Here are four very different comics I’ve read and enjoyed in the past few months, from four different countries outside the US. No particular reason, other than it’s nice to broaden your horizons now and then.
Naoki Urasawa & Osamu Tesuka
Country of Origin: Japan
Pluto is a retelling of “The Greatest Robot on Earth,” a classic story from Tezuka’s Atom (Astro Boy) manga, a Pinocchio story of a small robot boy who proves over and again that robots have as much capacity for love and loyalty as any human. Atom, and by extension, Pluto, like all well-told robot stories, is an exploration of what it means to be human. It is for this reason that Atom must constantly show his humanity, oftentimes to much greater degree than humans themselves.
In Pluto, however Urasawa explores the notion that being human is about more than just our positive emotions. Our basest impulses are just as much a part of who we are, and so a robot who truly aspires to human equality must also experience darker impulses. Structurally, the story is a sci-fi murder mystery, and as such is thoroughly engrossing. But where Urasawa shines is in expressing the emotional lives of the robots struggling to assimilate into human society, in the aftermath of a major war in which these particular robots played a pivotal role.
At only eight volumes, Pluto is short for a manga series, and is a very satisfying read. I don’t read a great deal of manga, but this one grabbed me right from the start.
Logicomix: An Epic Search of Truth
Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos, and Annie Di Donna
Country of Origin: Greece
Tracing the origins of modern mathematics, Logicomix tells the life story of philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, and his years-long search for the logical foundations of mathematics. This is no small task—like many of the most fundamental concepts in philosophy, the closer you get to the foundations of mathematics, the more it seems that there are no foundations, that mathematics is an inconceivable self-supporting structure, resting on nothing.
This was a prospect unacceptable to Russell and other mathematicians of his time, but chasing an idea so abstract can have profoundly detrimental influence on its seekers, offering only madness as reward. The story of mathematics is one of profound intellectual struggle, bitter rivalries, and lethal consequences, coinciding with World War II as it did.
Fans of Jim Ottaviani or Jay Hosler in particular will be delighted by this entry into the graphic canon on the history of modern knowledge.
Color Trilogy (Color of Water, Color of Earth, Color of Heaven)
Kim Dong Hwa
Country of Origin: Korea
Slow and lyrical, tells the story of a young Ehwa’s sexual awakening in the Korean countryside, following her progress from the first hints of puberty through to her wedding night consummation. At the same time, we also see the growth of love in adulthood, as Ehwa’s widowed mother begins a new relationship with a traveling painter, her “Picture Man,” who shares her home when his business travels allow him to pass through her village. Perhaps leans a bit too heavily on the nature imagery, which can start to feel a little repetitive after a while, but if you like books with a very spare sensibility and a delicate touch, this will certainly appeal.
The Rabbi’s Cat (Vols. 1 & 2)
Country of Origin: France
I thought the way Sfar draws cats was quite bizarre, until I saw a photo of Sfar’s own cat, which looked exactly like the strange cat of his books. That aside, The Rabbi’s Cat is an utterly charming book about a widowed Rabbi, his marriageable daughter, and their cat, who has miraculously gained the ability to talk, as a direct result of committing a deliberate act of violence. Complicating matters for the Rabbi is the cat’s immediate request that he be permitted to study Jewish scripture, so as to undergo bat mitzvah. This leads to much debate on the matter of whether it is spiritually permissible to admit a talking animal into the teachings of God. The setting is Algeria in the 1930s, during a time of great tension between the religious peoples of the region.
Peopled with wonderfully charismatic figures, much colorful and animated debate follows, drawing in the Rabbi’s own master, as well as his students. The heart of the story lies in those conversations, which are both thoughtful and amusing, with constant commentary in the cat’s own pragmatic yet self-centered voice.
The second volume continues the exploration of strife within and between religions, as the rabbi, his cat, the rabbi's moslem cousin, and a pair of Russians (one Jewish, one Russian Orthodox) trek accross Africa in search of a legendary tribe of black jews who occupy a secret second Jerusalem. The story is less light-hearted, especially one tense sequence when the mixed band are guests of a tribe of fundamentalist moslems who wish to convert them. Still, it is engrossing and packs in plenty of humor around the more serious moments. The rabbi’s other cousin, Malka of the Lions, is a particularly memorable character who makes his living telling stories of his adventures, both real and imagined, and by “defending” children from the elderly lion who is, in fact, Malka’s traveling companion.