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Naoki Urasawa's MONSTER Vol. 1 - - Retro Review

A superb medical thriller that asks you the tough questions.

Previous Retro Reviews...

Another manga that plays better than the anime (at least at the beginning?) Who’d have figured?

I watched the first episode of MONSTER’s TV adaptation over a year ago and enjoyed it well enough, but the show just didn’t have the same sort of gripping urgency that Urasawa puts into every page and panel of this book. Above all the other merits to be examined here, it’s the artist’s visual storytelling that makes MONSTER so compelling. His choices of layouts, angles, films and selective rendering would infuse a Sunday tea party with earth-shaking strum und drang. Which is to say that this book’s one of those rare comics where you’re hooked by the simple telling of it.

Strum und drang - - the German term’s fitting in a number of ways. MONSTER tells the story of Dr. Kenzo Tenma, a Japanese ex-pat surgeon working in an impressively researched-and-rendered Dusseldorf hospital. After only a few pages of lead-in, the story plunges the good man into intense moral quandaries that’d give Nietzche plenty to ponder. See, he’s engaged to the daughter of the hospital’s director and is on track for an assuredly-ceaseless series of promotions - - provided he quietly obey his callous, profit-minded future father-in-law. However, when a lowly Turkish patient dies in surgery after Tenma’s instructed to ignore him, his moral indignation swells. And when triage time comes again, he defiantly chooses to operate on a critically-injured little boy instead of the important politician he’s been ordered to care for first.

As in all good noirs, this one principled act sets Tenma’s life onto a terrible spiral. His boss demotes him and his fiancé dumps him, in short order. Then, even after his professional life rebounds, he makes a horrifying discovery - - the young boy he saved eventually grew up into a serial killer! Worse yet, this “monster” feels protective of the doctor, and he’ll murder those who’ve wronged him - - those whose deaths Tenma's wished for in private - - in a grotesque effort to “pay it forward.”

Whether Tenma was responsible for the Turkish patient’s death or not quickly proves to be the least of the complicated moral quandaries he has to work through.

Common morbid themes aside, MONSTER’s opener works sharply enough to remind me of DEATH NOTE’s first volume. It gets to one nail-biter of a hook before the last page, and it doesn’t waste a single moment before getting into the sort of meaty conflict that hits on a level one can relate to enough that it actually gets uncomfortable. There’s no lollygagging set-up before “we get to the good stuff” several installments down the line. The incident where Tenma has to face the consequences of the Turk’s death opens the story with the strongest kind of drama - - the sort where even the most seemingly virtuous choice will weigh heavily on the hero’s shoulders.

Without any demonic shinigami or magical death notes, Tenma’s pushed into having the effectively same power to pick who lives and who dies that the nearly-omnipotent Light Yagami has in DEATH NOTE. Both books point an unnerving finger at the reader and ask, “What would you do?” Ostensibly, most stories sets out to ask that, but when these do it, it's far harder to shake off. They cut deep.

Yet there’s still something dampening the power of MONSTER's narrative - -a detail that’s usually invisible to most readers. See, reading this truly makes me wish that more manga were lettered by computer, or that translators had bolder license to digitally remove word balloons. Several scenes of powerful, understated storytelling wind up stuttering at key moments due to obvious discrepancy in the language.

Maybe more Japanese characters were needed to get a particular sentiment across to the reader? Maybe the emptied balloons had to then be filled up by some sort of English dialog? Whatever the cause, streaks of decent, translated dialog are often punctuated by awkward, on-the-nose statements that spell out what the images have already made abundantly clear to the reader.

You know, like when Dr. Tenma’s fiancé drives up to him, slips off her engagement ring and coldly drops it to the pavement. An utterance of “Your wedding ring!” from Tenma isn’t exactly necessary then to get the message across, is it? Parts like that - - which unavoidably draw you out of this otherwise enthralling narrative - - demonstrate how awkward a translation can get due to purism.

That said, such lettering issues don't derail MONSTER as a superb medical thriller - - and that's coming from somebody who's never had much patience for Robin Cook novels or Michael Crichton's non-sci-fi books. Once again, praising a popular older title for Retro Review feels like showing up real late to a party. The kudos I’ve offered up here is surely just reiterating the kudos that's been already been given many, many times. All the same, there's still no harm in reaffirming the power of such a comic.

Tom Pinchuk’s the writer of HYBRID BASTARDS! & UNIMAGINABLE. Order them on Amazon here & here. Follow him on Twitter: @tompinchuk

jnw93on June 1, 2012 at 6:12 p.m.

Heard good thing about this, mite take a look @ it soon.

zaldaron June 2, 2012 at 7:50 p.m.

yeah you are the second or third person to tell me how good this is. I don't share your love of visual storytelling but I may very well check this out.

Madkinglordon June 14, 2012 at 10:55 a.m.

i have to read this.

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