Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Repost: Silence & Co.

In April I reviewed Silence & Co., the new original graphic novel written & published by Gur Benshemesh and illustrated by Ron Randall, which is released today to comic shops.

To read my original review, as well as Mr. Benshemesh's comments about my review and my response, click here.

For more reviews and commentary, follow me on Twitter: @B5Jeff.

As always, comics provided by JHU Comic Books, New York City's Premier Comic Shop, Where Art & Literature Meet.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Creating the Universe: The Incal by Jodorowsky and Moebius

The Incal Classic Collection  
by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius
collects the six albums of Les Aventures de John DiFool
Humanoids, 1981-1989, 2011
Moebius, the late Jean Giraud, is probably the most influential comic artist whose work you've likely never seen. Most of Moebius's expansive catalog is criminally out of print, not just in the United States but also, apparently, in his home country of France. After years of developing his clear, hyper-dense artistic style in his western strip Blueberry for Dargaud, Moebius co-founded the publishing house Les Humano├»des Associ├ęs (Humanoids) and the magazine Metal Hurlant (Heavy Metal) in 1974. Best known for his mind-bending science fiction works of the last thirty years, most notably Azrach and The Airtight Garage, it was with his occasional collaborator Alejandro Jodorowsky that he created one of comics' most important works, Les Aventures de John DiFool - better known as The Incal.

Alejandro Jodorowsky is one of the most eclectic and important creators in the history of comics. A Chilean born to Ukranian Jewish parents, Jodorowsky made his name in Mexico and France in the 1950s and 1960s as a mime and surrealist playwright & filmmaker. In the six albums that make up The Incal, published between 1981 and 1989 by Humanoids, Jodorowski presents the foundation of the Jodoverse, an expansive series of dozens of graphic novels set in a trippy, metaphysical sci-fi/fantasy universe. And the best books in the Jodoverse are of course the first, where Moebius sets the stage for some of the most influential science fiction imagery since Jack Kirby forged a universe (and a visual language) out of paper and pencil fifty years ago.

Page one quickly introduces us to our hero, of sorts, John DiFool, a "Class-R licensed Private Investigator" who is getting curb-stomped by a band of thugs. In front of a large crowd in a very large subterranean city, he's thrown over the edge, plummeting to his seeming death past level after level of hyperdensely packed city, teeming masses of colorful and depraved humanity (some gleefully jumping to their deaths after him), layer after layer of gleaming fantasy future-tech and garbage, to a bottomless end beyond the field of vision. Saved at the last second in the first of many near-deaths and actual deaths, DiFool is frequently the victim of machinations far outside his control (or comprehension). But this isn't a hard-boiled detective drama in space, it's re-creation myth on mescaline.

DiFool finds himself in possession of The White Incal, some kind of weird mystical whatsit that was given to him by a dying alien from an aggressive species most thought apocryphal. His bird, Deepo, manages to eat it and, after gaining sentience, becomes an instant religious icon to hundreds of people crowding into DiFool's tiny apartment. DiFool wrestles his way back into his home, only to have different forces blast in try get to the Incal. Then all hell breaks loose. Really, really breaks loose. It seems every major governmental, scientific and religious power in two full galaxies are going after the Incal, all while the city riots on all levels by every conceivable faction of humanity against the ruling order. Then the Metabaron, the universe's most epic assassin shows up to take out DiFool. Then the nuclear bomb goes off. And that's just the beginning.

The future Moebius and Jadorowsky paint is a filthy, crowded, corrupt mess. Moebius packs a ton of detail into every panel, and the details are a crowded, dirty future, the slums of the overpopulated supercity extrapolated into the future to the extreme. As DiFool, entirely against his own wishes, accumulates a motely band of compatriots all doing the Incal's bidding, the story bounds forward into the farthest reaches of space and time, and into the completely metaphysical. There is a significant amount about fate and the future and a whole lot of sci-fi mysticism, none of which the reader is really prepared for expositionally. Just like DiFool, the reader is thrown head-first willy nilly into a rediculously vast universe, the seeming pawn of a plot that involves an all-powerful Emperroress, bloody coups, mad bands of Techno-Priests trying to turn every sun in the galaxy black, aliens invading from another galaxy to fulfill a twelve million year old prophecy, a psychotic Prezidential robotic jeggernaut, a star-child, and so much more. The sheer amount of trippy shit DiFool is put through (and that the reader breathlessly, relentlessly experiences) is enough to fill a dozen graphic novels.

Relentless is a good descriptor. This is divine, sci-fi ridiculousness dialed to eleven and pumped at the characters and the reader in a non-stop flow of visual astonishment. Far from taking itself too seriously, this novel is really, really funny. Moebius and Jadorowsky don't really find a balance between self-seriousness and irreverence as much as they don't give the reader a chance to take a breath between transitions. There's no delicacy to the exposition, and it seems they abandon all attempts at explaining a bloody thing pretty early on. The characters just know shit, alright, stop asking questions. Why devote time to basic standards of story construction when motherfucking Moebius can be drawing absolutely crazy shit instead? And there's some sociopolitical commentary woven into the psychedelic sci-fi for good measure.

The Incal should be required reading, there is just the matter of how. As it stands, Humanoids has published a superbly designed omnibus edition that they too often periodically let go out of print. The price point (the unmarketable $44.95) and lack of descriptive text on the back cover don't do it favors, but as a deluxe presentation of one of comics' supreme masterpieces, the quality is both exceptional and appreciated, the forty five bucks a relative bargain. I think reasonably priced reprints of the original albums would do well. In lieu of that, if you can manage to find them, Humanoids is about halfway through publishing absolutely astonishing eighty dollar massively oversized limited hardcover editions of the individual albums. No matter how you consume it, consume it. Soak in every panel of every page, witness the hallucinatory magic that is Moebius in the Jodoverse, experience the madness that is The Incal. It is one of fiction's most gloriously unhinged reading experiences, one of the graphic canon's truly required works.

And when God ultimately shows up in the story and Creates the Universe, it is not a story point but a self portrait of Moebius at work, metacommentary on the divinity of Giraud through the lens of Les Aventures de John DiFool.

Buy The Incal on Amazon here.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Rutu Modan's The Property

The Property by Rutu Modan
Drawn & Quarterly, 2013
The Property is the first full-length graphic novel by the Israeli cartoonist Rutu Modan since Exit Wounds, her 2007 debut that made her a bestselling critical darling. She released one short story collection and had a serial in the New York Times in 2008, but aside from a Toon Books comic for young readers, she hasn't released anything since. The Property is thus a highly anticipated test if whether or not Modan, who started cartooning in earnest in her 40s, is a one-hit wonder or a rising star.

Like Exit Wounds, The Property isn't spectacular, but it is quite good. It is simply the straightforward story of one Israeli-American family's possible inheritance of a property in Poland long thought lost. Under Polish law, land taken from Jews during the Second World War remains the property of those individuals or their descendants regardless of the amount of time that has passed. Mica and her grandmother Regina, a colorful and realistic elderly expatriate Polish Jew, travel to Warsaw to reclaim land apparently taken away from their family decades ago, land that could be worth a fortune. But Regina has alternate motives for visiting Warsaw, reasons that involve a secret from her past and a recent loss coming back to haunt her now. And in her one week in Warsaw, while unraveling the mysteries of her family's past and rebuffing the machinations of a scheming relative, Micah falls for a local, a tour guide slash cartoonist very interested in Micah's family story.

