By Ritesh Babu
It’s a classic. You’ve read it. If you haven’t, you’ve probably known someone who has. You’ve very much heard of it. Naoki Urasawa. Monster. It’s hard not to when you’re a comics fan.
A comic about Tenma, a renowned doctor, saving the life of Johan, a dying boy, who would go on to become a horrifying manipulator and serial killer. Johan has no powers, nobody in the world of Monster does. What Johan instead wields is words, rhetoric, scenarios, all the real things monsters of reality utilize. Set across the streets of Germany and the Czech Republic, it’s a psychological thriller and a period piece drama. There’s a horrific reality to it all, as Tenma pursues Johan and his secret history across Europe, trying to slay the monster he saved.
I have rather vivid memories of the work.
There were only two comics that ever managed to truly scare me in my youth. The first was Kentaro Miura’s Berserk, a magnificent magnum opus of dark fantasy.
The second was Monster.
I recall the first time I read it, I made it through perhaps 16 chapters or so before I had to stop. I was about 14 at the time, and the sheer raw impact of it was too much. There was something chilling about it. The atmosphere was unlike that of any other comic I’d read by that point. The way it just built and built, accumulating like smoke, as you struggled for breath, and the way you had these moments of brief release… I was blown away. But I also had to stop, for at that time, I found it too much. It was taking in an extremity I didn’t feel ready for.
I wouldn’t go back to it for quite some time after that, especially as the enormity of the experience itself seemed to grow bigger in my head with time: Urasawa’s work tends to be able to do that. Having finished it since, and having just revisited it and re-read it earlier this year, I’m fascinated in a wholly different way with it.
Now, this oppressive sensibility is perhaps not as intense as it may have been for a teen mind, but it is still recognizable to me. It’s incredibly potent work which evokes an unease and discomfort, like there’s a nagging sensation in your heart, and there’s a palpable tension in every scene, like the silence before a storm. Every page of the comic is haunted by the presence (and absence) of its titular Monster – Johan, our principal antagonist. He is the black star around which all the aspects of the world of Monster orbit. And if he scared me in my youth by feeling nigh supernatural in his horror, now he terrifies me by the reality of it.
The idea of a man who with his mere words could convince people to turn on their closest ones, who could destroy support-structures, communities, and drive people to destroy themselves? That felt almost like dark magic to me as a child. Now, it doesn’t feel like it, as it feels all too real and possible. Johan’s manipulative words, his rhetoric, his monstrosity, they feel rooted in truth. Even as it’s all heightened for a comic story, it’s hard to not see it and go ‘I recognize that’, and in that moment feel the hair on your hands stand-up.
But Johan is not in this volume, of course. Largely what this volume contains are the elements which most people will remember from Monster – the magnificently gripping thriller stories, as various people grapple with the horrific reality of Johan and the seeds of his inception.
Having just read this volume on its own this time, I was struck by how much of it could just work in that fashion. It begins with Wolfgang Grimmer, one of the most memorable characters in the whole series, and we see him cross paths with Doctor Tenma, our chief protagonist. They’re both headed for Prague in Czech Republic, in pursuit of the roots and makers of the Monster. Then we follow Grimmer as our perspective character through the streets of Prague. He becomes embroiled in a murder case, is given information on key evidence from a dying victim, and finds himself kidnapped and tortured (for the information) by the corrupt cops until he escapes. Beyond that, the latter half of the volume deals with the fallout of said incident, from the perspective of Detective Jan Suk, a young rookie cop in the department, and his disillusionment with policing as the volume concludes with Suk and Grimmer talking about their experiences.
Now, while all of that is steeped in the longform Kinderheim 511 children’s program mystery and the secrets of Johan, it works beyond it as well. Even if you had no idea what any of that stuff was, I could see a person pick up this volume and just enjoy it for its own merits of cartooning. As a snapshot that just works, given much of the characters in it are new characters you’re just meeting for the first time as a reader yourself. And I had never quite seen Monster that way before, given I’d always read it in one-go, and only saw it as quite a serialized venture. This gave me a new lens on it.
It made me remember how Naoki Urasawa is, indeed, an apprentice of Osamu Tezuka. And as fellow critic Sean Dillion once noted to me – if Pluto was Urasawa’s Astro Boy, then Monster is Urasawa’s Blackjack, to put it in Tezuka terms. [For those unaware, Blackjack is Osamu Tezuka’s manga about a medical practitioner. Tezuka studied medicine and it bled into a lot of his work, but Blackjack is perhaps his towering monument to it.] Obviously far more grounded and ‘realistic’, relatively speaking, but it is something that crystallized for me here. That the almost procedural elements, while woven deeply into its overarching serialized narrative, still do work on that singular level, much like with Tezuka’s best work.
And that notion – the idea of the smaller parts encapsulating the larger whole? That shone out even more brightly to me. At the crux of Monster is the idea that the world doesn’t work the way you think it does, that people around you aren’t what you hope or believe they are. That nothing, none of this, matters in the slightest. There’s a painfully nihilistic creed underneath it all.
It’s exposure to such a creed that destroys everyone who comes into contact with Johan, after all. And it is the impetus that drives our principal protagonist Doctor Tenma. Tenma was a well off, successful Doctor who didn’t want for anything. The man had it all, but left it, because he truly was disillusioned after he realizes he’s the reason why this mass-murderer is out there still alive. Tenma was no longer sure of how things worked. He believed himself to be a healer, a doctor, and then in healing Johan, he let loose this monster. And the moment he chose to save the monster is when his life turned around, which becomes devastating when he learns that the monster is why he now enjoys the life he does. That Johan ‘thanked’ Tenma by murdering those who made Tenma’s life hell, allowing him to ascend to a better life.
