Created by: Naoki Urasawa, Osamu Tezuka
Published by: VIZ Media
ISBN: 1421519186 (Amazon)
I haven’t actually been a huge booster of the works of Osamu Tezuka. Beyond a hard-won affection for his Buddha, I haven’t come to take much enjoyment from the other books of his I’ve sampled. Phoenix, Adolf, Blackjack. They just haven’t won me over. I think I may be too far divorced from the period of his innovation to view the works as fresh. They are so deeply products of their times that they appear quaint and stilted—to me at least (I’ve spoken before of my trouble with attempting to escape my biases). As the comics form has evolved and storytelling grown into using a more mature set of tools, I find myself unable to appreciate Tezuka as story. As artifact, sure. As an archaeological window into the development of the form, yes. But I do not find myself able to dive into his stories for the sake of those stories—I’ve always got to have an ulterior motive, usually one associated with academic appreciation.
Because of this, giving Pluto a chance was a hard sell for me. I didn’t know enough about Astroboy to be a fan or otherwise. I couldn’t even be ambivalent. I was strictly apathetic. I had so little interest in the character or in a reimagining of one of his more famous episodes that even the promise of Naoki Urasawa’s stellar storytelling chops wouldn’t lure me out. It wasn’t until I was bored at the library one day and happened to find the first volume on a shelf that the scales tipped.
And now I wish that Urasawa would adapt all of Tezuka’s works.
As is spoken of near ad infinitum, one of science fiction’s greatest conceits is the ability, through its speculative technologies, to engage the mind in such a way that contemporary issues are seen in new light. 1984 could prompt its audience to reevaluate the pervasive role of the government in shackling liberty for the sake of security. Gattaca could help alert its audience to the value of the natural individual in the face of the future’s promise of a better genetics. The Time Machine could prompt its audience to remember to value literature in the face of emerging mass entertainment options. And Invasion of the Body Snatchers could alert its audience to the insidious creep of subtle ideological evolutions, whether in the face of communist utopianism or crass commercialism.
It’s a common enough use of the genre that one might even consider it boring to talk about. After all, it’s been done over and again. What Urasawa does with Pluto, however, is of another level and to a-whole-nother magnitude. Rather than simply engage the mind through conceptual challenges, he affects the heart. And by working upon the seat of the emotional mind, he draws out a kind of empathy for non-humans who straddle the cole between personhood and non-personhood.
Pluto is foremost the story of the murders of several robotic AIs. These artificial intelligences struggle with balancing their self-awareness with the shackles of their programming. In a way, Urasawa may even be trying to tackle, in some remedial way, questions of liberty vs determinism—something all those with any interest in metaphysics must come up against at one point or another. From another angle, these robots’ lives spell out the same conflict that MT Anderson homes in on in his wonderful Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: the question of liberty and property; how can those who rally behind freedom, democracy, and liberty keep sentient beings as property.1
Where Urasawa excels so ably is in making his robotic characters so human, so other-than-human, and so worthy of compassion in either case. There are moments for several of these robots (whose narrative destiny, set in stone fifty years ago by Tezuka himself, is to be destroyed) at which the average reader may very well need to take a moment to regain composure. We are never not aware of these characters’ non-human status and the fact that they are creations of man, but all the same they become valuable recipients of our cares and well-wishes.
And it is through that marvelous narrative inducement toward empathy that Urasawa sells his point home. He requires the reader to consider the what-ifs of his scenario. Ignoring plausibility for a moment, he not only raises the question of artificial personhood but also gives the reader a reason to care about that question. Adam Hines attempted something similar in Duncan the Wonder Dog, by actually giving personhood to animals; but as much as I laud Duncan as probably the pre-eminent work of comics fiction, I believe Urasawa pulls this particular thing off much more adeptly.2 It’s difficult to balance the humanity and inhumanity of these characters in a way that makes them both comfortable and alien, but Urasawa succeeds. Pluto, against odds, is neither too heady nor too treacle nor even too plot-driven. And for a book structured as a detective thriller, that’s some achievement.
The story Urasawa is adapting (Tezuka’s “The Greatest Robot on Earth”) features the seven most advanced robots in the world falling one by one to a new challenger, a mighty robot named Pluto. Rather than push Atom (adapted from Astroboy) to the narrative center, Urasawa tells much of the story through Gesicht, a Europol detective robot and one of the seven most powerful AIs on earth. (Urasawa, to lesser degree, moves the narrative around between the remainder of the other six robots.) Gesicht is investigating this string of robot-related murders. As the number of murders mounts, Gesicht draws closer and closer to discovering Pluto’s identity—all while trying to reign in an apparent fault in his robotic memory.
Pluto is only eight volumes long and is therefore much more tightly plotted than either Monster (18 vols.) or 20th Century Boys (22 vols. and a short sequel). It’s a good read and gives the reader opportunity to think about a number of fascinating subjects, all while carrying on a murder mystery/thriller. For a series that (at its most basic and dumbed down) is a book about a series of robot fights, Urasawa wisely shows very little actual robot-on-robot combat. He knows what’s interesting and fighting robots is not quite that. Pluto is an investigation of emergent technologies, an investigation of the toll of contemporary international policies, and an investigation of the nature of the soul.
These robots’ lives spell out the same conflict that MT Anderson homes in on in his wonderful Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: the question of liberty and property; how can those who rally behind freedom, democracy, and liberty keep sentient beings as property.
In one sense the question may be offensive, since with black people there is no question to their sentience and full personhood—while the question is still up in the air as regards the artificial intelligence. Still, within the scope of Anderson’s work (taking place during the American revolutionary escapades), the same question is very much at stake for the people alive in that particular historical pericope.
As I laud Duncan as probably the pre-eminent work of comics fiction, I believe Urasawa pulls this off much more adeptly.
Much of this is probably directly owed to the fact that we can much more easily imagine machines with self-aware intelligence and the capacity to communicate than we can mere animals.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
3 Stars = Good
2 Stars = Ok
1 Star = Bad
I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
Review copy submission may be facilitated via the Contact page.
Browse Reviews By
- Popular Sections:
- Top 100
- Top 75 by Female Creators
- Kids Recommendations
- What I Read: A Reading Log
- Best Books of the Year:
- Top 75 of 2015
- Top 75 of 2014
- Top 35 of 2013
- Top 25 of 2012
- Top 10 of 2011
- Other Features:
- Why I ❤ Zita the Spacegirl
- 31 Days of Comics
- Bookclub Study Guides
- Publisher Spotlights:
- 31 Days of First Second
- 10 Days of SelfMadeHero
- 20 Days of Vertical