Graphic Imagery: Pluto and Learning to Love Astro Boy

by Dan Kois


It’s April 7, National Pluto Day! All over America, schoolchildren are fleeing the classroom, workers are ditching the office early, hobos are tossing aside their bottles of grain alcohol, and housewives are ignoring the laundry. Instead, they’re all lining up at their local comics store, B&N, or otaku emporium to buy the finale, Volume 8, of Naoki Urasawa’s unbelievably enjoyable manga series Pluto. Soon the gorgeous spring weather will help pack our parks and playgrounds with happy readers feverishly turning the pages of Volume 8. Happy Pluto Day!

Sadly, Pluto Day is only happening in an alternate version of America, one where great storytelling is prized and miracles can truly happen. In this alternate America, prepubescent Gordon Hayward’s half-court bomb went in Monday night, making Butler the NCAA champion, and the nation is celebrating by curling up with the finale of one of the funnest serial adventures ever published. Needless to say, I want to live in that America.

In Pluto, Urasawa — who also wrote the terrific series Monster and 20th Century Boys — rewrites, revamps, and reinvents a classic story from one of Japan’s most beloved manga, Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy. Now Astro Boy has sort of a bad rep in the United States, thanks in part to last year’s truly crappy film reboot, but in Japan, Astro Boy is royalty. Everyone knows his stories, because everyone grew up with them, so they’re just part of the fabric of the culture. I get the impression that asking a Japanese person in, say, his middle 30s about the Astro Boy story “The Greatest Robot in the World” is like asking an American 35-year-old about Star Wars. So Tezuka, in his modernization of “The Greatest Robot in the World,” is messing with an iconic tale.

I have to imagine that for fans of Astro Boy, reading Pluto is a transcendent experience, like a teenage American comics fan reading Watchmen for the first time, and seeing the familiar tropes of her beloved funnybooks turned inside-out, made weirder and more real. Luckily, even for those of us who don’t know jack about Astro Boy, Pluto is a ripping yarn — a thoughtful, exciting sci-fi epic with haunting themes of sacrifice, war and heroism.

Pluto takes place in a world where humans and robots coexist, a world just coming off a nightmarish war in Persia in which robot soldiers destroyed each other by the thousand. Now an unknown assailant is targeting the eight most powerful robots in the world for destruction — a crime that edges closer to murder as it becomes clear how advanced those robots’ artificial intelligence has become. One of the eight, a Europol detective named Gesicht, investigates the crimes, and over the last seven volumes we’ve seen Gesicht and his fellow robots — including Atom, this series’ version of Astro Boy — get closer and closer to the secrets at the heart of these murders. But one by one, they’re being picked off.

Urasawa’s art is expressive and action-packed, more deft and more realistic than the manga art you may be used to. And his writing (the series is cowritten with Takashi Nagasaki, and overseen by Osamu Tezuka’s son Macoto) is dense, allusive, and openly emotional. His advanced robots are sad supermen, their consciousness dawning even as they try to understand a human world that views them with equal measures of awe and resentment.


Volume 8, the series finale, comes out this week, and if you’re worried about getting wrapped up in some huge mythology that completely shits the bed with a terrible ending — you know, like The Matrix, or the NCAA Tournament — don’t worry! It’s totally awesome.

Look, it may be that you’ll never read manga. It’s too foreign, too weird, too nerdy. You have no interest in learning to read right-to-left like some friggin’ Torah scholar. You can barely bring yourself to read whatever graphic novel it is that the TBR is telling you is important this year. Or maybe you’re having enough trouble keeping up with the Marvel multiverse and don’t need some cheesy Japanese robot story slowing you down, no matter what Junot Diaz says. (For the record, he says: “Urasawa is a national treasure in Japan, and if you ain’t afraid of picture books, you’ll see why.”)

All I can say is: For those who are fans of science fiction now, or who were fans of science fiction once — those who secretly (or not-so-secretly) love Avatar or devoured Isaac Asimov in high school — Pluto is addictively great. It doesn’t reinvent the medium; it’s not Philip K. Dick; it won’t blow your mind. It will just make you happy the whole time you’re reading it, possessed by the old familiar urge to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. So: Happy Pluto Day! I’m going to the backyard to sit in the sun and celebrate.

Dan Kois writes about movies and plays and non-comic books, too. Also, he has a new book out, about that Hawaiian guy with the ukulele.