Pluto: Volume 001

Chad Clayton

Considering the caliber of the talent involved, the fact that Pluto is an artistically successful comic is hardly something to marvel at.

Publisher: VIZ Media
Length: 200 pages
Writer: Naoki Urasawa & Osamu Tezuka
Price: $12.99
Graphic Novel: Pluto
Publication Date: 2009-02-19
Publisher URL

In any artistic medium, you'll find a certain number of incredibly successful, well-respected artists that command respect, to the point that some people have come to respect them a little too much. Japanese comic circles have many such figures, the most obvious being manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka. While he has certainly earned a great measure of respect, there is a creeping tendency among some to treat him as though he's incapable of fault. An honest look at his body of work, however, forces a different conclusion. He was a master of page-turning action and gripping, likeable characters, but his freewheeling authorship often produced work that resembled collages of ideas more than cohesive narratives. While he was indeed great, he wasn't the untouchable being some have touted him as.

One unfortunate effect of Tezuka being placed upon such a pedestal is that very few artists have attempted to touch his work outside of tribute, reference, or pastiche. Much like Shakespeare, Tezuka left behind an enormous body of work ripe for reinterpretation, but relatively few artists have been courageous (or audacious) enough to make the attempt. It's only fairly recently, 14 years after Tezuka's death, that someone has finally produced a major manga work based off one of his creations.

Pluto is the brainchild of Naoki Urasawa, the award-winning creator of Monster, who based it off one of Tezuka's most beloved stories: "The Greatest Robot on Earth" from Astro Boy. It is not, however, a straight remake in any sense. While Urasawa retains the core elements of Tezuka's concept, Pluto bears little immediate resemblance to its source material.

He reframes Tezuka's relatively straightforward yarn of robotic conquest as a mystery about a rash of serial killings involving humans and robots alike. The role of central protagonist is no longer strictly given to Atom (nee Astro Boy), but spread out among several characters who had previously played only minor roles. As these shifts in narrative focus might suggest, Pluto is in no way aiming for the younger set -- this is very much aimed at a more mature audience.

Although it's difficult not to cringe a little when using the term "mature audience", given how loaded a concept it can be when used regarding entertainment (and especially comics), it's the only phrase that can effectively describe Pluto's target demographic. The story is intelligent, but not overly impressed with itself. While it's hardly kid-friendly, it doesn't wallow in gratuitous violence or sex. In some ways, Pluto is actually less violent than Astro Boy was.

Astro Boy was quick to condemn violence on a philosophical level, but its individual stories often glorified, even celebrated, violence as a means to heroic ends. In Pluto, most of the bloodshed takes place off-panel; while we often see the morbid results of sundry violent acts, we seldom (if ever) actually witness the acts themselves.

This is something of a reversal of a common manga trope: many popular manga tend to portray violence primarily as a visual or conceptual process. In an attempt to gain attention or crank up the melodrama, many titles become preoccupied with making each violent scene even more bizarre and bloody than the last. Trouble is, such grotesquery often comes at the expense of plausibility.

While the cartoonishly gory and twisted murders in anime like Elfen Lied and When They Cry might arguably be cool to look at, their overt tendencies suggest torture porn or black farce more than anything genuinely terrifying or suspenseful. Rather than simply crank up the violence, Urasawa has made it his mission to give each instance of violence in Pluto a genuine sense of weight and meaning.

It's fitting, as the search for meaning is one reason for Pluto's existence: Urasawa's primary objective in writing Pluto was to fill in the details that Tezuka left out, and explore the backgrounds of the characters that only played minor roles in the original story. As much as this provides an opportunity to make the story totally his own, Urasawa remains careful to let Tezuka's hand show throughout the proceedings. That's not to say he's merely channeling his inspiration, however. He all but dispenses with Tezuka's notorious penchant for joking around (even at inappropriate times) and produces a story that's very solemn, almost dour in tone. It's a little surprising, considering his ample experience writing comedy, but not entirely inappropriate for the material.

Considering the caliber of the talent involved, the fact that Pluto is an artistically successful comic is hardly something to marvel at. What is surprising, however, is just how successful it is considering how wildly disparate the storytelling styles of the two artists are. Whereas Tezuka's style was endlessly inventive, frequently comedic, and almost unhinged, Urasawa's is meticulous and restrained. Yet Pluto marries the two more successfully than anyone had any reason to expect, and somehow makes a compelling adult suspense story out of a fairly straightforward kid's comic. While there's still a wealth of reasons to be skeptical of "reimaginings" of classic properties, Pluto makes as strong a case for such projects as any we've seen in a long time.





Political Cartoonist Art Young Was an Aficionado of all Things Infernal

Fantagraphics' new edition of Inferno takes Art Young's original Depression-era critique to the Trump Whitehouse -- and then drags it all to Hell.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

OK Go's Emotional New Ballad, "All Together Now", Inspired by Singer's Bout with COVID-19

Damian Kulash, lead singer for OK Go discusses his recent bout with COVID-19, how it impacted his family, and the band's latest pop delight, "All Together Now", as part of our Love in the Time of Coronavirus series.


The Rules Don't Apply to These Nonconformist Novelists

Ian Haydn Smith's succinct biographies in Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know entice even seasoned bibliophiles.


Siren Songs' Merideth Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels Debut As a Folk Duo (album stream + interview)

Best friends and longtime musical collaborators Merideth Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels team up as Siren Songs for the uplifting folk of their eponymous LP.


Buzzcocks' 1993 Comeback 'Trade Test Transmissions' Showed Punk's Great Survivors' Consistency

PopMatters' appraisal of Buzzcocks continues with the band's proper comeback LP, Trade Test Transmissions, now reissued on Cherry Red Records' new box-set, Sell You Everything.


Archie Shepp, Raw Poetic, and Damu the Fudgemunk Enlighten and Enliven with 'Ocean Bridges'

Ocean Bridges is proof that genre crossovers can sound organic, and that the term "crossover" doesn't have to come loaded with gimmicky connotations. Maybe we're headed for a world in which genres are so fluid that the term is dropped altogether from the cultural lexicon.


Claude McKay's 'Romance in Marseille' Is Ahead of Its Time

Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille -- only recently published -- pushes boundaries on sexuality, disability, identity -- all in gorgeous poetic prose.


Christine Ott Brings the Ondes Martenot to New Heights with the Mesmerizing 'Chimères'

France's Christine Ott, known for her work as an orchestral musician and film composer, has created a unique new solo album, Chimères, that spotlights an obscure instrument.


Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.


The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.


ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.


Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.