Urasawa’s Pluto

by John Holbo on December 19, 2010

I haven’t made a proper top 10 list, but – were I to do so – the project would be greatly simplified by the consideration that Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto [amazon] series – eight volumes – would leave me with only a few slots still to fill. This is translated manga, credited as Urasawa x Tezuka, because Urasawa is re-telling/re-envisioning a classic Astro Boy story arc, “The Greatest Robot On Earth”, from the 50’s. The original was typically silly and fun, yet earnest, in that early Tezuka way. You can get a nice reprint of that here [amazon] – but read the Urasawa first, because it is retold as a mystery, and reading the original will actually give away the surprising overall arc too soon.

The original version is a series of robot fights – some bad humans are making trouble for the robots, forcing them into this – and there is a great deal of goofy botheration about who has more ‘horse-power’. What Urasawa works wonders with are the original characters. Mont Blanc, the nature-attuned, Swiss mountaineering poet-robot. Epsilon, the effeminate, male, mothering, superstrong, solar-powered, pacifist Australian robot. North No. 2, the post-traumatically stressed, six-armed, piano lessons-wanting Scottish butler robot. Gesicht, the troubled, German Europol detective robot. Brando, the down-to-earth, life-loving Turkish family man/ fighter robot. Heracles, the Greek, honor-loving fighter robot. And Atom and Uran (Astro Boy and sister). And Pluto (I’ll let that one be a surprise). And the old Astro Boy cast. And – these weren’t in the original – ‘Dr. Roosevelt’, and his sinister Teddy avatar. And that other one, the Hannibal Lecterish robot stuck in his cell, behind all the barricades, impaled on that pole. It’s fantastically clever the way it is reworked, while keeping the basic plot and characters surprisingly true to the original – fun, thrilling, with wonderful moments of Ursprunglichkeit springing up amidst bells and whistles and evil humans and zeronium alloy.

One clever trope that Urasawa introduces, which I think is genuinely an original one – not just with respect to the Tezuka original but with respect to the whole genre of robot fiction – is that in this world there are celebrity robots, like Mont Blanc. The humans revere them. And yet the humans continue to treat the mass of ordinary robots as disposable non-persons, despite the fact that it’s not so clear what would separate your old-model cleaning lady robot from noble Mont Blanc. Is it just that the cleaning lady doesn’t write poetry? I think this is good allegory of typical ethnic conflict patterns. The dominant group somewhat assuages its guilt/uncertainty, by raising just a few members of the minority above even the level of the majority, imbuing them with extra authenticity and heroism, and somehow in this way actually cementing the old majority/minority relations in place, rather than challenging them.

There’s just so much to love in these eight volumes. In a way it’s very much of a piece with a lot of great American comics, made over the past quarter century, which are, in effect, imaginative re-workings of more ‘naive’, earlier comics and comics genres. A lot of this has just been affectionate parody and fanboy navel-gazing nostalgia, true, but I think most of the best American comics in the last generation fit the pattern. I’m not an expert on manga, but I think Japanese comics have not tended to go this particular way. Ingeniously inserting ‘the complex into the simple’ (to borrow Empson’s formula for pastoral, which I think covers most quality American comics of the past quarter century.) Not that there’s no other good way to do it. But Pluto really stands to Astro Boy the way that Watchmen stands to superhero comics. It’s the real deal, a real classic.



yeliabmit 12.19.10 at 5:33 am

Now on my to read list. Thanks for posting.


Vance Maverick 12.19.10 at 6:19 am

Mine too. (BTW your text mistypes his name (but the title gets it right).)


Richard Green 12.19.10 at 7:13 am

As indicated in my reply to the other post on comics, there is no end to the praise I can heap on Urasawa. It’s still be translated (officially at least), but 20th Century Boys also manages to be the most authentic (at least from my perspective) capturing of Japanese character I have read in any medium. It’s the honest capturing of flaws that’s only possible with deep affection, but the plot is gloriously ridiculous but played straight to boot. It’s not quite as immaculately crafted as Pluto (being 3 times the length), but it has somewhat greater scope.


John Holbo 12.19.10 at 7:52 am

“It’s still be translated (officially at least), but 20th Century Boys”

No, 20th Century boys is available! Volume 12 was just released. I’m up to volume 5, myself.


John Holbo 12.19.10 at 8:07 am

Updated to fix the weirdly consistent name misspellings, per Vance’s comment. I dunno where my mind is.


