Halloween Week: Monster Omnibus (Vol.1)

Halloween is a time when many of us take delight in monsters. We watch them on our TV and movie screens, we dress up as them for parties and trick-or-treating, we even decorate our walls and windows with kitschy caricatures of them. Of course, not every monster is some simple imaginary creature. Some monsters look, talk, and think like a man, but their hearts and souls are devoid of any feeling or compassion. To them, people are to be exploited until they are no longer of use or no longer amusing, and anyone who crosses them or their plans is to be disposed of. They will reshape their world as they see fit, and it takes a person of strong will to stand against them. There are many monsters in the monster world, but few of them are as chilling and methodical as Johan, the mysterious title character of Naoki Urasawa’s Monster.

Monster is the story of Dr. Tenma.  He’s a bright and promising neurosurgeon at a prestigious hospital in West Germany.  He seems to have everything – the director’s daughter as a fiancée, the approval of his superiors, and a skill for surgery that few can match.  All of that disappears when he defies his superiors’ orders and operates on a dying boy instead of the local mayor.  Tenma’s career and life would seem to be in freefall, if not for the fact that his superiors die soon afterwards of poisoning.  Many years later, Tenma discovers that his fateful decision had terrible consequences.  A string of murders leads Tenma to discover that the boy he saved on that fateful night is now the man killing elderly couples across town, a man determined to erase his own past at any cost.  Now Tenma is caught in a desperate race to stop Johan, and to do so he must reach out to those tied to Johan's past, avoid those that would stop him for their own reasons, and train himself in preparation for the ultimate showdown. 

From my own experience, Urasawa’s works tend to be something of a slow burn. It took me 3 volumes before I could truly get into Pluto. It took me a volume or two to take a shine to 20th Century Boys. Monster, on the other hand, had my attention from the very beginning. It’s a difficult thing to write an earnest and well-meaning character without them coming off as naïve or dull. Tenma skirts that line at the beginning, as the reader will inevitably wonder how he could be so blind to the fact that his fiancee and his bosses are so corrupt and immoral. All they require to complete the image are some handlebar mustaches to twirl as they laugh and gloat about how poor people deserve their lot in life or how they are taking credit for Tenma's work for the sake of celebrity. After his revelation, though, Tenma shows himself to be man of steely determination and keen mind without completely losing that earnestness and kindness that made him such a good doctor in the first place. True to form, his concern is not for saving his own reputation or good name, but to save those who find themselves in Johan's path by any means possible. He can't pursue his goal through legal means because Police Inspector Lunge has a Javert-like conviction that Tenma is the man behind all these murders.  This adds yet another level of tension to this tale - Tenma not only must evade Johan's notice even as he tracks him down, but as a fugitive must evade notice of the law as well.

Of course, Dr. Tenma is far from the only person affected. After the first volume ends, the story jumps about in time and place to follow those from both Johan's and Tenma's past. Much of the second third of the book is spent following Johan’s long-estranged twin sister, Anna, and the way Urasawa builds the tension in this section is nothing short of masterful. Anna's life is a mostly happy one, aside from vague reoccurring nightmares and her inability to remember most of her childhood. Then that happiness is shattered bit by bit, as she receives mysterious emails, then stalked, then has her own life disrupted forever when Dr. Tenma makes the connections just a little too late. The story then jumps back to pick up a couple of loose threads from Tenma's past. We see that the intervening years have turned Eva, the ex-fiancée, into a bitter alcoholic. When Tenma  refuses to take her back, she takes out her rage by reporting him to the same inspector who is hunting him.  That hunt leads the inspector to the ex-mercenary, whose own story reveals not only how far Tenma will go to train himself, but also his innate friendliness and people skills allow him to get information and make valuable allies. The great part is that all of these figures are superbly fleshed out, regardless of how long they actually appear on page. They all have backstories, nuance, and motivations of their own which in turn feed into the past Tenma seeks to uncover or the present forces that threaten to stop him.

Urasawa's art is just as sterling as his writing. He has always excelled at creating incredibly expressive character designs that strike a fine balance between realistic detail and variety while retaining a sort of caricature-like quality, and Monster is no exception to that. That same level of quality can be found in every component - the backgrounds, the composition, the framing, all of it used to not only set time and place, but to build mood and tension as needed and often with as few words as possible. Some who watched the animated adaptation of this complained that the show hewed too closely to the manga, but I can hardly blame them for doing so. After all, Urasawa had already created something that looks and flows like a cinematic storyboard, so why not work from the source? Something new to this omnibus edition is the inclusion of color pages near the beginning of each respective volume, and while it still has the strange, washed-out red tint that tends to plague the color artwork of Viz omnibuses, it's still handsome to behold. They even went so far as to re-translate the text, so even those who were fortunate enough to collect this in single volumes before will be getting a slightly new and different experience from before.

Monster is the story of two men whose lives were altered by a single, fateful choice, and the dark path it has cause both of them to tread. It's a beautifully crafted thriller that grabs your attention from the get-go and never lets it go for a second. I am grateful for this re-release, because Monster is nothing less than a masterpiece. 


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