Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jun 27th 2008
The race continues to stop Johan, the "monster" whose traumatic childhood has turned him into a manipulative, remorseless serial killer. Dr. Kenzo Tenma, who years ago saved Johan's life, is still determined to end it—although being an escaped fugitive is putting a bit of a damper on Tenma's plans. Meanwhile, Tenma's ex-fiancee Eva has some key knowledge that could lead others to Johan, but her erratic behavior might end up putting her life (or someone else's) in grave danger. And finally, Johan's twin sister Nina is on the verge of uncovering all their unpleasant childhood memories, as she pays a visit to the ominous "Red Rose Mansion" where they grew up. However, Nina might not be mentally prepared to handle all those memories just yet—and it seems that Johan has his own plans for the mansion as well.
As Monster draws ever closer to a dramatic finish, one pressing question remains: does Naoki Urasawa have the talent to keep track of all the crisscrossing plot lines? What may have once been a tense cat-and-mouse game has evolved into something much greater, involving one mouse, seven different cats, two dogs, a fox, and a chicken—or at least it looks that way. Volumes 14 and 15 pass through several of these storylines, and it can seem at times that new story threads and new characters pop up whenever ideas start running out for the existing ones. Yet each chapter delves deep into its characters and draws out powerful emotions, so wherever the story is headed next, thrills and suspense are guaranteed.
Of course, those thrills don't necessarily mean action and gunplay: some of Monster's finest moments are the ones that occur in the characters' minds, and Vol. 14 proves it by digging into Nina's childhood. With fragmented images, flashbacks, and storybook excerpts, these chapters capture perfectly the fleeting nature of human memory—and it can take just one horrific recollection to leave Nina, as well as the reader, in shock. Yet there is also a glimmer of hope; the puppeteer that Nina meets is a comforting presence, and proof that even the most minor character has a purpose. (On the other hand, some may find it annoying that Urasawa has thrown in yet another character with ties to the central mystery. Enough already!) But that is perhaps one of the most overlooked qualities of Monster: that amidst all the mystery and horror, there are moments of love and hope and all the good things about humanity.
The last couple of chapters in Vol. 14 and the first half of Vol. 15 take a more conventional tack, shifting away from the realm of memories and toward a conspiracy-action arc involving Eva Heinemann. For someone most often seen as an emotionally unstable drunk, it is perhaps Eva's finest hour, culminating in a bittersweet sequence where she reunites with Tenma. (Remember that stuff about love and hope?) Even Eva's temporary bodyguard—yet another briefly-introduced minor character—wins audience empathy with his "heroic slacker" role. The back half of Vol. 15 isn't quite as focused, though, and these chapters seem to wander back and forth, trying to keep up with all the various plotlines—Nina continues to dig up memories, other people reveal fragmented clues about the Red Rose Mansion, and Tenma continues to run as he plots his next move. Oh well, leaving you hanging is one of the key points of the suspense genre, right?
If it were enough just to arrange story events in a particular order, then Urasawa would be a decent novelist—but it is his mastery of art and comic paneling that make him one of the all-time greats. The use of flashbacks and fragments to show Nina's memory is just one of many techniques; the wide range of events in these two volumes offer a full showcase of his skills. Whether it's everyday life (the puppeteer on the streets of Prague), or building up suspense (Nina tracking down the Red Rose Mansion), or intense action (gunplay and chase scenes), or even just dialogue, the story is told with perfect spacing and timing of panels. In fact, a silent image or series of images can say all that needs to be said. And while Urasawa's style can seem rectangular and plain at first glance, there is a wealth of creativity within the rectangles: the variety of character designs, the strong facial expressions, the details in the backgrounds, and the viewing angles that make each scene unique. To maintain all these skills without getting too flashy or confusing is perhaps the greatest artistic talent.
For a series with such a complex storyline, one might expect an ocean of text to wade through, but these chapters continue to maintain a careful balance between wordiness and brevity. True, there are some scenes that are loaded with talk—one chapter is nothing but a sequence of interviews—but on the other end, there are moments where an entire page goes by with only a couple of words being said. Best of all, the writing and translation are wonderfully direct: no fancy phrasing, no overwrought paragraphs (and this is why Death Note will always be inferior), just the words that need to be said so that the characters and the reader know where the story is headed next. Even sound effects are used carefully; it's possible to go several pages before ever seeing onomatopoeic Japanese characters on the page. Thankfully, Viz's Signature line does not edit out the sound effects—readers looking for translations can look up the glossary in the back.
Once again, words, images and story come together to make Monster a one-of-a-kind thriller. A couple of strong story arcs occupy these two volumes—the search for Nina's childhood memories, and Eva's secret mission—but built around that are a few stringy loose threads, like the puppeteer in Prague, the fate of Dr. Tenma as he continues to run from the law, the lawyers and officers still looking into the mystery of Johan, and oh yeah, what has Johan been up to lately? So maybe the master storyteller and artist isn't always masterful, but wherever Naoki Urasawa takes us next, it'll be a terrific ride.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A
+ Digs deep into the memories and emotions of the series' most pivotal female characters, providing more twists and turns that will lead to catching the killer.
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