Both Exit Wounds and The Property deal with the legacy of loss that can be so specific to the Jewish experience, Exit Wounds in the nearly daily exposure to terrorism in Israel, The Property in the quickly disappearing generation of survivors' losses from the Holocaust. Both deal with the societal expectations Jews have for each other. And both deal with the universality that familial secrets play in all of our lives. Modan's accessible ligne claire art and the simplicity of the story make this a light, easy read. This has art-house trappings to snag the NPR crowd, but rest assured this is the opposite of the intellectual or aesthetic challenge the packaging suggests. This is no game-changer, Modan no master, but it is still a quality, interesting read. I don't mean to damn this with faint praise, but this is alright, a nice, light summer read. If you've got twenty-five bucks and an hour to kill, go for it. There's worse you can do, but there's far better, too.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Building a Franchise: The End of Geoff Johns' Green Lantern

The 500th issue of Green Lantern, and Geoff Johns' last
This week's giant sized Green Lantern 20 saw the final issue written by Geoff Johns, the creator who revitalized the moribund Lantern franchise in what was the first step in his rise to the creative top of DC Comics. The book is that rare thing in superhero comics: an ending. You get the ultimate fates of multiple human and alien lanterns of all spectra, and some rather specific hints of what is to come some years down the line. Johns pulls this off by doing the issue from the future, in flashback. These elements really have that Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow kind of feel to it, but you have to slog through the final chapter in Johns' latest Lantern crossover whatsit first.

Johns' run with the franchise is marked by the deft way he brought the greatest Green Lantern, Hal Jordan back, energizing one of DC's coolest concepts in a way that hasn't been done since the re-creation of the character at the dawn of the Silver Age. His run is also marked by neverending crossovers and tiny retcons in what ultimately transitioned the book from superhero work to expansive space opera. (Well, it's always been a space opera, just one where Jordan murders half the universe.) His introduction of the Sinestro Corps and the elevation of Sinestro to one of DC's best villains was the critical and popular turning point for many, including myself. I have never really been into the DC Universe in the way that I have been the Marvel Universe, but my first exposure to Johns' Green Lantern - the epic spacewar crossover The Sinestro Corps War - had me hooked. I read everything that came since Rebirth, and became a devoted monthly follower of the franchise, a DCU first for me. I'm a sucker for space sci-fi, and the Green Lantern books - like its contemporary, the criminally out of print Abnett & Lanning Guardians of the Galaxy in the Marvel Universe - told fun outer space action adventure tales largely removed from the shared universe it inhabited. Johns would introduce the full spectrum of heretofore unseen Lanterns as his Green Lantern books began to build their own distinct mythology.

But Johns would again and again go to a familiar formula of introducing a retcon which would trigger some massive crossover. Blackest Night, which focused on c-list DC characters coming back from the dead and a massive war of the various Lantern colors, was the largest of these, encompassing the entire DCU in the process. My frustrations with the quality of the story (it just wasn't very good, at all) as well as having to put up with yet another Event Series (this time in a shared setting I had no affinity for) pretty much put a nail in the coffin of my DCU reading. I was wary of the increasing complexity of Johns' space opera and of ceaseless crossovers. I love space operas, I really do, but Johns' tired formula just wasn't doing it for me.

Shortly enough, though, the editorially mandated last-second clusterfuck that was the DC New 52 happened, and with it the opportunity for me to try some new DCU books, including jumping back onto Green Lantern. For better or worse, like the Bat-family of books Green Lantern actually kept its prior continuity, and with it the ongoing space opera. There would be more tired crossovers, and I'd like to think Johns had some great design, but honestly it always felt like yet another yet another. The latest storyline, Wrath of the First Lantern was the yet-anotheriest (hey, it sold books, so why stop?) and hardly felt like the end of an influential and apparently distinguished run. But it is the final chapter by Johns and once we get past the requisite and frankly incomprehensible nuttiness made bearable by the usually amazing art of Doug Mahnke (and about a dozen others for good measure), we get the various unexpected endings.

Johns, April 2009
(At this point I was going to summarize the proceedings of Wrath of the First Lantern but I just realized I wasn't really paying attention and probably couldn't recount it even if I was. So here's a picture of Johns I took from the JHU signing/panel we ran a few years ago. He's kindof dreamy in that boyish never-takes-his-hat-off kind of way, and honestly, he's a really nice fella.)

The endings were somewhat refreshing. Johns clearly loves the characters. But naturally, the way superhero comics generally work, those endings are valid for as long as anyone decides not to change them, which won't be long. Next month gives us new creative teams across the board on all the Lantern books (five titles in a market that once couldn't sustain one, if anything the most obvious metric of Johns' success), and with the fresh voices a chance at doing something different. I have been saying for some time that I would really like a Green Lantern book where a Green Lantern went out and did Green Lantern stuff - explored deep space with funny looking aliens, defended the whole sector from any number of varied and high concept threats in nice short arcs, original voices, original ideas... but then I realized that that was a pipe dream and not representative of any previously established status quo. As far as anyone familiar with the character in recent years, including myself, a Green Lantern book where a Green Lantern goes out and does Green Lantern stuff is just what Johns has been giving us. I hardly expect much different going forth. DC has been shown a formula that has worked, so why break it? And with rare recent examples (almost entirely from Marvel), different doesn't necessarily sell as much as the same old shit. Superhero comics are entirely predicated on the same old shit. Like in all the shared universes from all the major publishers, their responsibility is maintaining an IP, not creating art, and its not exactly like Johns is being completely extricated from the franchise - he is the DC Chief Creative Officer, after all. 

So we get to the end of an era, one that saw an almost forgotten space hero elevated to the A-List complete with multiple merchandise lines (Collect all seven nine rings!) and a blockbuster movie. Sure the movie was a bomb, but it wouldn't have happened in the first place without Geoff Johns. There are many ways to thank someone, and in this issue DC goes to the odd step of spending page after page with canned congratulations from their various contracted talent and several others. It reads like employees thanking their boss for being a genius when he was only doing his job... which is exactly what that is, actually. He did it well, with help of course (stand up and take a bow, Peter Tomasi) but there was nothing revolutionary to it, certainly not to the level we see here (Johns even got a Hollywood party). When creators die they don't get this much praise in print. The best creative minds in comics that actually deserve such effusive praise can't even get a gig. This guy got an executive position, an exclusive contract, plus carte blanche to do as he pleased ultimately producing safe, pedestrian superhero work on a bunch of titles that sold very, very well for which he is well payed. Do we really need the fellatio?

Next month, new creators producing executive-mandated stories while committing unpaid rewrites to bend to every tiny last second editorial whim all in the vain hope that someday various underlings can be cajoled into thanking them for page after page. Or, a bold, original vision. Or maybe, just maybe, a Green Lantern book where Green Lantern goes out and does Green Lantern stuff.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Lungful of Melancholy: Justin Madson's Breathers

Breathers by Justin Madson
Just Mad Books, 2011
Breathers is a 2011 graphic novel written, illustrated and published by Justin Madson, collecting his mini-comic serialized between 2007 and 2011. Two things immediately jump out: Madson's illustration style and the size of the graphic novel. Both a strength and a weakness, Madson's art style, as far as human characters go, is fairly unique: in stark black-and-white art, the characters have gangly appendages, long faces above the mouth, and Harold Gray-Orphan Annie Eyes. It's not as extreme as another recent graphic novel inhabiting the language of sadness, Chris Wright's Black Lung, which almost borders abstraction, but it does make facial identification difficult in places. His draftsmanship is competent enough that the novel holds together visually, though, and despite the length - 425 pages - it is a fairly breezy read.

Breezy in terms of time, though certainly not in tone. Despite it's high concept and aims, the most striking feature upon reading it is the pervasive melancholy that is infused into every character, every interaction, every fiber of the book itself. Forty years ago, a virus is loosed upon the Earth in the very air we breathe, so all humans are required to wear special "breathers," apparatus that allows people to go outside. There is a fear of the air which is quite deadly, though some think the virus may be dissipating and the whole breather thing is a giant conspiracy theory. The sadness felt by the characters isn't because of the virus, though. They are all just really, really sad.

