Buy This Book: Naoki Urasawa’s ‘Master Keaton’
Naoki Urasawa's Pluto is one of the best comics I've ever read, period. It's engaging on every level, doing the impossible by retelling the single most famous story from the single most famous manga creator of all time -- Astro Boy, by Osamu Tezuka -- as a murder mystery that has an incredible amount of tension and drama. On the rare occasion that anyone asks me for manga recommendations, Pluto is always at the top of my list.
That said, it's also the only Urasawa comic I've ever read. As much as I know that I should dive in for more, Monster and 20th Century Boys are two of the most prominent entries on the long list of comics that I'm sure are great but just haven't gotten around to.
When Viz announced last year that they were going to publish the complete Master Keaton, though, I decided not to let the opportunity pass me by again. After all, this was a book that sounded right up my alley; a world-traveling combination of Indiana Jones and MacGyver, and while it might not come as much of a surprise, I can assure you that the first volume is amazing.
First things first, let's talk about how good this book looks in terms of trade dress. It's rare that we really go in-depth into reviewing book design unless it's truly spectacular, and Viz has done a pretty amazing job here. It's a slick package: Black-on-black gloss for the globe pattern on the cover, gold foil for the title, and a design that leaves the back cover completely blank save for the UPC code. It is beautiful.
More than anything else, the design of the cover and its massive gold foil logo reminds me of those old '80s action novels that I always used to see at the library when I was a kid, the spy thrillers and adventure stories that always had those big block letters, usually accompanied by a picture of a bloody knife stabbing a Nazi flag or something. I never read those, but I've always imagined what they'd be like, and Master Keaton is exactly what I'd want them to be.
In a lot of ways, it has that retro feel, which makes sense. The original run of Master Keaton in Japan kicked off in 1988, although to be honest, I was surprised that it was that old. Despite the distinct lack of cell phones and the Internet -- and a story involving cocaine and a prostitute that feels like it could have been lifted straight from Mike Baron's run on Punisher -- it feels very contemporary in a lot of ways, mainly because it has the exact kind of quirky, almost too clever setup that networks love to base television shows on.
Our hero, as you may be able to tell from that cover, is Taichi Hiraga Keaton, an underachieving professor of archaeology who moonlights as a freelance insurance investigator, which naturally sends him on globe-trotting adventures involving art forgeries, revolutionary armies, and the Corsican mafia. Fortunately, Keaton has a set of skills that have nothing to do with his lackluster lectures: He's also a former SAS commando who taught survival combat, giving him the ability to jury-rig a grappling hook or a handheld catapult that can knock out an assailant at thirty yards.
This is where the MacGyver element comes in, obviously, and I especially loved the way Urasawa and writers Hokusei Katsushika and Takashi Nagasaki set up the inevitable climax of each story by characterizing Keaton as a literal absent-minded professor who keeps picking things up and putting them in his pockets. He does it with a roll of tape in the first story to the loud objections of a guy in the office at his university, so when it comes time for him to tape together that catapult and bonk a gunman on the head, it's not something that comes out of nowhere.
I was expecting the whole book to follow that formula, but once Urasawa establishes Keaton and his habits, he quickly moves on to doing other things -- most notably introducing his family, starting with a domineering teenage daughter Yuriko, who's very disappointed in her underachieving father.
Yuriko's introduction, along with the news that her mother is looking to remarry and the hint that Keaton himself has never gotten over his divorce, feels exactly like the kind of familiar plot element that you'd get in any number of action movies or TV shows over the past 27 years. The hyper-competent crime-solving hero who turns into an absentminded and bumbling dad when he's around his bossy teenage daughter is such a cliché that there's probably a much simpler name for it than what I just typed -- the Jenny Matrix, maybe? -- but Master Keaton pulls it off as well as it can be done.
It humanizes Keaton, which is something that's necessary after the first couple of stories go out of their way to establish him as both brilliant and indomitably tough, a genius who can spot an art forgery using effortless mathematical calculations and then cold stomp a dude's face for trying to stab him with an antique dagger.
Yurkio's presence gives Keaton an emotional core that he just doesn't have when he's breezing his way through the rest of the book, rounding out the book into something that feels like you're marathoning an entire season of really clever adventures rather than just reading a series of set pieces capped off by trivia about how to survive in the desert.
It all comes together in the final story in this volume, where Keaton has to go up against a former friend from his SAS days. It's actually the story that the animated version used as its series finale, and it's easy to see why. It's personal, it's engaging, and compared to the rest of the book, which is mostly about Keaton disabling his attackers without killing them, it's incredibly violent. It's also the story that feels the most of its time, like Keaton wandered onto the set of a Death Wish sequel -- which is actually what makes it so entertaining. After 200 pages of a guy who never seems out of his element, we get to find out exactly what that element is.
It might not hit the highs of a book like Pluto, which will bring tears to your eyes with a story about a robot who wants to play piano, but as far as adventure comics go, it's pretty top notch. All in all, it's great stuff, thick enough to justify its $20 cover price and engaging from page one -- and fun enough to make you glad that it's been around long enough that we're getting four big volumes of it this year.