When Words Collide

Mon, December 14th, 2009 at 2:28pm PST | Updated: December 14th, 2009 at 4:12pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

PLUTO, GREAT ROBOTS, AND THE ALLEGORY OF MANGA

"Greatest Robot on Earth" from Dark Horse

In Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy story, "The Greatest Robot on Earth," the thematic concerns of the story appear only in the final scene, though they are implicit throughout the 176 pages of the tale. After 175 pages of flying robots, whirring robots, punching robots, and exploding robots, Tezuka (as translated by Frederik L. Schodt in the Dark Horse version) gives us the following exchange:

Astro Boy: How come robots fight when they don't really hate each other, Professor?

Dr. Ochanomizu: I don't really know, Astro… But maybe it's because humans make them do it…

Astro Boy:: You know Professor, I still believe robots will all become friends someday and never, ever fight each other again…

The end.

Page after page of robot on robot violence builds to that final conversation, but even if that theme of brotherhood and harmony was the foundation upon which "The Greatest Robot on Earth" was built, Tezuka kept it all about the action. This classic Astro Boy story may have something to say in the end, but not really. It's just an excuse for a thrilling series of robot battles, where arrogant scientists build bigger and stronger robots in a war of escalation that boils down to "my robot can beat up your robot," and I don't care about the consequences.

And as such, it's an allegory for war.

What is modern warfare, if not "my technology can beat up your technology"? Power-hungry leaders and scientists filled with hubris work on causing maximum destruction, and everyone pays the price. That's "The Greatest Robot on Earth" (even if the collateral damage shown is minimal, because it is, after all, a book for children), that's war, and that's not just the allegorical meaning of Naoki Urasawa's retelling of the story in "Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka," it's the surface meaning.

"Pluto" Volume 2

If Tezuka's Astro Boy tale was mainly an excuse for pulse-pounding robot battle action, then Urasawa's "Pluto" is a story of war and loss. A story of sacrifice and regret. A story of America's excursion into Iraq. With robots and battles pushed into the corners.

American comics have been shy about tackling the war in the Middle East, or at least they've been shy about doing it in any kind of meaningful way that doesn't result in bombastic satire. John Ney Rieber and John Cassady gave Captain America some terrorists to punch (and lecture about) in the post 9/11 comic book world, Brian Keene and Chris Samnee's "Dead of Night: Devil-Slayer" used the Iraq war as a backdrop for a story about hell on earth, Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli's "DMZ" turned the military action inward, on New York City itself. And we're still waiting (or not) for Frank Miller's "Holy Terror, Batman!"

But in "Pluto," Urasawa directly addresses the relationship between America and Iraq, and though he changes the names of the countries involved, he doesn't hide his intent.

The main characters in the story -- the robots taken from Tezuka's orginal: Gesicht (called Gerhardt in the Schodt translation), Mont Blanc, North #2, Brando, Hercules, Epsilon -- all have ties to the "39th Central Asian War," and even Atom (aka Astro Boy) and his sister Uran have ties to the conflict. As early as the first volume of "Pluto," North #2 is described, somewhat sarcastically, as a " fearsome weapon of mass destruction," and that very robot suffers from the brutality of war. He only wants to serve his new master -- a blind composer -- and learn to make music himself. "That's why I want to learn to play, sir," North #2 says, "I don't ever want to…go to war again." "Every one of those killings," adds the former warrior robot, is played back again and again in my artificial brain." North #2, so ashamed of his status as a killer of other robots, hides his six, weapon-packed, arms beneath a cloak throughout nearly every scene. The robot has lived through the war, but he has not survived unscathed, at least not emotionally. And the notion of the humanity of the inhuman killing machine -- not just North #2 -- is explored throughout all volumes of this series.

Urasawa makes the Iraq war connection even more explicit, when we learn of the exposition about President Alexander of the Unites States of Thracia who "accused the kingdom of Persia of hiding its robots of mass destruction." U. N. weapon inspectors were dispatched, including Astro Boy's own Dr. Ochanomizu, who says, "Alexander's so-called robots of mass destruction were nowhere to be found."

"Pluto" Volume 4

Throughout the six volumes of "Pluto" published in America so far, the Iraq war -- or the "39th Central Asian War" -- lingers. It appears in flashback, as the mighty robots, who, in the original Tezuka story and this one, find themselves picked off one at a time by the immense, horned robot known as Pluto, think about their days in the war. In Tezuka's original, Pluto is shown on almost every page -- a child's toy come to life, larger than life, actually -- while in Urasawa's reimagining, the brutal antagonist is shown only in blurred action, flashes of terror, and in the trail of devastation he leaves behind.

The enemy is less obvious in today's world. Less clearly defined.

But the flashbacks to the war show the blurring of intent even then. The blurring of a clear enemy. The great robot Hercules asks, when surveying the Persian landscape after the invasion, "What are we doing here?" and "Just who was it we were supposed to be fighting anyway…?" And when they visit the houses during their role as "peace-keepers," a Persian citizen accosts them: "You dropped your bombs on sleeping babies!!" he shouts. "How can you say you're liberating oppressed people? What kind of justice is there in killing innocent children?!!"

"Pluto" asks the robots, and the reader, to confront the atrocities of war. Particularly the ones committed on behalf of so-called righteousness.

And the psychic effect of the war changes those who fought there. Brando, another of the seven most powerful robots in the world, and a creature who makes his living as a prize-fighter in battles, admits, "Since the war, I can't bring myself to destroy my opponents…" He wonders aloud, "we might be evolving…?" Urasawa asks his robots -- Tezuka's robots -- to confront their pasts, to explore their own humanity, and to acknowledge the consequences of their actions.

Tezuka's story was for children, the consequences were almost nil, beyond a few destroyed hunks of metal and a lot of shouting. The resonance was explicit only in the final scene. But in Urasawa's retelling for a more mature audience, there is no thrill of the battle. There is no joy in the conflict. Everything is tragic. On an almost Shakespearean level.

"Pluto" Volume 6

One unnamed robot -- an important player in the mystery-of-where-Pluto-came-from subplot, no doubt -- is found after a battle in Persia, endlessly washing his hands like Lady Macbeth. "…that war was no normal battle," says Hercules. "Can you imagine a robot who can't stop washing his hands?"

If "Pluto" were just an allegory for Iraq war, or just an allegory about the inhumanity that goes with any war, it would probably still be worth reading. And if it were that, plus some Shakespearean overtones and the heavy Tezuka influence, it would be worth reading all the more. And it is all that. But it's also a detective story, a horror story, a tale of hope and despair, a tale of mystery, a tale of prejudice and acceptance. The war bits are layered throughout -- and they are deeply intertwined with the motivation of this Pluto character -- but there's so much more going on in Urasawa's series.

If I've focused on the war allegory, that's because it's the least subtle thing about the series, and yet it hasn't been commented upon in most of the reviews of the series so far. But "Pluto" is at its best when the sadness and tragedy of war informs the quieter scenes. When Gesicht begins to realize that he's been tampered with. When North #2 patiently awaits his chance to create art. When Dr. Tenma recalls his own son, the model for the robot we know as Astro Boy.

But "Pluto" is a war comic, make no mistake. And like most war stories, it is an anti-war story. And like most robot stories, it's about humanity. And it's beautiful.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

TAGS:  when words collide, astro boy, pluto, osamu tezuka, naoki urasawa

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