Thursday, May 9, 2013

Urasawa's Craft and Pluto as a Fiercely Original Work: My Treatise Concluded

In my previous installments in this series, I looked at the individual volumes of Naoki Urasawa's transformative masterpiece Pluto. (Click here for my other reviews in the series.) Here in my eighth and final review (split into three parts), I look at the themes, story and art in the series as a whole. 

In the first part of my treatise, I examined The Role of Hatred, Redemption, and Evolution in Pluto. In the second part I looked at Humanity and the Role of Memory in Subjective Reality in Pluto and I also examined the Effects of War and Urasawa's commentary on the Iraq War and American Imperialism.

Here in the third and final part, I examine Urasawa's craft and Pluto's role as a fiercely original work. I also give an overview of my reviews of the individual volumes. 

Urasawa's craft

I cannot say enough about Urasawa's level of craftsmanship at work - Pluto is the vibrant and electric work of a master storyteller. His and Nagasaki's exposition throughout is masterful and unobtrusive, a difficult task in any science fiction work. He metes out details of Gesicht's past in a way that builds to an emotional crescendo, with the revelations in the end both expected and emotionally overwhelming. Urasawa's handling of everything from suspense-filled conversations and massive battles, emotion and action, is all pitch-perfect.

Urasawa's staging of even simple events utilize the comic medium in simple and very effective ways. In our first exposure to Gesicht, it appears he is talking on a cell phone, when we know that he was simply holding his hand to his ear while communicating with someone remotely. (Much can be said about robot communications throughout the work which really amounts to powerful, long-range telepathy.) In Gesicht and Helena's final conversation, it appears they are in the same room, but they are communicating remotely. This is not a cheap trick but a brilliant and obvious bit of storytelling utilizing the established confines of robot communication. The result is more poignant and powerful expression of their bond, and the events that subsequently occur are that much more tragic.

The future presented in the story has a unique flavor to it. Pluto takes place many decades, if not many centuries in Earth's future. Despite it's far flung nature and the presence of nearly human artificial intelligences, the world is recognizable. The fashions worn by the characters are those of this current day and age, the geopolitical scene an identifiable pastiche of known nations and thinly disguised analogues. The biggest difference is in the level of technology (largely represented in the robots of the story) and the densely packed and stratospheric cities. Urasawa presents a bold vision of the future that does not get bogged down in unnecessary detail. One of the many strength's of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples current ongoing series Saga, despite the broadly exotic fantasy/sci-fi setting, is that there are purely recognizable elements like current slang and technology like iPods and televisions and printed books. Why take creative energy to make fictionalizations, be it in name or design, of common things that serves only slow down the narrative? The focus of both Saga and Pluto is on the characters and their emotions and actions, not in sci-fi minutiae. The story of Pluto leaps forward, propelled by the characters, unencumbered by needless detail while still reveling in its fantastic elements.

And then there is the use of color in the art. In the work's initial publication, the first eight pages of each individual chapter were in color. In the collected editions this is limited to the first eight pages of each volume. Color throughout would not really work given Urasawa's very fine line, especially in his dense, almost photorealistic depictions of cities and towns. But there is selective use of color in the story, playing an important role. Very much like the limited use of color in Steven Spielberg's otherwise black-and-white film Schindler's List, the sparing, limited and laser-focused use of color in the body of Pluto is powerful and evocative. Both instances revolve around Sahad. When Uran finds Pluto, on the run from himself in a hijacked body seeking out the part of himself that was once Sahad, he scrawls impressionistic, abstract graffiti on a wall. It isn't until Uran brings him color to paint with that the intent of the image becomes obvious: Pluto paints a field of flowers (a recurring motif throughout the story). It is the part of himself that was Sahad reaching out through the tortured soul of Pluto, creating a moving work that is presented by Urasawa in full color in contrast to the black-and-white surroundings. This effect signals the significance of the painting, not just for the moment, but for the story. (Urasawa repeats this image with Darius in his cell.) The other moment comes when Gesicht learns of Sahad from the flower merchant in Amsterdam. The origin of the name Pluto is not in the God of the Underworld but in the tulip Sahad creates, a flower that destroys all life around it but perseveres for years even in the harsh environs of the Persian desert. The single red flower stands alone in the field, in the bell jar, and on the page, and its revelation is a moment of extreme import in the story, the significance signaled and added by the startling, bold rouge.

Pluto the adaptation, as a fiercely original work

The covers and promotional material for Pluto lists the work as by URASAWA x TEZUKA. This is a generous bit of crediting (and clever marketing) by Urasawa. In actuality, Pluto was written and produced by Naoki Urasawa with Takashi Nagasaki and illustrated by Naoki Urasawa based on Osamu Tezuka's original creations. And in actuality, it is a distinctly original work with its own identity, a reflection of Urasawa's vision.  

