Naoki Urasawa's Pluto -- a retelling of Osamu Tezuka's "The Greatest Robot on Earth" story from Astro Boy -- currently stands as the best comic I've read in 2009.
The storyline of Pluto is deceptively simple -- someone or something is killing off the seven greatest robots on earth. In Urasawa's version of the story, robots and humans live in something akin to harmony, but not quite. The seven robots currently being targeted for death all appear to have one thing in common and that is they were designed to be "weapons of mass destruction." These greatest robots were involved in the so-called "39th Central Asian War" against a Persian dictator believed to be building his own robot weapons of mass destruction. However, these "weapons" were never found even once his country was invaded by U.N. robot "peacekeeping forces," and the nation suffered enormous loss of human life and property. The war has been over for four years and now that the world seems peaceful, the robots' talents for destruction are no longer needed, and yet because they are so powerful, it is believed they still hold the balance of the world in their hands.
Volume one of Pluto opens on two murders taking place around the same time period -- one the beloved Swiss robot Mont Blanc and the other a human who was a robot rights' activist. The cases are clearly connected thanks to the postmortem message left by the killer, who added "horns" to the head of each body after death (which is where the title "Pluto" comes from -- the killer is assigned the moniker of the Roman god of death in this work). One thing that isn't clear about the murders is that there appears to be evidence pointing to a potential human and / or robot culprit/s. (Or perhaps a robot that fancies himself a human?) However, in this world there are such things as "robot laws" that ensure robots are unable to kill humans (although they can certainly kill each other and did in astoundingly high numbers during the 39th Central Asian War). That means we have to wonder who, in such a world, would build a robot capable of killing human beings and why would they build it?
Gesicht, one of the seven greatest robots and formerly a member of the war-time robot "peacekeeping forces," works for Interpol and is assigned these baffling cases. Gesicht is a great investigator, of course, with his extraordinary abilities of perception, but what is constantly surprising is that he can be surprised. In this world a robot can adapt and change -- perhaps even grow -- and once built they are never static beings. Even if built for one thing, the seven greatest robots all develop their own interests, histories and lives. They are not merely the sum of their parts, but also the sum of their individual experiences.
In the first three volumes, more robots and humans are killed, but there never seems to be an entirely clear cut or simple motive since the robots and humans being killed are not simple beings themselves. Urasawa's depiction of robots is marvelously complex, as the more advanced they become, the more and more they taken on human characteristics. I'm fascinated by Gesicht. He looks human, can pass as human, has very human characteristics -- for example, he dreams -- but he is fundamentally not human. However, each of the seven greatest robots demonstrate an extraordinary ability to explore what it means to be human. What it means to have memories, to have nightmares, to physically and emotionally feel, to touch, and to experience.
Pluto may be a mystery, but the comic is also a touching meditation on what makes us human. Robots are a always a reflection of humans, of course, since we are the ones that build them. It only makes sense that they desire to take on their creators' abilities. However, when Atom, the robot who looks and appears like any other little boy, is told about the one robot who has known to have defied the robot laws and killed a human being, he wonders if it is not actually human to kill, as well. Whether or not Urasawa ever attempts to answer Atom's chilling question, he certainly isn't afraid to raise it and build an entire comic around all the moral ambiguity it implies about the human condition.
Pluto is one of the most finely crafted comics I've ever read. Reading this work is like being carried along by a great film, as there something beautifully dynamic about the flow of images and words, always building in each chapter to create an alternative world to our own that always feels authentic. Urasawa can use a mere line or two to completely change a character's expression, as easily he can align shading, detailed line work, and complex and varied geometric shapes to represent the futuristic cities of Pluto. The Viz editions are quite pleasing, with color pages at the front of each volume, french flaps, and interviews and information about how Urasawa came to re-work the great Tezuka's story at the back of each volume.
Review copy of Pluto volume 3 provided by Viz.