Ostensibly this is a character piece about a bunch of unrelated people in a smallish town and the tangential ways some of their lives interact. The novel is divided into chapters with each chapter featuring a shorter sequence focusing on one character or group of characters. Some of the story arcs intersect and some don't. It's hard to juggle characters in a shared setting like this in an interesting enough way without getting gimmicky, and the characters need to be compelling enough on their own. Unfortunately they aren't. There are a few interesting things done with the concept, but there is largely nothing done in Breathers that can't be done without the sci-fi hook. That wouldn't be a bad thing if the characters' various arcs were interesting, except, again, that they really aren't. There are decidedly supernatural elements sprinkled throughout that just don't quite fit, and there is some attempt made at overexplaining things as far as the virus is concerned.

Overall it doesn't quite work, but even through it's narrative messiness, Madson's art style is interesting enough to stick with it. You can do worse for thirty bucks, and if you don't want to get the hard copy you can download it for five dollars direct from the author. If read in small chunks, the lack of cohesion and silliness - and the ceaseless gloominess, which might just be the real virus of the story - will be a lot more bearable.

Breathers is available for purchase or download on the author's website here, as well as from finer comic shops just like JHU Comic Books in New York City.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Final Testament of Ivan Brunetti - Aesthetics: A (Non-) Memoir

Aesthetics: A Memoir by Ivan Brunetti
Yale University Press, 2013
I've never quite come around to Ivan Brunetti. Like most folks familiar with his work, I've read Schizo, his seminal Fantagraphics miniseries. While, as has been reiterated to me by a Brunetti fan who knows his stuff, Schizo is fearlessly self-eviscerating - a trait shared by many independent cartoonists but not nearly to the savage level of Brunetti's consistent self-abhorrence - I never really liked the art style and overt focus on extreme gross-out humor. Despite the incisive commentary, it's not entirely unfair to dismiss the work as sick Johnny Ryan-esque humor with a Chris Ware flare. Naturally Schizo is not his only work, and Brunetti also has a far more accessible cartoony style - influenced as much by Shulz and Bushmiller and certainly Ware - that has seen him published frequently in The New Yorker and the subject of University exhibitions.

Ivan Brunetti's new book, Aesthetics: A Memoir, is, first of all, not a memoir. It's more of a monograph by the subject (an automonograph?) that is decidedly sparse on biographic detail. Essentially a hardcover reprint of a catalog of an exhibition from 2009 plus some new material interspersed with commentary by Brunetti, Aesthetics focuses on his more mainstream material of more recent years rather than his Schizo phase. As a pretty comprehensive collection of his New Yorker material and otherwise uncollected short pieces, Aesthetics is indispensable. His commentary and self-assessments are in-depth (if short) and very effective at illustrating his art process and thought process behind the pieces. And the works presented are far more enjoyable than his Schizo work (for me, anyway).

Aesthetics is not limited to the author's published work. A superbly designed hardcover presentation, the work showcases his wood and papier-mache constructions, and his avowed tendency to doodle obsessively, often the same image hundreds or thousands of times. His unpublished doodles and his constructions are reflective of his more recent, mainstream cartoony style rather than anything remotely like his Schizo work. This is telling. He describes a constant evolution of his style, and while he is critical of both the style and level of output in his more recent work, his evolution to the cleaner cartooning - both in style and content - seems to be representative of his true aesthetic. There are copious photos of his work and living spaces, and his contemporary style seems to fit his internal and external style.

But there is more than a little question of the future. Brunetti describes the mental turmoil that has afflicted him throughout his life and the undeniable and unavoidable effect on his art. And how an increased focus on the nine-to-five of being a teacher has taken him away from the drawing table. He sees illustrating as a muscle that must be flexed constantly lest it atrophy, and he fears his art is beginning to stagnate. (I see his art coming alive, what little he is able to do anyway.) And then there is his eyesight. For years his eyesight has been degenerating and he fears he may not be able to continue cartooning even if he wanted. By his own admission, these factors have played a role in him not producing many (if any) comic or art in the past few years.

Aesthetics: A Memoir is an odd duck of a book. Not quite a memoir, not quite an art book, not quite a monograph, not quite a catalog. It's an appropriately indefinable book for an artist whose distinct career phases defy convention. But the book may actually represent the final piece from one of comics' unique voices, the final testament of a cartoonist continuously on the edge of taste and of the mainstream. I hope it isn't.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Ultimate Spider-Man and The Obligations of Superheroism

Please note that there are spoilers below for last month's Ultimate Comics Spider-Man 22

Ultimate Spider-Man 23
Brian Michael Bendis's Ultimate Comics Spider-Man has consistently been one of my favorite ongoing superhero comics. I love the new character of Miles Morales and his supporting cast, the writing is some of Bendis's best stuff of recent years, and we've been spoiled by the wonderful art of Sarah Pichelli and David Marquez. And being that the book takes place in the Ultimate Universe, Bendis has more freedom to take chances and to play with the status quo. In recent issues Bendis has, through bold story turns - though through vastly different means, not entirely unlike Dan Slott in Superior Spider-Man - flipped the established paradigm of what makes (a) Spider-Man, and raises fascinating questions about the nature of superpowered vigilantism.

Stan Lee always laments that he never got to write the Great American Novel. Except that he did: The Amazing Spider-Man with Steve Ditko. In addition to being just a damn fine comic book, the Ditko-Lee Peter Parker/Spider-Man is probably the best known superhero globally (with Superman and Batman) and one of the best examples of the revolutions introduced by the Marvel Age of comics. Spidey's origin is in the very DNA of nearly every modern superhero story: teenager gets powers, uses them for fun and profit, could have stopped a random robber, robber kills uncle, decides to help people with his powers. That's the quick and dirty version, but what actually occurs is far more complex, as it would be several issues of Amazing Spider-Man and several months after Ben's death before Peter Parker becomes (what we now know as) a Superhero.

Miles Morales's path to Spider-Man is much different than Peter Parker's. After getting Spidey-like powers by similar mechanisms as Ultimate Peter Parker, young Miles Morales takes up the mantle of Spider-Man. As Peter Parker had just very publicly died, this is done as much in tribute to Parker with the eventual blessing of Parker's family and friends, and, disturbingly, elements within the fractured government including SHIELD and The Ultimates. I say disturbingly because Morales is just fourteen years old when he gets the Spider-powers - this is a young man who should be in school, not fighting crime on the streets and especially not acting as a paramilitary, a child soldier, fighting other superpowered beings. While there is argument among members of The Ultimates about the propriety of allowing Morales into their ranks, they eventually acquiesce. There was a Civil War on, and cannons need fodder.

Perhaps that is too harsh, but maybe we need to be harsh when approaching the stark reality of allowing children to fight alongside adults in adult conflicts. Batman's continuously unforgivable penchant of recruiting children to fight his battles being a prime example of this in the DC Universe. And then, why vigilantism? The idea of the superhero - dressing up in funny costumes and using fantastic powers to fight crime (and more frequently ne'er do wells in funny costumes with fantastic powers of their own) - is such an odd pursuit and a uniquely American genre of fiction. The why and how of superheroism has been explored to death by so many over the last 75 years, and what Bendis is doing in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man is by no means revolutionary. But it is raising some interesting questions about the internal logic and ethics of costumed crime-fighting.

