Naoki Urusawa's Monster has been on my radar for many years now, but I've never actually delved into the franchise before. The 156-chapter, 18-tankoban (a standard-size collection of manga) series was born in 1994, running consistently for seven years to a conclusion in December of 2001. Met with enormous praise both in Japan and abroad, the series has spawned a successful anime series and has even gotten the attention of Guillermo del Toro, who will be directing a live-action adaptation for HBO sometime in the near future. Critical praise abounds, I was cautious going into the manga for fear that my expectations have been set too high- impressively, though my expectations were indeed lofty, Monster Vol. 1: The Perfect Edition was even better than expected.
The plot primarily concerns Doctor Kenzo Tenma, a gifted Japanese brain surgeon working abroad in Germany at a prestigious hospital. Without wanting to give too much away, Tenma's life is turned upside down after saving the life of a young boy whose parents were murdered, and a series of further murders transpire at the hospital. Suspected but not charged with the murders at the hospital, Tenma goes on with his life for another nine years- before learning that similar murders are transpiring elsewhere in Germany, and he is once again a suspect. Tenma goes on a trail to find the truth and clear his name, which is the essence of the larger story arc.
Monster Vol. 1: The Perfect Edition collects the first two of the 18 tankoban, covering the initial murders and then a 9-year time skip leading into the main story. At more than 400 pages and about an inch and half thick, the book feels nice in the hand without becoming too cumbersome. The exterior has a nice satin feel to it, and though it is technically a paperback, the covers do have bookflaps which is a nice touch- being able to save your place in such a long volume is nice. The print quality is good all around, with the interior paper stock being a nice weighty matte white that prevents you from seeing through to the next page, a common problem in cheaper black and white books. There's also a small number of pages presented in color, and the quality of print appears to be above average for most manga- the different mediums Urusawa used for the pages are crisp and clear, while Urusawa's use of color is fairly understated, I feel confident that it was accurately reproduced.
Urusawa's black and white artwork is strong throughout the whole book, with confident linework and a reserved sense of when to use dot-matrix grays. Backgrounds are far above average and feature some incredibly detailed architecture, rendered with subtlety and realism that is among the best I've ever seen. His character rendering is significantly different however, leaning more on traditional cartooning that appears to draw influence from many of the great masters of both Japanese and Western canons. His skills as a cartoonist are best on display with his loving renderings of the elderly and the overweight, whose faces have an animated mobility that make them feel fleshy, rather than balloon-like. His younger and more attractive characters are also well rendered, certainly, but I didn't find them quite as captivating as his homely subjects.
The combination of tightly rendered backgrounds and slightly looser figures works well in the story. The tight backgrounds bring atmosphere and specificity, while the loose figures bring animation and character. This technique recalls the work of many of the great masters of the medium, particularly Osamu Tezuka and Jacques Tardi, though, in most regards, his figures are more grounded than either of the other two.
The writing is really the star of the manga though, with tense atmosphere and complex characters abound. Tenma is a particularly well realized protagonist, as we actually get to witness him working through moral quandaries and philosophical challenges. All too often protagonists are simply understood to have an inborn righteousness, and we never get to see them come to understand the implications of their own viewpoints: Tenma is far better written than that, and we as an audience learn with him, through his experiences. Each new character introduced is well distinguished and uniquely written, lending the world a sense of complexity and realism. The story's one weak character at this point is an idiosyncratic detective named Inspector Lunge, who at this stage in the story feels like a very one-note annoyance rather than a real antagonist (or perhaps officious protagonist).
The story is willing to introduce new developments quickly, but the rhythm of the story at large feels rather slow. This isn't necessarily a negative- I can feel even early on that I'm only at the dawn of a longer story, and the feeling of slowness emphasizes the human element of the story. The events unfold with weight in a real world, rather than as abstract events floating in narrative ether. The unity of the world is particularly well emphasized by some of his page layout choices, particularly when changing scenes- rather than ending a scene on the last panel of a certain page, he ends the scene on the first panel of the next page. This technique creates a strong sense of continuity. It hints at the notion that the world isn't confined to discreet, editorialized portions. Each scene spills into another page, creating the implication that the two consecutive scenes are not isolated incidents.
Monster starts off very strong, and I'm excited to continue reading as each new volume of The Perfect is released. For people new to the franchise as I am, I believe that now may be the time to start reading- though, the wait for each new tense volume will undoubtedly leave you itching.