The revelation is far too much for Tenma to bear, when it hits him. What was the point of all that he’d been doing then? Has his whole life been built on murder then? What does that mean then? What does that make him? How responsible is he? Everything shatters for Tenma, and he can no longer sit still and live this life he once found soothing. Thus he sets out, picking up a gun, getting gun training, becoming a wanted criminal dedicated to ending the man he resurrected.
It’s the only way he’s able to respond to his shattered reality.
And we see that notion explored clearly, albeit differently, in this volume via Detective Suk. Here is a man who grew up loving stories of the police, adoring cops as heroes. Cops are the ones who do the right thing, keep peace, and maintain justice! Is that not why he joined the police force to begin with? He idolizes his superior, Inspector Zeman, describing him as a hard-working tireless champion and hero who he owes everything to. It’s also why he swears to avenge his death and really tries his damndest.
But then he discovers the horrible truth: Zeman was a corrupt bastard, a monster who died not as an innocent hero, but as a corrupt monster torturing a journalist. A man colluding with the bastards. A bastard actively helping exacerbate the horrors of the world for the sake of lining his personal pockets.
It only gets worse when he finds out when two other superiors he also trusted (Suk naturally has faith in authority) turn out to be Zeman’s partners. And it doesn’t get better when even the damn chief of the station is at the center of it. It’s why when all of these crooked cops are murdered mysteriously, the world only fractures further in Suk’s mind. Nothing makes sense. He’s distraught. His entire reality has been shattered. He now NEEDS to ‘solve’ this case and find the one man known to be alive in it all- Wolfgang Zimmer. Zimmer is his prime suspect because Suk needs someone to blame, someone to take in or stop, like in those hero-cop narratives he loved as a youth. He needs his clear-cut answers.
But he never gets them, for in his pursuit of Zimmer, he only learns what a genuinely lovely, decent man Zimmer is and has been from talking to various kids. He even sets a ‘trap’ for Zimmer and ‘gets’ him, but is just taken by how Zimmer is not at all the thing he’d desperately been hunting for initially. He doesn’t take in Zimmer. He instead trusts him and lets him go.
The act of doing that, of realizing how truly monstrous the peers and superiors he idolized as personal heroes were, and the possibility of ‘criminal suspects’ such as Zimmer being victims at the hands of his ‘heroes’, of them being good, decent people caught in mess, that feels like a huge leap for Suk here. He’s finally no longer seeing his reality through a mythologized black-and-white prism of constructed narratives. His response to his realities being shattered is to try to slowly rebuild it piece by piece, accepting his naivete, his ignorance, and being open to learn more and be more informed moving forward.
Throughout Monster, we see various people’s responses to their worlds being wrecked. It is perhaps the main thematic interest and preoccupation, and it’s iterated upon volume after volume. And if it’s done so here with Suk, it’s not just him. Even Zimmer, who comes in convinced of a monster behind the horrible Kinderheim 511 project has his reality shattered as he instead finds a much different man in Petrov. And the book dives into the notion once agan through Petrov, who ends up becoming the murder victim in the volume’s story. Here is a man who was once head of the Kinderheim 511 program (and fired and replaced, helping set the stage for it all to go to hell) and hoped to create people free from hate, apathy and destructive urges. The whole program was a mess by the end, of course, and Johan is the black hole at the center of it all. But how he’s coped with the horror of that, of watching his work and beliefs wrecked, feels telling.
Petrov gathers up a bunch of kids in poverty and raises them himself now. He denies that his vision was wrong or a failure, that the horrors occurred after he was long gone from Kinderheim 511. Initially it seems to be denial. It feels like delusion, and it’s what Zimmer believes. But as we get closer, we, along with Zimmer, see that it’s not denial or delusion, but a strange act of faith. It’s his very sincere, earnest response to the nihilistic terror he was confronted with. The children he raises here now are not the monsters Kinderheim 511 became identified with. These kids aren’t lacking in love or joy in the way Johan and his peers were. The sad truth of Petrov’s program and experiment was that no one can be truly completely free of hatred, apathy and destructive urges. Not always. Not forever. The best you can do is have faith that people’s better instincts can and will help them overcome their worst instincts.
And that notion is perhaps at the heart of Monster. It is, afterall, what the series’ entire conclusion is building to. Johan is hoping to see Doctor Tenma give into his worst instincts. He wants the best person he’s come across, a man he perversely views as a father figure, to completely burn away all his beliefs and cross lines he cannot come back from. Tenma is the beating heart of humanity that Johan hopes to ideologically extinguish and destroy to ‘win’ and conclude his story, even in his death and demise.
But it doesn’t happen. Instead, Tenma in the end rejects Johan’s vision. He adheres to his own refined principles and beliefs, and saves Johan, bringing the whole series to a perfect loop of sorts. Even looking at the ultimate horrific monster of mankind, Tenma is able to hold onto and retain his humanity. That is a tremendous amount of faith, and an incredible act of faith he’s performing. And that idea is at the crux of Monster.
Faith in the face of the horrible monstrosities of the human condition. That we all still have a choice when faced with all the horrors that haunt us.
Ritesh Babu is a writer and critic whose work has been featured in publications including PanelXPanel, ComicsXF, and ComicBookHerald. To find more from Ritesh, you can follow him on Twitter here!
Monster Vol #10: Picnic
Written by Naoki Urasawa
This post was made possible thanks to the Shelfdust Patreon! To find out more, head to our Patreon page here!