Art by Sarah Pichelli
The tragedy of Peter Parker is instantaneous - in his very first appearance, his inaction leads to the death of a loved one. The specifics are a little different for Ultimate Peter Parker, and Ben dies too, though it takes a few issues. But the tragedy of Miles Morales - the death of a parental figure - takes twenty-two issues to happen, and has the opposite effect of Ben Parker's death. Last month, in a shocking twist, Miles's mom dies in his arms, the direct result of his role of Spider-Man. The Venom monster was targeting Miles's dad (a near lethal case of mistaken identity for his dad), and Miles's mother dies in the crossfire as the NYPD and Miles tries to stop Venom. Classic Uncle Ben dies because Spider-Man wasn't being a hero. Miles's mom dies because he was.

In today's new issue #23, there is a sudden and audacious time jump forward (and quite a long one for the sliding, decompressed timescale of superhero comics). It has been some time since the events of the previous issue, and Miles has put away the Spider-Man costume for good. His focus is on academics and girls and family, not on the vigilante ridiculousness that got his mom killed. His best friend and Spidey co-conspirator, Ganke, is still holding out hope for Spider-Man's return, and so, apparently is Jessica Drew, Spider-Woman. She pressures him into taking back Spider-Man, "How many people could you have saved [since you stopped]. You fall off a horse, you get back on." Miles demands Jessica respect his wishes, with Jessica responding with the well-worn Power and Responsibility guilt trip.

Jessica's actions, quite nearly demanding that Miles become Spider-Man again despite his losses, regardless of the amount of time that has passed, seems frankly unconscionable. The boy's mother died in his arms because of the Spider-Man, and you try to guilt him back into it? If anything, Miles is being responsible with his power. Responsible to his family and friends, as he notes, and I would argue responsible to himself. But in the Marvel Universe (both of them) there almost seems to be a societal expectation of costumed superheroism, despite the vociferous protests of civilian entities of various superpowered actions. In a world where so many people have so many varied superpowers, it's just plain what you do. A decade ago in Grant Morrison's New X-Men, Charles Xavier brilliantly breaks down the necessity of costumes for his X-Men as nothing more than what the American public expects from those with powers. In our reality, if powers even remotely like those in superhero comics existed, one would expect those with them to profit off them, and there would be frankly nothing wrong with it. Quite the opposite, in fact. Human beings at the peak of physical perfection are well-paid athletes and entertainers. The super-smart are entrepreneurs or cogs in multi-billion dollar corporate machines. Those who are selfless with their skills or time do so by effective volunteering. Not a single human being on Earth would make the mental leap between unique physical or mental attributes and costumed crime-fighting. (And those on this Earth who dress up and go out on "patrol" - the so-called "real superheroes" - are nothing more than ineffective fools.)

Art by David Marquez
As a reader sympathetic to the character, a character that Bendis and his artistic collaborators have made me care about, I actually kinda wish that Miles would remain Spidey-free, that he would finish school, go to college, maybe meet the right girl and have a rewarding life while playing a positive role in his community. He's smart, he has a solid foundation in his father and his schooling, and has a bright future ahead of him. But it is unrealistic to expect that Miles will remain a civilian. The book is called Ultimate Spider-Man, not Ultimate Miles Morales. The expectations of a society that almost demands vigilantism while decrying it in the same breath are also the expectations of the readership (like some weird metafictional quantum observer effect). And even if Miles doesn't want to be the superhero, his hand might be forced by basic virtue of living in a city where crazy superpowered shit happens every day.

Bendis has been writing one version or another of Ultimate Spider-Man for thirteen years. He clearly loves the gig and keeps it entertaining, downright enthralling. It's not the Great American Comic, but it is consistently one hell of a read. The new drama of the Ultimate Spider-Man is so deeply opposite of the usual Spider-Man dynamic, yet so perfect for a character called Spider-Man. He wants to do right by his family, his friends, and his community. He has the same troubles as any teenager, just heightened by his powers, powers that come into conflict with those desires.

This is a world of colorful powers in conflict, and to not be a party to the never-ending four-color war is almost anathema, taboo. As much as he wants to be left alone and to live his life away from the perils of supeheroics, the world demands otherwise, his own feelings be damned. Miles is a victim of his own powers, and ultimately of the society in which he lives.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick
St. Martin's Press, 2011
Richard Feynman was one of the best scientific minds of the twentieth century. He served on the Manhattan Project, won a Nobel prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics, taught generations of physicists, played a key role on the Challenger disaster committee, and was an internationally renowned popularizer of the sciences. He wrote a significant amount about his work and his life, he's been the subject of dozens of biographies, and his teachings have been in print for decades. The graphic novel biography Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick, new in softcover from St. Martin's Press, is thus exceptionally well-researched, if just a little bit dull.

It's not bad, though. Told from Feynman's perspective, it is a fairly comprehensive outline of his life and career, and he had one-hell-of-a both. Far from dull himself, Feynman was notorious for his energetic and accessible teachings of esoteric concepts, and his many quirks from safe-cracking at top-secret military facilities to doing advanced physics at strip clubs. Here you get a very good sense of Feynman as a person, and the impact he had on his field. The novel stumbles and falls, however, when it attempts to explain the work for which he was most famous. It doesn't help that quantum mechanics is notoriously difficult to explain (even to most scientists) and is really, really weird. Feynman himself points out this difficulty on-panel, yet the authors spent page after yawning incomprehensible page trying to explain Feynman's work, essentially as the climax of the novel. It doesn't work, but thankfully the rest does, and Feynman is worth reading as it gives a pretty complete, somewhat entertaining (though somewhat dry) translation of the life of one of humanity's great (and unique) thinkers.

The novel plays an interesting counterpoint to the fictional version of Richard Feyman that has been one of the stars of Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra's wonderfully twisted alternate history sci-fi series The Manhattan Projects.  And those who read and enjoyed the Greek graphic novel Logicomix that came out a few years ago - the somewhat meta biography of Bertrand Russel slash history of modern mathematics - will certainly enjoy Feynman.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Caught Red Handed by Matt Kindt

Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes
by Matt Kindt
First Second, 2013
Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes is the new original graphic novel by Matt Kindt, out this week from First Second. This thing seems to have come out of nowhere considering how deep we are into Kindt's superb ongoing superspy series from Dark Horse, MIND MGMT (he finished it some time ago). But a left-field surprise like this from one of mainstream comics' most distinctive voices is something to celebrate, and Kindt certainly gives us plenty of reason to celebrate in this wonderful new work. Red Handed is so completely unlike Kindt and exactly like Kindt in so many ways: focusing on a notorious detective and a string of seemingly unrelated crimes, it breaks the Kindtian mold of espionage storytelling that he has built his name on, but it is also wonderfully emblematic of so much of Kindt's prior work with a broad range of richly detailed characterizations and a unique art style thankfully unlike anyone else in comics.

Detective Gould of the Red Wheelbarrow Police Department is one of the most extraordinary minds working for any police department in the nation, an investigator of near supernatural power in catching criminals of all stripes. Part of it is the almost monomaniacal devotion to apprehending criminals, part of it is the almost Orwellian network of electronic and human surveillance he has set up across the city. There are newsclippings throughout the book that paint a picture of Red Wheelbarrow as a town that is increasingly rife with crime on the one hand, but with a nearly 100% capture and conviction rate on the other thanks almost solely to Gould's superdetective skills.

The setting of the book is so deliciously undefined. Red Wheelbarrow is a small big city somewhere in the northern United States, and it takes place 10 (20? 40?) years ago (or, perhaps, tomorrow). Kindt's enigmatic watercolor infused art sets the mood. In every way that time and place are a malleable anytime and anyplace, his vividly realized characters each have a unique identity and purpose. Kindt seems to be the master of the slightly broken human, every minor and major character (except for, at first, Gould and his wife) a sharply realized picture of someone who has lost too much or can't find themselves. These characters carry the story (though it comes to pass, they don't drive it).

