Words and Pictures: If Isaac Asimov Wrote Manga (‘Pluto’, and a Bit About ‘Watchmen’)

You sometimes hear the science fiction genre described as an ongoing dialogue between current authors and those who have gone before (I’m paraphrasing. I want to say the idea was articulated by the late Charles Brown, of Locus fame, but I might be wrong.).

The notion’s appealing, though I’ve never been quite sold on it as a characteristic uniquely applicable to prose science fiction. But suppose it’s true. Does that mean your enjoyment of a given novel, no matter how great, is less than it could be if you had greater familiarity with its antecedents? I don’t know. But I’m going to – kind of – talk about it anyway.

Our subject is a manga series that takes the idea of dialogue with past creators to an extreme. I know pretty much nothing about the older material that inspired it. I enjoyed it enormously, though. So much so that I think any sf fan curious about the comics medium should consider giving it a look.  I kind of think this is what Isaac Asimov might have come up with, were he a 21st century manga creator with an urge to tell robot stories.

PLUTO, VOL 1-8

by Urasawa X Tezuka, published by Viz Media

I’ve seen Pluto described as ‘the Watchmen of manga‘. I’m guessing Watchmen doesn’t need much introduction, but: a revolutionary mid-1980s superhero comic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons which remains for many readers the highpoint of the form. We’ll get back to it later.

The man behind Pluto is Naoki Urasawa (plus his ‘plot collaborator’ Takashi Nagasaki), arguably the most critically-lauded creator/team currently working in manga.

But Pluto‘s not strictly original. It’s a re-imagining of a story by the most influential manga creator ever, Osamu Tezuka. Specifically, one of his Atom stories from the 1950s. Atom is known as Astro Boy outside Japan – I very dimly remember his cartoons from my long lost childhood – so what we’ve got here is a children’s tale from the 1950s adapted into something very different for the 2000s.

An unknown assassin is killing, one by one, the seven great robots of the world. One of them – the android detective Gesicht – sets out to stop the killings. Atom’s a major character in Pluto, but Gesicht is the heart and soul of the story. (And is amongst the most engaging robot characters I’ve come across in fiction).

What follows from this premise is a complex, absorbing and occasionally mildly bewildering journey through the lives of the great robots, and their world. Along the way lots of themes are touched upon, but not necessarily resolved: the relationship between creator and created; what constitutes humanity; the nature of memory, empathy and compassion; the moralities of war, and more.

Pluto includes much that is striking and memorable, none of it more so than the tale of one of the great robots, North No.2. So rather than talk about the whole thing, I’m just going to talk briefly about that, as it captures something of the essence and themes of the whole series.

North No.2, a former military robot, becomes butler to a blind, grumpy film score composer who is undergoing a bit of an artistic crisis. The two of them circle one another, each revealing something of their past as they talk elliptically – shout, in the composer’s case – about creativity, music, humanity and the burden of personal histories. All of it beautifully illustrated, especially the setting: the composer’s grand house and its grounds.

Through an act of kindness on the part of North No.2, man and robot come to a certain accommodation with their pasts, and contentment seems possible . Then North No.2 senses the approach of the mysterious assassin, and ascends into the sky to do battle. It’s a battle we never see. Like gods, the war robot and his would-be destroyer struggle invisibly in the clouds, amidst lightning and thunder, explosions and … music. It is wonderful story-telling, at once dramatic and restrained, and quite moving. The same could be said of the whole of Pluto.

Now, Pluto is fractionally longer than I needed it to be; characters occasionally make intuitive leaps in understanding that puzzled me (less frequently than in other manga I’ve read, though); the dialogue tends towards the hyperbolic and emotive (ditto). All true, but I nevertheless found it enormously impressive.

I can’t say whether I would have been even more impressed, were I more familiar with manga in general and the Atom story on which Pluto is based in particular. Perhaps, but that knowledge is not necessary to enjoyment of Pluto itself. (In fact, I suspect it might be detrimental; familiarity with the original Atom story would probably spoil some of the plot twists Pluto has to offer).

Which brings me back to Watchmen. To say I know more about superhero comics than I do about manga is an understatement of planet-engulfing proportions. So I’m pretty confident that one’s enjoyment of Watchmen is at least qualitatively, and possibly quantitatively, different if you’re familiar with the then-dominant superhero characters, tropes and clichés it was picking apart (and, some might say, breaking).

There’s an oddity about these two works, that stand as crowning revisionist, referential achievements in their fields. They are often recommended to the very readers least equipped to appreciate their revisions and references: those entirely new to the fields concerned. I know from personal experience that Watchmen can appeal to those with no experience of or interest in superhero comics. I’ve seen Pluto similarly suggested as something those with no experience of manga should try, and I’d go along with that. It was the very first manga series I read, after all (and remains the best). Clearly therefore, their quality does not reside primarily in their revisionist or referential characteristics. Maybe those are symptoms of that quality rather than constituents of it.

Pluto and Watchmen are important works principally because their creators are talented and smart storytellers, acutely aware of the medium in which they are working and having a vision of how its traditions might be adapted to serve their main purpose: the telling of novel, striking and thoughtful stories.

4 thoughts on “Words and Pictures: If Isaac Asimov Wrote Manga (‘Pluto’, and a Bit About ‘Watchmen’)”

  1. I loved Pluto… someone recommended it to me about a year ago. I was a bit skeptical, having tried some manga before and not enjoying it much, but to say I loved it would be an understatement. I actually like it a good bit better than Watchmen, and the story of North No. 2 is a great example of why. It’s beautifully done, both the story and the art. Actually, my ten year old daughter read them after me, and she loved it also. She’s a long, long way off from being allowed access to Watchmen.

    Anyway, thanks for the article. Glad to see another Pluto fan out there!

  2. @Matt: the ‘family-friendliness’ of Pluto is a great point to raise, which I didn’t really have the space to get into.

    It’s very striking that a Western/US comic dealing with the same story and themes would likely contain material not suitable for a young reader, yet as you say, Pluto pulls off the trick of being appealing to both young and old (although I do think it’s quite impressive for a ten-year old to follow and enjoy the whole story: comics-reading comprehension levels in your family must be quite advanced!)

    I’m not at all surprised that you enjoyed Pluto more than other manga you’ve read: stylistically and conceptually it’s different from most other manga I’ve tried too, and there’s no doubt it’s more accessible to the western sf fan than most. That’s why I reckon, despite it’s referential nature, it’s actually a great starting point for the manga-curious reader.

  3. Interesting post. I will have to check out Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka when the library finally puts them on the shelves.
    I do have a quibble with introduction, though. Harold Bloom, I think, should be rightly credited for developing the notion of the anxiety of influence- the concept that all works are in dialogue with previous works.

  4. James: Fair cop, re: the introduction. I’m guilty of careless imprecisison. What I meant (but didn’t necessarily say) was to suggest Charles Brown might be the one who is known for articulating the general idea in the specific context of sf, rather than having invented it from the ground up. It was always my impression it was supposed to be a particularly strong, if not actually unique, feature of the genre, but maybe nobody ever said that.

    Anxiety of Influence is a great phrase, which I wasn’t familiar with until I googled it just now. Bloom’s use of it seems to be interestingly specific: he sees the pervasive influence of past poets upon present poets as somehow a bad thing, as I understand it. My impression was that folk like Brown thought the dialogue between past and present was in fact a strength of sf, but again I might well be wrong …

    It’s all interesting stuff, in any case.

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