavy-handed in its application of sentimentality. In the pages of Monster, this might not have been so obvious. But when grafted to Tezuka's original material, Urasawa's stylistic predilections become more visible.

Any adaptation raises the issue of faithfulness to the source while updating it to more contemporary tastes. Urasawa is a fine manga-ka and shows a great deal of respect for Tezuka's work. Whether the reader enjoys Pluto will depend on their acceptance of the particular tropes Urasawa brings to the story - a meditation on identity, memory and human nature. I suspect that most Western readers will approach Pluto as Naoki Urasawa fans, having read Monster, rather than as Osamu Tezuka fans. They will find themselves mostly happy with the effort.