The crimes presented, that Gould easily and quickly solves, are distinguished by their disparate and wide-ranging nature. Murder, art theft, pickpocketing, vandalism, fur smuggling, a "smut rung." The perpetrators are all complex and fully realized people with complex motivations for their complex crimes. One man steals a Picasso and cuts it up. He founds a business centered on buying famous works of art and cutting them up into massive jigsaws, selling the pieces to art lovers who cannot afford to own the masters but can certainly afford to own a piece. There is the woman who steals chairs... school chairs, restaurant stools, benches. She makes connections to the pieces based on who has used them in the past. Part of it is a weird OCD, part of it is motivated by a deep trauma. And then there is mysterious Tess, who's "secret heart" may be the driving force of the story. She doesn't do anything illegal, but she may be the most criminally minded of all of them. Character after character comes into view, each with a unique crime, each apparently unconnected to the other. But as the story moves forward, we see that there are connections between the characters, that there is a mysterious force at work that is weaving a complicated, intricate web through their lives and their actions, years of planning and manipulation and weaving to catch Gould, the world's greatest detective, in a crime so transcendent, so complicated that even his mind cannot grasp the the full picture.

Gould is presented as obsessed with catching criminals, to a Ditkovian level of objectivism. There is no sense of degree to him, simply the rule of law and the stark black and white line crossed by those who violate the law. It doesn't remotely occur to him to stop crime, just to track down and incarcerate the perpetrators. Throughout the book we see bits of a conversation (an interrogation?) between Gould and someone. This someone is Gould's nemesis, a nemesis as perfect at their task of menace as Gould is at detective work. They debate Gould's limited thinking, the other party arguing that there is a difference between crime and immorality. There are arguments about art and crime and the art of crime, but Gould doesn't budge from the philosophical core that has made him world-famous, but there is something else going on, some recent horrific act that drives Gould and his antithesis to their fates.

Red Handed is an intricate thriller, deeply invested in the lives of the criminals (if you can call them that) and those that would stop them. The questions are hard and the answers are harder. It is a deep mystery achieved by one of the medium's modern masters. Matt Kindt continues to cement his place as one of mainstream comics great original voices, his art continually astonishing. You'll want to read this twice, just to find the connections and the hidden superstructure, only to find that there are even greater mysteries beyond answer.

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

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

An Exploration and Analysis of Humanity, Subjective Reality, and War in Naoki Urasawa's Pluto

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 presented here, I look at The Inhumanity of Humans and the Role of Memory in Subjective Reality in Pluto. I also examine the Effect of War and Urasawa's commentary on the Iraq War and American Imperialism.  

Please note that unlike my earlier reviews, there are spoilers ahead!

Robot Rights and the inhumanity of human beings

The robot rights movement presented in the story is touched on lightly but is an important aspect of the work. Robot rights are presented as a recent development, but in light of the emotional and intellectual heights achieved by robot kind, an absolutely necessary one. Robots have only recently been granted civil rights, but many humans still see robots as thralls to human desires or as objects meant to be used and disposed. The fury of Gesicht's superiors when he refuses to take out Pluto is as much at Gesicht's insubordination as it is in their view that robots are only meant to follow human orders and desires, to fulfill the function of their creation and nothing more.

The body of Robby, the police officer-bot who fell in the line of duty, is unceremoniously dumped in the trash, and only Gesicht marks the passing by salvaging Robby's memory chip. Indeed, Gesicht recovers his first child, Robita, in a dump. Robita's discovery is not treated like a found object but like finding a living human child in a pile of corpses. The moment Robita reaches out to Gesicht is a moment of seismic power. Gesicht is moved to action to save her life, the human recycler is moved to profit, her body an object to be sold. The inhumanity of the human willing to dispose of her and the humanity of Gesicht in willing to save her is a significant illustration of the gulf that still exists. The events leading to Robita's adoption can be seen as commentary on everything from slavery to genocide, and is a good illustration of the unique power of Pluto as a humanist work of transcendent science fiction.

A human presented to be more robotic than his creations is Tenma. He is presented consistently as cold and inhuman. Despite being kidnapped by the most advanced robot alive - an insane murderer he essentially created - and presented with evidence of the eminent end of the world, he is nonplussed. After creating Atom to replace his dead son, Tobio, he coldly analyzes Atom's failures as a copy and sells him to the circus. Into slavery. It is his loss of Tobio, the recurring theme of the death of a child that resonates with many characters throughout the story (Abullah, Gesicht, the nameless victims in Persia, the multiple survivors of the evil Haas's victims), that presumably creates this cold inhumanity in Tenma. The robots in the story are shown to react with grief - even if they couldn't fully express it like the parents of Haas's victims - to anger and revenge, in essence human reactions. Tenma, on the other hand, is so broken by his loss that he becomes frankly inhuman. His descriptions of the anger he sometimes felt towards Tobio are like the cold analysis of someone else entirely, a robot describing human emotion. And from the unethical and questionable sanity of trying to create a robotic substitute for his lost son to his unceremonious dumping of that failed project, Tenma is the most inhuman character being presented. He is too far gone, too lost.

Thankfully for Atom there is Ochanomizu. It is telling that Uran, Ochanomizu's creation, is such a powerful empath, a being of pure kindness who can sense emotion, be it from animals or humans or robots, even from kilometers away. Ochanomizu is shown to be kind to robots and humans and animals alike, going to great lengths to save a discarded dog-bot in one of the series most emotional sequences. Despite his own losses - he is a widower - he maintains the core of his humanity, the kindness that marks his character also marking his great creation, Uran. And it is Ochanomizu who saves Atom from a life of subjugation to live out his life like any boy his age.

Just like Robita's disposal, that Atom - not just one of the most powerful artificial intelligences and advanced robots alive but a sentient being - could be so casually disposed of, sold into virtual slavery, is another telling example of the gulf of inhumanity that exists among humans in their interactions with robot kind and the lengths that still must be traveled to achieve some semblance of equality.

The role of memory in subjective reality

Memories make us who we are. Our entire experience as human beings, our interaction with objective reality, is in the subjective reality of our minds, in the constant stream of the past, of memory that builds and constantly flows. The human perception of time, of reality itself, is subjective and memory-focused. There is no "now" but the "just-now." Experience as memory.

Our memories and our experience of subjective reality are locked away in our brains, inseparable from our being (though Abullah with Tenma, the supreme geniuses that they both are, find a way to transcend those limitations in Abullah-bot's creation). Our locked subjective reality is unable to be shared except through literal description or artistic expression. But the robots in Pluto do not share this limitation. They can share not just their memories, but their very subjective experience of objective reality, even exceeding the bounds of death.

We see several memory chip swaps in the series, once between Gesicht and Brau. Brau (like Atom when he examines Gesicht's memory chip) is able to see Gesicht's hidden memories of what really happened in the replaced time in his memory. Gesicht sees Brau's subjective reality, one defined by abstract images of blood and numbers and warped reality and horror beyond Gesicht's ability to handle.

Robots are also in the position of erasing their memories, or in the case of Gesicht and Helena, having their memories replaced entirely against their will. When Gesicht killed the murderer Haas, to protect their investment and to cover up what would certainly be a society-shaking scandal, Europol erased Gesicht's experience and everything that led up to it and replaced it with false memories of a vacation. Helena and Gesicht's memories of that time are so vivid and specific, but this reality which their subjective experience tells them is real is entirely fabricated, not reflected in the objective reality of the time period. Gesicht and Helena slowly come to this revelation, but ultimately it is only Gesicht who finds out the whole truth.

