I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the biggest manga aficionado. It’s something I’ve been attempting to rectify, but I find myself frequently put off by the sheer volume of material available. The seemingly endless rows of pocket sized books can be a daunting prospect for anyone attempting to suss out where to begin.
My own personal experience of eastern comics doesn’t extend much beyond the acknowledged classics, and apart from a few select Tezuka, Matsumoto and Tatsumi titles, my manga collection remains shamefully slight. Whilst I do my best to dip my toes in from time to time, I find myself relying largely on the advice of others when it comes to reading manga. Pluto was recommended to me by a good number of people and I have to admit, it’s a series I doubt I’d have given a second look without their seal of approval.
Naoki Urasawa’s book is a modern re-interpretation of Osamu Tezuka’s classic Astro Boy, given a full make over with a distinctly adult tone. This is not simply a rehash of Tezuka’s work, far from it, it’s a complete re-imagining of Astro Boy’s world, reconstructed from the ground up, taking its cues from modern science fiction and contemporary politics. Urasawa retains the key concerns of Tezuka’s original, but also adds in a dash of Asimov to create a well realised world where robots and humans co-exist, all the while keeping a keen eye on the social and political implications of his futuristic status quo.
Instead of focusing on Tezuka’s original flagship character Astro Boy, Urasawa instead chooses to follow the exploits of Inspector Gesicht, a top robot detective tasked with investigating the murder of Mont Blanc, one of the world’s seven most advanced robots. The story begins at the scene of the crime, a shocking topography of scattered limbs and twisted metal that immediately elicits a media frenzy and widespread public outcry. You see, Mont Blanc isn’t just any old robot, he’s a celebrity, a decorated war veteran and much loved public figure, best know for his humanitarian work. In Urasawa’s future world, robots are an integral part of society, living out their lives in much the same way as their human counterparts, taking holidays, raising a families and working for a living.
As Gesicht’s investigation gets underway he quickly rules out the possibility of a human suspect, based solely on the strength required to destroy a robot of Mont Blanc’s stature. But when the same killer strikes again, this time targeting a human robot rights activist, the murders take on a more troubling dimension. As the body count begins to mount, Gesicht is forced to contemplate the notion of a robot who may be capable of breaking the most fundamental of robotic laws; to do no harm to humans.
These added complications make for a potentially explosive case, one which could have massive ramifications should Gesicht’s suspicions turn out to be correct. In all of human history, there’s only one recorded case of a robot killing a human. With the perpetrator of said crime under lock and key, Gesicht has little to draw on as he tries to fathom the motivation behind the crimes, but perhaps the ‘insane’ robot locked in the depths of a high security prison knows more than he’s letting on. Is it possible that a robot could experience happiness, sadness, anger or perhaps even murderous rage?
As Urasawa’s murder mystery unfolds, he deftly explores the social and political landscape, examining the implications of a world where robots form a large chunk of society. Urasawa tackles everything from modern warfare to discrimination and does a wonderful job of really getting under the skin of his characters, be they robot or human. As the first two volumes progress, the plot thickens rapidly, ramping up in intensity as more of the world’s seven greatest robots are picked off by the seemingly unstoppable killer.
Pluto makes for compulsive reading, something I’d attribute to both Urasawa's knack for intrigue, and manga’s typically high octane pacing. Despite its ‘mile a minute’ narrative flow, Pluto maintains an emotional depth that can hit surprisingly hard. I won’t spoil anything for you, but just wait till you read North No. 2’s story in Volume one. It’s emotional stuff, and has been known to reduce grown men to tears. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
If you’re looking for smart, well constructed science fiction, you need look no further.