When I decided to dip my toe into the manga pond, I heard one name over and over: Naoki Urasawa. He was the best of the best, an Eisner-winner multiple years in a row for his sci-fi epic 20th Century Boys. Interested as I was, manga’s tendency toward long-running, epic stories scared me off for a long time. There was no way that I could tackle stories that ran 20+ volumes, because of both budget and time reasons, but I still wanted to explore this huge world of unknown comics. So when I heard there was a shorter, complete story by one of manga’s best artists being re-released in English, I jumped at the chance. And what a place to start: Monster vol. 1 was a thrilling read that has me hungry for more.
The story is set in Germany during the 1980s and ‘90s and centers around Kenzo Tenma, a young hot-shot surgeon who was on the fast-track to major success in the medical field. He’s highly regarded in the hospital, engaged to the Hospital Chief’s daughter, and may soon be Head of Surgery. It all starts to unravel when Tenma begins to realize that the hospital is prioritizing wealthier, more famous patients over those who came in first with life-threatening injuries. Things come to a head when he defies the Chief and operates on a young boy who’s been shot in the head instead of the mayor. Tenma saves the boy’s life but is disgraced.
What seems like a medical drama with a bit of mystery thrown in veers off course with a time jump. Johan, the boy whom Tenma saved comes back into his life…and happens to be a serial killer responsible for dozens of unsolved murders throughout Germany. Tenma begins racing to find out more about the boy and his mysterious sister in the hopes of catching the killer before he strikes again. But that only scratches the surface of the story and Tenma, along with the reader, are starting on a strange and dangerous course with no idea what he’s getting into.
Monster has incredible momentum. Once I started reading it I couldn’t put it down. The suspense really kicks into gear after the time jump, but even before there’s a serial killer on the loose you’re immediately drawn into the character-drama of Tenma’s professional rise and fall. These character moments are what make Monster a richer story than the Murderer of the Week you get on TV, week after week. All the characters feel as if they have their full lives outside the story, as if they’re the protagonists of some other story and simply make a cameo here. Two characters in the final chapter really shine, as does a very grumpy journalist Tenma meets in the story.
After reading Monster, I can see why Urasawa is considered a master of the craft. His character designs are amazing, each one distinct but simple at the same time. This is no easy feat, with a wide cast of characters and a time jump to boot, but Urasawa makes it look effortless. No one jumps from young woman to crone; instead the weight of the years create a subtle but undeniable sense that time really has passed. His layouts create a delicious tension, and his page-turn reveals make for some incredible dramatic moments. A shout-out to the translation has to be made, because the story reads smoothly with none of the occasional awkward stumbles that come with translating comics, especially considering there’s German to contend with too.
The work wrestles with messy ethical issues that don’t have easy answers. Did Tenma bring this evil into the world by saving Johan’s life? If he hadn’t operated on him, all of Johan’s victims would still be alive. Does Tenma have a responsibility to stop Johan just because he did his job as a surgeon and saved his life? I especially like how the medical ethics play out in this story. While I wouldn’t normally pick up a medical drama comic, I was drawn into the questions of what a doctor’s responsibility is and just how self-centered or self-sacrificing they can be.
I find the setting of Monster fascinating. Perhaps naively, I assumed that most manga took place in Japan, unless it was some sci-fi/fantasy setting, but instead this is set in Germany and features only one Japanese character. The political turmoil of the late Cold War period impacts the story during the first half, as Johan and his sister’s family are political defectors from East Germany. I’m interested to see just why Urasawa chose Germany for the setting of the story and whether it continues to impact the rest of the story.
Monster got me into manga, hook, line, and sinker. The second volume comes out on October 21st and I’ve already got it on pre-order, plus I have the first volume of 20th Century Boys on wait-list from the library. If every story is as beautifully illustrated and complex as this one, I have a feeling I’ll be swimming in manga in no time at all.