I just finished the first volume of Naoki Urasawa’s Monster, and that’ll probably be the last one I read. Partly, I’m annoyed by the conspicuous and painful contrivances — I mean, how many times can simultaneous brain surgeries on a poor person and a rich person be required in the same German city in the same week, anyway?

But while the melodrama is over-determined, the real problem is that the book is glib in other ways. The point of the first volume is the various moral dilemmas faced by Dr. Kenzo Tenma, a amazingly accomplished Japanese brain surgeon living and working in Germany. The stumbling block is that the book never really contemplates for an instant presenting Tenma as anything but a moral paragon, which rather undercuts the efficacy of said dilemmas. Really, Tenma’s big bad sins in the first volume are to (a) be mildly ambitious, and (b) to spout off out loud to an unconscious person about how he’d like to kill the folks who wrecked his career and life. Those are barely even sins, and the rest of the time we see him running himself to exhaustion to save lives, neglecting his own career advancement and romantic life, and generally being a paragon of virtue.

Having such a strong moral beacon in the central role pretty much vitiates the ethical questions that appear to be the heart of the book. In Middlemarch, as a contrast, the doctor, Lydgate, is both really likable, morally upright — and actually swayed by money and romance to do some fairly awful things. Because Lydgate is a flawed human being, his choices are much more involving; the fact that he occasionally falls makes his occasional triumphs — and those of others — have an actual weight and beauty.

Tenma, on the other hand, comes across as a hollow prig; the dilemmas he faces have to be ridiculously contrived, because he simply, and improbably, isn’t subject to normal human failings. The result is sententious and irritatingly stupid; every demonstration of Tenma’s nobility just makes me want to say, “give me a fucking break.”

Adding to the annoyance is a fairly strong suspicion that part of the point of the manga is to allow the Japanese to pat themselves on the back for their purity and general moral superiority. The giant noses of all the Caucasians are fun to look at, but the standard noble-Japanese-struggling-to-retain-his-purity-in-corrupt-old-Europe thing is a lot less enjoyable. Nor am I all that taken with the hoary idea that serial killers have something important to tell us about the human condition/human morality/our inner selves. I’ve seen that film, thank you, and as far as I”m concerned Kevin Spacey and Anthony Hopkins can be sealed in a concrete container and dropped in the Mariana Trench where they can overact at each other and various species of deep-sea fish for all eternity.

I know lots of folks have liked Monster, and it’s certainly possible that things get less stupid at some point later in the series. And the art is quietly skillful in a Tezuka vein. But I think I’d much rather pursue the trashier Gantz, which manages to be a lot more thoughtful and truthful about morality by the simple expedient of not idolizing its central characters.

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