There are two powerful and important moments in the series, mirrors of each other, regarding the option of erasing memory. In both, the widow of a fallen officer is given the option of erasing their memory of their dead love, and in both, the widow rejects the offer. Better to live with the pain than to forget the good of those they loved. Because for robots (and one could argue, humans) erasing of memory equals erasing their loved one from reality itself. For Robby's wife, she goes one step further by inserting Robby's chip into her. Despite the pain that reliving his final moments may cause her, she takes the risk to experience her husband's memories, his subjective reality, him. In just one of many breath-taking moments in the series, she puts her hand to her heart: "He's... He's right *here*" 

One of my favorite films is Steven Soderberg's Solaris, itself a superb modern adaptation. In it, a sentient world reaches into the minds of several human beings and uses their memories to create simulacrums of people from their past. These entities are nothing more than the memories of the individual from which they sprang, and are even aware of their nature. But more importantly, at the very end one human chooses death on the alien world where in the final moments of his life he is preserved in a time loop where he can live with the memory of his deceased love, both nothing more than constructs, shades of humans now passed. In Robby's widow's accepting Robby into her being, she achieves something similar though less fatalistic, to be with her husband, the very essence of him, even if he cannot be alive. The profound effect on her is something far outside the frame of normal human reference.

There is a similar moment involving Atom and Helena. Atom sees Helena before he meets what may be his final fate. In moments loaded with meaning, silent panels of extraordinary and profound power, Helena is moved to tears at Atom being alive and Gesicht being a part of him. And it is through Atom that Helena is told of the power of Gesicht's love for her. "And he wanted to tell you that no matter what happened to him, you would never be alone." Not in the literal sense of what Robby's wife does, but in the deeply human sense of subjective memory and experience that we all share. That she felt his love for her, and through her memories of him that she continues to carry, she will continue to carry her memory, her subjective reality, with her.

Commentary on the American-Iraq war and American Imperialism

Pluto was produced and released in a six year period from 2003 to 2009, a period notably marked by the United States invasion of Iraq. America under Bush was - though some would surely argue America in general is - a country marked by imperialistic tendencies, subjecting the world to unnecessary war. The American claim of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the subsequent invasion ostensibly based on those fears, the revelations that there were no WMDs and no reason to invade a country that had no role in the terrorist attacks that had ignited the American War Machine play a major role in the world's current opinion of political America. It is really quite clear reading Pluto that Urasawa was absolutely furious at America for the War, and so much of the geopolitical elements in Pluto are a thinly veiled attack of Bush doctrine, the war and occupation of Iraq, and on the very idea of American exceptionalism.

Every country represented in Pluto is literal - nations throughout Europe and the Pacific rim are name-checked without obfuscation - with the exception of America and Iraq. This is very telling. It is quite obvious that the United States of Thracia is meant to represent The United States of America, that Persia is meant to represent Iran as much as Iraq. To actually use America and Iraq might have been too literal, too representative of the conflict raging at the time, so Urasawa and Nagasaki resort to invention. This obvious allusion allows Urasawa to absolutely let loose his anger and disgust. It is very, very clear that Urasawa is against the war in Iraq and the 39th Central Asian War of the story is an obvious commentary on the Iraq War. His anger at America is white-hot. He repeatedly shows the human cost of the War on the civilian populace of Persia. When we flash back to Gesicht's role in the War, we see him confronted by a father whose children had been killed in the bombing. Noting the human loss, Atom calls the conflict a quagmire (a frequently used term to describe the American occupation of Iraq). And if not for the War, then maybe Sahad's dream of a verdant Persia would have seen fruition. If not for the war, Abullah would not have lost his family.

But Persia is not without fault and thus the analogues are not quite that clear-cut. It is not simply an unjust invasion of Persia by the United States, the realities of the conflict that was the 39th Central Asian War are far more complex. In Iraq, the U.S. simply accused Iraq of having WMDs and simply invaded and occupied. Where Iraq had a natural resource that American powers wanted access to - oil, of course - there was no such analogue for Persia. Rather, at the very end of the story we finally see the (unnamed) Thracian President admit that his reasoning wasn't robot WMDs but Persia's massive robot army, which Persia did have, and which Thracia - advanced in every area except robotics - could not match. And there are other complications. In the lead-up to the war, Darius XIV is shown to be actively destabilizing the region and invading neighboring countries. This alone might justify an international response, but the United States went to the steps of legislating against the creation of superpowerful robots, then accusing Persia of harboring them. Like with Iraq's alleged WMDs, no evidence is found of WMD robots, but the irony was that Persia not only was trying to build one, but succeeded in creating one when Abullah input his personality into Tenma's failed creation. And on top of that, Persia had in its arsenal Pluto, a climate-effecting robot capable of massive destruction itself, and Bora, a world-shattering robot with an anti-proton bomb at its core.

And Darius's offenses against his own people were extreme. Although he put on an air of protecting robot rights, the robot graveyard that the Bora Survey Group uncovers and Epsilon must dispose of certainly showed the opposite. But despite these complicating factors, America, as Thracia, is still shown to be a force of, if not necessarily evil, than certainly ill-intent and incompetence in clear commentary on George W. Bush. The Thracian president is shown to be a direct puppet of the most powerful AI on Earth, Dr. Roosevelt. The War and the Pluto Murders are shown to be part of Roosevelt's overall plan to achieve Robot domination of Earth, with Roosevelt as the eventual leader of both Robot and (through the Thracian President) Human kind. Naturally, the Thracian President is oblivious to this. He is shown to be a simpering thrall to Roosevelt, assured of Thracia's righteousness. Towards the end, when threatened by Darius who most definitely knows of Abullah's plans to use Bora to destroy the world, the Thracian President smiles, "Sorry to tell you, pal, but that stuff doesn't apply here. The only thing we have here is Prosperity! And the good ol' United States of Thracia will prosper forever!" This is a clear attack on the idea of American exceptionalism that was posited by so many of its representatives and leaders during the Iraq conflict. And in the end it is Thracia that suffers with vast swaths of the continent and many of its cities in ruin.

And something of note is the thematic similarity to Ronald D. Moore's version of Battlestar Galactica in the commentary on Bush era American foreign policy. There are other similarities - both were produced in the same exact time period, both are stories involving humanoid robots, both are adaptations of earlier work that far transcend the source material. But there the similarities end, especially in quality. (Battlestar Galictica is an entertaining television show that is hampered by consistently inconsistent characterization, a sprawling and uneven story, and a terrible ending.) Battlestar Galactica excels in its commentary on the U.S. War on Terror and the Occupation of Iraq, but it never specifically references either, increasing the power of the story and allusions. It's hard to say if Pluto would have been strengthened by loosing the specificity of allusion to the United States and the War in Iraq, and at times the obviousness of it risks taking the reader out of the story. But, as the story is not about the specifics of the war but uses the specific war as a springboard into commentary on the scars of war itself (while expressing anger at that specific war), 

The scars of War

So we've seen that the 39th Central Asian War was Urasawa's response to America's invasion of Iraq, but there is more than just geopolitical commentary at work. It's not just the specific war that Urasawa is commenting on, but the very idea of war itself.

The scars of fighting in the War effect everyone who survived it. Several robots are shown to be suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. North No. 2 suffers nightmares of his time in the war. In a powerful and moving flashback, at the height of the War Hercules comes across a robot who is constantly washing his hands. And no matter how hard that robot tries, the blood - virtual because the victims are other robots, but no less real to him - will not wash off. As much as everything that Hercules went through in the war, it is this memory that disturbs him. An astonishing visual and a moving example of the way that war can leave behind a legacy of pain.

In one of the first flashbacks to the conflict, Mont Blanc is shown in a field of robot corpses. He takes no satisfaction in what he had to do, and the killing fields before him, the vast majority of bodies lying there at his hand, give no joy. Brando asks him how many he killed. In a nonspecific response uncharacteristic of a robot, he can only manage "A lot." He sits in stunned silence. There is no sense of winning in the victory, not when there is so much death. And humans suffer greatly in the conflict. Thousands die. Abullah loses his family, their lifeless bodies limp in his arms. It is the power of this loss that drives him into revenge, a vengeance so profound that even death will not hold him back. It is what he went through in the War, what he lost, that drives him mad, that puts him in a robot body and splits his personality between Abullah and Goji and eventually Bora.

