Pulp Fictions: Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto and 20th Century Boys; Ari Folman and David Polonsky’s Waltz With Bashir


Comics come out on Wednesday, and so does Richard Gehr’s Pulp Fictions.

Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Volume One
Naoki Urasawa and Osamu Tezuka

20th Century Boys Volume 01
Naoki Urasawa

Someone is killing the great robots of Europe. In celebrated manga artist Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto, manga god Osamu Tezuka’s novel-length Astro Boy story, “The Strongest Robots in the World” (available here) has become something darker. Urasawa’s extended ongoing rewrite shifts the focus from Tezuka’s childlike icon to Inspector Gesicht, an anxious, overworked robot (in human form) that’s also on the killer’s list. When reading Tezuka you’re always aware of who’s a robot and who isn’t; the differences are slipperier and more elusive in Urasawa’s Moore/Miller/Morrison-esque remake. His robots have immensely enhanced powers of strength and intelligence, they also write poetry, play the piano, and seemingly possess a full range of human emotions (one of the seven lives with a wife and five children).

In the first of the seven volumes of Pluto Urasawa has published to date, Richter is investigating both the murder of Mont Blanc, “the beloved robot of the Swiss Forestry Service,” and the slaying of a human robot-rights activist – each of whose heads are discovered adorned with a pair of makeshift horns. Later chapters relate the touching story of North No. 2, a powerful robot-slaying war machine, who has retired from the military and now serves as butler to a moody Scottish composer. While various credits suggest that Pluto is something of a committee effort, who cares? The breakdowns flow like a great action movie, and certain sequences – as when Richter has to break the news of a robot policeman’s death to his wife – are heartbreakingly affective.

Tezuka’s superstar creation only appears, rather somberly, at the volume’s very end. Atom, as Astro Boy was known originally, would fit in perfectly with the gang of average Japanese kids whose childhood fantasies threaten the world in Urasawa’s earlier 20th Century Boys, published originally from 2000 to 2006 in 22 volumes. As in Stephen King’s It, childhood trauma returns to bite these kids in the ass: In 1997, an enigmatic figure known simply as “Friend” has appropriated the boys’ 1969 secret symbol (an eye on a hand) as the icon of a terrorist cult that apparently turns citizens into contented zombies. Urasawa skips deftly about in time, with promises of some high-concept weirdness once the title becomes 21st Century Boys, as it did eventually in Japan. Can the boys save humanity from this “Friend” in Jim Jones clothing? In Pluto, the robots are better than we are; in 20th Century Boys, robots R us.

Waltz With Bashir: A Lebanon War Story
Ari Folman and David Polonsky

It takes less time to read the graphic version than to watch Ari Folman’s engaging and disquieting animated documentary about Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. But there’s no reason not to linger on art director David Polonsky’s powerful dreamtime and wartime images, which have been translated faithfully from screen to page. Folman’s film follows his attempt to create an oral history that would fill in the gaping void that consumed his memories of the invasion and, especially, the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps that were abetted by Israeli forces. The graphic novel lends concrete presence to Folman’s dark and dreamlike imagery. Where the movie fades to black after abruptly replacing illustrations with stark photography, the comic’s final image of a mourning mother strikes a note of eternal suffering.