Pluto defines itself immediately as something more than just an Astro Boy story. The central character is not at first Astro Boy, but Inspector Gesicht, a detective for Europol who is investigating a series of murders committed against robots and humans linked to a recently concluded war in Iran. The murders are grisly crimes committed against beloved robots and renown human scientists alike, with connections all the way to the leadership of several global powers. Set against a backdrop both futuristic and completely recognizable, the story grows to encompass themes of loss, identity, vengeance, and the very core of the human condition. And the story takes place at an axis of profound societal transformation at the dawn of a new human species and where no less than the fate of the world hangs in the balance. The focus of "The Greatest Robot on Earth" storyline on which Pluto is based is apparently more on the robot-fight aspect of the story, while Pluto goes in far more and far deeper directions.

Urasawa apparently hits many similar story points to Tezuka's original, specifically the characters used and the deaths of the most advanced robots. I don't know, I haven't read it. And you don't need to, Pluto stands on its own. Its very easy to find analogues of what Urasawa accomplishes. You could easily look at any of the modern masterworks of the superhero genre as important and original takes on classic characters and concepts. Or perhaps Don Rosa's masterpiece, The Life and Times of Scooge McDuck, inhabiting and expanding on Carl Barks' own seminal works. But I think a better comparison is the Batman film-cycle of Christopher Nolan. In it, Nolan takes the core concepts that have been around for decades and crafts startlingly original works of art, mature pieces of deeply commentary science fiction wrapped in riveting, suspenseful action packed character dramas. Which is Pluto to a tee.

And the deciding factor of Pluto's originality, the core that brings forth all of the themes I outline above, is the character of Inspector Gesicht. Urasawa's Gesicht - German for "face," both the face of Urasawa's vision and the representative face of the newly evolving robot kind - is one of the best characters of the new graphic canon. So much more than just a determined and intelligent investigator, Gesicht is consistently portrayed with a sense of humanistic morality and genuine emotion. Gesicht's humanity far outshines the actual humans of the story (with the possible exception of Ochanomizu). He goes out of his way to save the damaged robot that would become his daughter, in one of the most touching and emotional sequences in the work. His murder of Haas, despite the wrongness of the act, is one of the most understandably human reactions in the story. And in his decision to not kill Pluto in defiance of his orders signals his redemption - the decision not only signals a sea-change in the potentiality of robot-kind, but saves Hoffman and shows that his morality, not willing to kill an innocent being, is intact. Urasawa's Gesicht, complex, contradictory, three dimensional, is one of the best characters in comics, his Maggie Chascarillo, his Morpheus, his Peter Parker. The emotional connection the reader makes to him is strong, his passing and aftermath a major blow. His closing moments in life - his redemption, the extraordinary staging of his last conversation with Helena, and the manner of his death - and the revelation in the final volume of the details behind the saving (and loss) of his daughter, are some of the most genuinely moving moments ever portrayed in comics.

I do not have a lot of experience reading manga. This is not an aversion on my part, just a dual matter of availability and finding that small fraction of "good." I have read some Tatsumi, tried some One Piece (it is, after all, the best-selling comic on the planet, but not one for me), and even some Tezuka, but my manga exposure is woefully thin, something I am slowly rectifying. I picked up Pluto on a whim - I was familiar with Urasawa's reputation, I liked the production design, and when flipping it open I was struck by the detail of Urasawa's art. Deciding to read it, the story hooked me completely by the point Gesicht informs Robby's widow of her death. In the end I was definitely shocked by how superb the overall story was, and on rereading struck by the sustained intensity of the masterpiece. It is a work that rewards rereading and the experience of absorbing this work is one of the most rewarding interactions with a work of fiction I have ever had. This is one of my all time favorite comics of any kind.

Pluto is a work that is required reading, and should be taught as one of the signature achievements of the medium, very different from but in the same critical league as the comic masterworks of Los Bros Hernandez, Chris Ware, Alan Moore, Jack Kirby, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Warren Ellis, Jason Aaron, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Moebius, Carla Speed McNeill, Brian K. Vaughan, Kevin Huizenga, and Osamu Tezuka himself.

There's a lot going on in this work...

...clearly, and I've only just scratched the surface of all the extraordinary things Urasawa accomplishes here. Pluto is an intelligent and layered work that rewards multiple readings and stays with you long after you put it down.

Further Reading:
"Pluto and Doubling" by Craig Fischer, The Comics Journal October, 2011
"Pluto: Robots and Aesthetic Experience" by Peter Wilkins, The Comics Grid January, 2012

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