The revenge that Abullah and Darius seek are part of a cycle of hate that started with the War and continues to echo down through the years. Epsilon recognizes the cycle of hatred before it begins and does everything within his power to counteract it. He refuses to fight, he raises war orphans, he even avoids conflict with Pluto until the very end. But even he ends up a victim to that cycle, and the vengeance of Abullah.

There is no victimless war, and it is shown to effect of those who waged the war on the front lines and those who felt the wrath of weapons and manpower. And while the Thracian President was shown to be aloof and above the effects of the war, in the end his country gets its comeuppance, wrecked as the last echo and the last aftershock of the war he started.

My treatise concludes in part three with a look at Urasawa's craft, Pluto the adaptation as a fiercely original work, and my final overview of the series.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Nature, Evolution and Hatred in Naoki Urasawa's Pluto

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 presented here, I introduce my treatise and examine The Role of Hatred in the Human Experience, Redemption through the Rejection of Nature, and Robot Evolution as presented in Pluto.  Please note that unlike my earlier reviews, there are spoilers ahead!

Pluto is a Naoki Urasawa's adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's Tetsuwan Atomo, known in America as Astro Boy. Writing and Producing partners Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki first approached Macoto Tezka (Osamu Tezuka's son and producer behind current Tezuka properties) about adapting the work for release beginning in 2003, the fictional Astro Boy's birthday. To say the task was daunting is an understatement. Tezuka is rightly revered around the world as the father of manga, one of the most prolific cartoonists in history. Urasawa originally intended to do an homage to one of the most popular Astro Boy stories, "The Greatest Robot on Earth," using a very Tezuka-influenced style. Tezka rejected this pitch, insisting Urasawa do his own thing, to use the core of Tezuka's creations to tell his own story, his own way. This was a bold but logical decision by Tezka, to essentially give free reign to Urasawa, one of Japan's best regarded cartoonists best known for his serial killer thriller Monster and his sprawling, decades-spanning 20th Century Boys. The story that Urasawa created, published in 65 monthly installments and collected in 8 graphic novels, is a vibrantly original masterwork, equal parts character drama, mystery, thriller, and science fiction parable. And it is undeniably one of the greatest comics ever made.

Pluto is an extraordinary character drama wrapped in one of the most intense science fiction thrillers ever produced. A transformative work of science fiction that utilizes the genre to explore multiple aspects of the human condition with astonishing depth and incisiveness, this is a story about the darkest aspects of our nature, the evils of war and the scars of war that echo down through the years. This is a work equally at home in hyper dense future cityscapes, world-shaking sci-fi action set-pieces, quiet conversations dripping with suspense, and the mentally tumultuous moments of loss and despair that define the human experience. This phenomenal comic is a murder mystery, a riveting international thriller, an otherworldly yet completely grounded work of science fiction, a surprisingly scary work of horror both overt & visually frightening, subtle & psychological.

And it is about the power of love to break the cycle of hate, the beauty within to overcome the darkness.

Pluto is a daring, revolutionary, bold, visionary, transcendent work. It is exciting, riveting, moving, and beautiful. This is a towering work of manga, and one of the finest literary achievements of the comic form.

I know I'm using a lot of lofty adjectives here, but they are all well deserved. There are other comparable works of fiction that attempt and achieve everything Pluto does, but Pluto manages to be greater than the considerable sum of its parts. It is a fantastic comic in every conceivable aspect. From strength to strength, Urasawa and Nagasaki's writing to Urasawa's art to the Viz Signature editions that are gloriously well designed and packaged with superb translations from Jared Cook & Frederick Schodt. 

Below I explore some of the themes and ideas Urasawa puts forth in this amazing and layered masterwork.

The role of hatred in the human experience.

An important recurring theme throughout the work is the power of hate. The cycle of hatred ignited by War results in the assassinations of the most advanced robots in the world and the members of the Bora Survey Group. The targeting of the Robots who were following orders, and the Bora Group members who found nothing, wasn't a rational response. But hate isn't rational. The pure bloodthirsty vengeance by Abullah (and Darius) was searing directionless anger looking to make anyone pay for the losses suffered. Abullah's hatred would grow to encompass all of humanity, a humanity that had taken away his family.

When Gesicht's child is kidnapped and killed by the criminal Haas, Adolph's wayward brother, Gesicht is overcome by anger and hatred. He kills Haas in cold blood, an act not previously considered possible by a robot. The legacy of hatred follows Gesicht for years. Adolph Haas hates Gesicht - as much as, seemingly at the end, Gesicht hates himself - for murdering Adolph's brother.

The seeming center of the story is not just the the endless cycle of hatred, but the role of hatred in the human experience. Hatred is also arguably the key to robot evolution, an emotion that no-one believes possible in Artificial Intelligence, the catalyst that tips the balance into increasing humanity. Gesicht's actions are unthinkable for many reasons, but wouldn't have been possible without the motivation of loss and anger that fuels his unexpected hate. Humans are beings whose actions are often dictated by the emotional mind. Extreme emotion can short circuit the rational mind, and what humans are capable under emotional duress can surprise and shock the individuals who find themselves acting out of character. Hate has the power to shatter the barriers of programming, literal robot programming and the social mores that say murder and revenge are wrong. Gesicht's actions are almost understandable if not necessarily excusable: just moments after getting word that his son had been murdered, there in front of him lies the murderer. One cannot imagine the power of losing a child, let alone the acute mental turmoil that must occur when suddenly presented with the culprit. Who among us can say how they would react in such a situation? What Gesicht did was wrong, but who can actually blame him?

And in that flash reaction of hatred and punishment is Urasawa's most distilled argument on the nature of man, and robots' collective evolutionary ascension, a theme he returns to over and over. Abullah is the story's most advanced robot, but his very existence is predicated on his hatred. His body, Tenma's creation a formless shell in perfect balance before Abullah came to it, could only be awoken with extreme emotion: hatred and sadness. At the end of Abullah's strictly human life, he was completely consumed by hatred and grief, and those emotions carried over into his robot form, rendering him so completely human that even he is unaware of his own nature.

When Atom, Tenma's other great creation, is effectively killed midway into the story, his own body and artificial intelligence lie in the same state of formless balance that Abullah's body sat in. It would take the insertion of Gesicht's memory chip into Atom, with it's evolutionary core of hatred, as well as a flooding into his being of Epsilon's sadness at his own passing, to wake Atom. Atom is immediately transformed by this hatred, unlocking things within himself - both the formula for the anti-proton bomb that Abullah's own hatred unlocked in Bora, and in one of the story's most astonishing human moments of discovery, a stunning self-distrust and self-loathing.

At the Kimberly conference, Tenma warns of the dangers of robot evolution, that it is only achievable through sadness, anger, hatred, and pain. Perhaps this view is effected by Tenma's own experience - his creation of Atom, a changeling, a simulacrum, a facsimile - is deeply rooted in anger and grief. Urasawa seems to be making the same argument, though, that the key to humanity lies in these negative extremes. But in the end, it is the core of love and forgiveness inside Gesicht that redeems Atom, and the memory of the beauty and joy he achieved as Sahad that redeems Pluto - although even that is driven by his resentment of Abullah/Bora for the things committed against him. 

Human kind - and the burgeoning robot kind - are defined by emotion, especially the extremes of the emotional spectrum. And a big part of the human experience, and of the story, is about overcoming those aspects of our being, to find the better angels of our nature.

