Friday, June 12, 2009

Ode to a Robot

Never really invested myself in manga as much as I did in their American cousins, the comic and graphic novel, but when something special comes along, it doesn't really matter what format (or visual language) it's in. Case in point: Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka (by Urasawa). Ostensibly based on the prototypical manga and anime character Astro Boy (star of an imminent movie blockbuster, as it happens), this trades in the fun, high-energy kid-oriented adventure for a considerably more thoughtful, suspenseful and sophisticated story. Using the Astro Boy arc "the Greatest Robot on Earth" as a jumping off point, Urusawa turns this into a tense mystery and philosophical rumination on identity that is equal parts Silence of the Lambs and I, Robot.

Though only Volumes One, Two and Three of the seven volume series are available so far, we have already been injected into a near future world where robots have been assimilated into jobs as integral to everyday life as sanitation worker and policeman. Among these cl
ass of mechanical citizens are a rare breed of super-robots who have transcended their programming and have attained extraordinary levels of humanity and philosophical depth. And now, this elite breed is being hunted by something terrible and unknown, a serial killer of robots who itself appears to be robot, too. Europol Agent Gesicht, a robot detective, has been assigned to the case and in his investigation, we meet a young robot of uniquely human character, a warrior robot who yearns to break his mechanical bonds and create art, and a terrifying, broken, robot murderer who, like Hannibal Lecter, may hold the key to this new series of robot murders. At the same time, Gesicht comes up against the limits of his own robotic existence and identity and begins to uncover a solution with vast and insidious implications.

This is not a fast-moving, action-packed blow-out. But you may want to pick it up when you've had as much slam-bang Transformers actions as you can take and are looking for something with an unusual depth and power (and clean, evocative and subtle art).

If you can never get enough slam-bang action, however, there's always Green Lantern: Secret Origin (by Johns and Reis), which puts a modern spin on the classic character's history. Re-framing the tale of the fearless test pilot recruited into a galactic peace-keeping force as the story of a young hotshot's coming of age, Johns cleverly plunges the authority-averse Hal Jordan into boot camp, sticks him with a partner destined to become his greatest enemy, and throws him up against a truly ghastly enemy. The art is slick, the action is exciting and (almost) non-stop, and you even get some thoughtful characterization in the bargain. And within the story, Johns has laid the foundation for DC's huge upcoming crossover event Blackest Night. Get it while it's hot.

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