Andrew R. 12.19.10 at 3:55 pm

“…A lot of this has just been affectionate parody and fanboy navel-gazing nostalgia, true, but I think most of the best American comics in the last generation fit the pattern.”

And John, that is why you and Scott Eric Kaufman are two of my favorite people to read on the internet. I’m a former comic reader who suddenly realized, “Wait a minute, most of this isn’t very good,” and was never really able to return to sift through for the good stuff. So I appreciate that folks like you and Scott are actually willing to do the sifting and find what’s good.


Dan Miller 12.19.10 at 3:55 pm

This series definitely did not invent celebrity robots–Futurama’s Calculon has been around since 1999 or so.


John Holbo 12.19.10 at 5:16 pm

I didn’t say the series invented celebrity robots. That goes way back. Hitchhiker’s Guide. Bicentennial Man. Others.

Thanks for the kind words, Andrew R.


Nat 12.19.10 at 10:35 pm

Who’s the celebrity in The Hitchhiker’s Guide? Nothing springs to mind, unless you’re courting Deep Thought as a robot? Just curious.


Vance Maverick 12.20.10 at 12:24 am

So John, the originality here in the use of the trope of celebrity robots is to introduce them into “robot fiction”? Not that I care greatly, but this doesn’t sound like a very surprising move, put that way.

Strangely, my city library has only Vol. 6 of the eight (though it has plenty of copies of that one!). I gobbled it up, and will resort to some dastardly trick like book purchase to get at the rest.


Bruce Baugh 12.20.10 at 12:41 am

Vance, the distinctive thing in Pluto is how smoothly the celebrity robots and the exploited robot masses coexist. Nobody (at least not in the volumes I’ve read so far) makes any big kind of deal about it, it’s just how that society operates. And this obliviousness comes across as very human, very thoughtfully rendered. It’s not that it’s new, it’s that it’s done so very well.


John Holbo 12.20.10 at 1:37 am

“the originality here in the use of the trope of celebrity robots is to introduce them into “robot fiction”?”

Naw that obviously goes way back. Again, Hitchhikers and Bicentennial Man are obviously ‘robot fiction’ in some sense.

Bruce has it right: “the distinctive thing in Pluto is how smoothly the celebrity robots and the exploited robot masses coexist.” It’s not even anything that anyone talks about the oddity of this juxtaposition in the books. It’s this low-key thing, but one that is really important to how the story goes. In a sense, come to think of it, Tezuka did do this already in lots of those early Astro Boy stories. You have the celebrities, like Astro, and then the robot masses who are often exploited. But the stories are so silly that it takes Urasawa’s retelling to really bring the implications out.


Vance Maverick 12.20.10 at 1:51 am

Got it. I must say, based on this sample, I enjoy the drawing more than that in Watchmen. Perhaps the broader arc will clarify what’s going on with those noses.


John Holbo 12.20.10 at 2:12 am

The noses are great! There are lots of nasal homages to Tezuka, who of course drew great honkers. But one minor weakness of Urasawa’s drawing style is that he runs out of European faces after a while and starts to repeat himself. He can easily come up with 20 recognizably different Japanese faces. See 20th Century Boys. But when he has to draw a bunch of German people he runs out, and at a couple points it becomes a bit of a problem, telling who is supposed to be who. But on the whole his drawing is fantastic. The re-imaginings of Astro and Uran. Wonderful.


John Holbo 12.20.10 at 6:59 am

“Who’s the celebrity in The Hitchhiker’s Guide? Nothing springs to mind, unless you’re courting Deep Thought as a robot? Just curious.”

I was thinking of some sort of teenybopper-style celebrity robot teen-idol that I was thinking was in Hitchhikers. Now that I think about it, it wasn’t and I can’t for the life of me remember what I was thinking about.


Sarapen 12.23.10 at 7:14 am

I quite despised the Astro Boy anime when I was younger and only watched it because all of my friends were doing so (the same reason I watched professional wrestling). In fact, my favourite episode was when Astro Boy was decapitated – he’s a robot, he got better.

So I came to Pluto almost completely ignorant of the story of Astro Boy, especially the story arc that Urasawa reworked. I must say, it works perfectly well as a standalone story, though I could tell there were shout outs that were going over my head. It’s nice to read a serious manga instead of the juvenile drek that comprises the majority of Japan’s comics output.

But to be fair, 90% of fiction is crap, and sometimes you’re just in the mood to read a story about a guy accidentally getting the queen of hell imprisoned in his left testicle.

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