Redemption through the rejection of nature

At one moment in the work, Uran is seen reading and commenting on Pinocchio. Urasawa fairly beats you over the head with it: many of the characters are puppets, including the puppeteers. (Atom as Pinocchio isn't the point, everyone as Pinocchio is.) The robots following orders, the humans and evolved robots slaves to their emotions, and everyone a pawn in Roosevelt's grand scheme. Even Dr. Roosevelt, despite his almost god-like intelligence and ability to manipulate the entire course of human history, is trapped inside an immobile body and in need of someone to move him about, a puppeteer under his own control. And so much of the climax of the piece involves cutting the strings that guide us, to break free of our nature and take control.

At the end of his life, Gesicht is shown to still be consumed by the hatred that caused him to take a human life years before, but now this hatred is driven inward. But at the end, it is not only hatred present but great love. When confronted with orders to destroy Pluto, he rejects those orders. He disobeys his superiors, in complete contradiction of what a robot should do, indeed should be capable of doing. They demand that he kills Pluto, but Pluto is not threatening Gesicht and beyond the deal he knows he must make with Abullah to spare Hoffman's life, he knows that at Pluto's core lies Sahad, a gentle being manipulated into anger and hatred by Abullah. His superiors are shocked by Gesicht's refusal to take out Pluto - how can he spare this murderer's life when he was willing to kill a human in the past? But Gesicht has tipped the balance into something more. He is not just a police robot any more - he has become greater than the inherent possibilities of his nature, and this change does not come as a result of his hatred but by his ability to overcome not just his hatred but the programming at the core of his being. He moves beyond servitude and duty into the realm of freedom. Never before has a robot done what he does next, simply resigning his position and finally deciding to take that vacation with his wife that he's wanted since the opening pages of the story. He cuts the strings of Europol and his own programming. He doesn't want to fight anymore, not anyone else's battles, nor himself. He wants only to be with his wife, who he loves deeply, and to raise a family with her. To live. He achieves redemption of his prior acts by rejecting his nature and achieving more than any other member of his kind has ever achieved in the small, quiet moment of rebellion.

At the end of his journey, Sahad/Pluto redeems himself by rejecting the hatred that Abullah - his own father - has forced onto him. Pluto was manipulated by Abullah and driven to madness by his acts. He is programmed to hate and to kill, but this is not who he is. He is Sahad, the gentle soul who wants only to transform his homeland from barren wasteland to verdant eden. But he is turned into a killer and a fighter, forced to inhabit a grotesque body, a climate changing robot turned into a war machine. Rather than fight Atom he confronts Bora - his father, Abullah - at the heart of a caldera, defeating Bora before he could destroy the entire world.

And then there is North No. 2. A literal war machine who discovers in himself a musical aptitude, not just the ability to translate music, but to create it. And his journey to that point is marked by disobeying orders and seeking out answers far outside the bounds of his programming, be it as an instrument of war or as an aide to a person who does everything he can to reject him.

But at their moments of redemption, North No. 2, Gesicht and Sahad/Pluto lose their lives. Indeed Gesicht's death is very reminiscent of the deaths of several characters on the seminal 2000s television series The Wire who found redemption through change and exceeding the bounds of their nature or societal expectations only to be rewarded with their murder, inevitable and unavoidable - Bodie, Wallace, Frank Sobatka, even Omar. Both Gesicht and Sahad/Pluto's fates are sealed long before they get to their ends, but both ends were changed by their redemption. And it is in this redemption that we find another key to robot evolution. And robot evolution is something Urasawa comes to, again and again.

Robot evolution

We've seen how hatred and rejection of nature in Pluto are indicators of a larger change in robot kind, but this is but the tip of a much larger iceberg. The achievement of human emotion in robots long thought to be incapable of emotion is repeatedly shown to be occurring throughout the series. And one of the keys to this new evolution is grief.

The series has many powerful and evocative expressions of grief throughout. At the very beginning of the series, Gesicht visits the wife of a fallen officer, robots both. The moment of revelation of her loss and her reaction represents the first salvo in an exploration of grief that makes Pluto one of the most revolutionary graphic novels of its time. She has no face and no way of expressing that grief, but Urasawa's genius staging of the scene has us project our own thoughts about what she must be feeling onto her. And rest assured, she is grieving, feeling a loss so profound she can barely handle it. It is strongly hinted that she is indeed the service robot at Adolph Haas's house, and the effects of her loss are causing her to lose function.

Gesicht's grief at losing his son is what tips him into the realm of vengeance and murder. And Helena's loss of Gesicht is one of the most heartbreaking things in a story predicated on heartbreak. Months after having lost the man she loves at the moment he became something more, she is putting on airs of normality but is deeply suffering inside. After delivering Gesicht's memory chip to Tenma - the very essence of her husband - she finally breaks down into tears. The image of her own ascendance through grief into something more human than even what she thought herself capable of powerfully closes the series' best volume. Just as powerful are the later scenes of her shuffling through life, a hollow place in her soul where her husband used to be. Loss resounds in a way that can never really be fixed, and Urasawa's illustration of Helena's loss is moving, human, and very real.

And then, opposite of grief, there is the happiness and love of raising a family that multiple robots share. Brando is shown raising a large family and the sacrifices he makes are on their behalf. Epsilon runs a large home for war orphans, and they adore him. And Gesicht and Helena twice resolve to raise a child. This ability and willingness to raise human and/or robot children represents an important step in the evolution of robot kind. Because just as important to the human condition as hatred and anger and sadness is the power of love and companionship and laughter. And another important moment is shown, when Pluto paints the field of flowers for Uran. The painting is an abstract representation of memories he can't quite access, of his subjective reality outside the bonds of his tenuous sanity. Robots in Pluto are capable of literalism and can even swap memory chips to directly show memory and indeed their subjective reality, but abstraction is something they shouldn't be capable of. Not only is the damaged shade of Sahad able to create abstract art, North No. 2 is shown to be capable of learning and even creating music.

Pluto, as much a murder mystery and an international thriller and a science fiction parable, is a chronicle about the foundation of a new sentient species on Earth. At one point in one of my early drafts of one of my reviews of the story, I described the ascendance of the sentient and emotive robot kind as "the alien species arising around humanity," but that viewpoint is decidedly off the mark. By simple virtue of being designed by humans, the artificial intelligences that populate the Earth are reflections of the human brain and mind and being. The early emotions displayed by robots are simple mimicry, but are shown to be developing into something more than mimicry: actual human emotion. Not robot emotion, not some alien analogue of human emotion, but human emotion produced by artificial beings. These beings are human in all aspects but the makeup of their physical bodies.

And in Abullah and Brau 1589 we see the obliteration of the delicate lines between humanity and what we presume of robots. The capacity for untruth is something at first believed unachievable by artificial intelligence, but the more advanced the intelligence, the increased capacity for lying - a distinctly human trait. Abullah, once human, is now a robot so advanced, so perfect, that he is capable of lying to himself. (Atom and Roosevelt are also shown able to lie.) And then there is murder, not the murders that Gesicht or even Abullah commit, but the senseless taking of human life. Brau 1589 is described as flawless, yet he was capable of murder and Atom wonders if that is what being human is. And the answer is yes. Being human is about lying and hating and loving and killing and grieving and all of these things that robots are now capable of.

The many robots in Pluto are all examples, to different degrees, of the new humanity developing on Earth. In Roosevelt's attempt at wiping out human life, the inheritors of the Earth would have been not just robots, but the next step of human evolution as represented in Robot kind. Roosevelt was attempting to force the matter when it is clear that that evolution is happening anyway, naturally. Humanity going forward will be a mix of humans and robots, both children of men in their own way.

My treatise continues in Part Two, where I examine the Effects of War and Urasawa's commentary on the Iraq War and American Imperialism. I also look at The Role of Memory in Subjective Reality in Pluto.