FAVE 5 OF 2009 :: #4 :: PLUTO

February 4, 2010 at 4:23 pm By:

So there have been “Best of 2009″ lists and “Best of the Decade” lists flying around the internet, pretty much since Halloween or so, maybe even earlier. I don’t have time to do a longer list, or a more comprehensive one, but I thought it would be interesting to talk about my five favorite books of 2009. This list is less a “best of,” and more a “my faves;” or rather, the five books that were most important in my comics reading, whether for sheer quality or brain-busting thought-provokitude, or other content or format choices that were impressive or influential on me.

NUMBER FOUR: PLUTO by Naoki Urasawa

One thing that visual media excel at, especially comics, is playing with genre boundaries. I think it might have something to do with what Scott McCloud calls “closure”: the mind’s interpretation of what is happening between (and often, inside) comics panels, thus creating active engagement between the reader and the comic itself.

It’s almost like a built-in suspension of disbelief: once you are choosing to, again and again on each page, engage with the comic, you are much more likely to accept what’s going on in the story, maybe much more so than in a more “realistic” medium; film, for instance. I have half a theory that this is why superhero comics have endured so long and are accepted so widely by comics readers–after all many of them are about men and women dressing up in bodysuits and flying or shooting beams out of their eyes or dying and being reborn every few years. Being actively engaged in “interpreting” what’s happening in a story maybe gives you an expanded ability to “believe” that story.

Naoki Urasawa‘s Pluto is a reimagining of Osamu Tezuka‘s Astro Boy story, “The Greatest Robot On Earth.” On the surface it’s a sci-fi story, set in a future where robots exist not only as servants, but as citizens with their own inalienable rights (and occasionally as weapons). Within that sci-fi outer shell, the actual story itself is more a whodunit, as super-robot detective Gesicht tries to solve a string of murders of other super-robots and their creators.

But it’s within that whodunit framework that what really drives Pluto lives. The story is animated by its repeated examination of the various robot characters’ humanity. As Gesicht follows the trail of murders, he is also examining his own “programmed” humanity, which seems painted over a deeper, more fundamental psyche buried beneath. Each of the robots in Pluto seem to share a similar struggle: in the spread above, the super-robot North No. 2 is playing the piano as he recalls the slaughter of the previous war. The story’s superrobots were each–with one exception–involved in that war as weapons, and most of them have lived with horrifying memories of wartime atrocities ever since.

But the most interesting example of this “to be or not to be” theme is Astro Boy himself, called “Atom” in the story, as he was in the original Mighty Atom manga, called “Astro Boy” in Western countries. Urasawa underlines Atom’s “Pinocchio” nature by drawing him as a real boy, rather than Tezuka’s more cartoonish robot version. Not only does Atom look like a real little boy, he takes pains to act like one.

But as opposed to this being a part of his programming, it seems more like Atom is trying to approximate a little boy’s life in order to make some sort of sense out of his own, or more properly make sense out of feelings. The scene where Atom cries in the bathroom for Gesicht was really affecting the first time I read it–and throughout the subsequent story I kept coming back to it in my thoughts, as similar themes popped up for each of the robot characters; not to mention the titular Pluto itself.

I want to pause for a second in my aimless theoretical wandering to look at that page in detail, because the cartoonist in me is fascinated by it. I’ve been thinking ab0ut timing in comics a lot lately, due in large part to a passage in Yoshihiro Tatsumi‘s amazing memoir A Drifting Life, where he says:

“A panel with a large image and lots of details is read from corner to corner. The image thus stands still for the duration of the time it takes to be read.

“The time it takes to read a panel can be calculated according to the relative size of the image and the amount of dialogue in it.

“This is the ‘synchronization of panel and time.”

The above spread, where Atom excuses himself from his conversation with Gesicht to go cry in the bathroom, is a masterful example of this idea in action. Remembering that manga are read from right to left, start in the upper right hand corner and see how Urasawa paces this important scene. You have two small (quick) panels with just faces in them, then larger ones as we are meant to slow down and examine the expressions of the characters. Then a larger panel with a lot of detail as Atom gets up–it’s almost a new establishing shot, leading toward the next larger panel where Atom walks away. In a way the two panels, located diagonally on top of each other, are almost the only thing you need to see, with the smaller dialogue panels existing as little more than seasoning.

Then the left-hand page, completely silent, is broken up into six panels, with the largest for last, and maximum time/impact. While the panels leading up to it all seem to exist in the same moment–the “camera” is just moving around the scene–the successive panel breaks slow down the pace of reading leading up to the last panel. If we saw the scene as one single panel with Atom crying, we’d just say “huh” and flip the page. But with this layout we are forced to consider what is happening, and more than that, are shown by the amount of effort put into these moments that they are important.

And, at least to me, this two-page spread is one of the more important of the book, so it feels as if Urasawa has doubly underlined it for us, to ensure that there’s an impact in our minds, even if we do not perceive it until later.

Sorry, I’m digressing. But whoa.

I’m new to Urasawa’s work; Pluto was the first of his books I read, although since I’ve read the fun (but less nuanced) 20th Century Boys, and dipped my toe into his longer work Monster. But Pluto was a book that really opened my eyes up in 2009–not only in terms of story and art, but in a larger sense in terms of manga itself. While I’ve read plenty of manga, I usually stick to the more “grown-up” stuff like Lone Wolf & Cub or Buddha. It’s always been easy for me to sort of eschew a broad swath of manga, lumping it subconsciously into a “for kids” drawer in my head.

But as “sci-fi” or “murder mystery” are just starting points for Pluto, “manga” is just a kind of comics after all–it’s not a different genre, it’s a different form. It’s easy for American comics readers (like me), especially of a pre-manga explosion generation (also me) to discount a lot of manga as being simple or childish or “for kids.” Super dumb, and maybe even vaguely xenophobic in a lot of cases. Pluto is a book that opened my eyes a lot wider in 2009: what starts out on the surface as a retelling of a 50 year-old Astro Boy story is a nuanced work with multiple and successive layers of genre, artifice, and theme that reward deep reading. It’s changed the way I look at manga, not to mention softened me up for more stylized and challenging manga like Tatsumi’s.

And what’s best about Pluto is that (as of this writing), there are still two volumes left (of 8), which I am anticipating like two little Christmases. Delicious manga Christmases.

Other Top 5 of 2009 entries by me:
#5: Popeye Volume 4


Filed Under: DISCUSS, Opinion, Reviews

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