The bright white cover of Naoki Urasawa's Monster (VIZ Signature) belies the subject matter of this gloomy suspense series: a serial killer story centered around a gifted Japanese surgeon who may have saved the life of a nine-year-old murderous psychopath.
Set in Düsseldorf, Germany, both before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Monster's hero, Dr. Kenzo Tenma, is introduced as a young brain surgeon on his way up in the highly politicized world of Eisler Hospital. He's engaged to the beautiful and acquisitive daughter of the hospital's director and appears to have it made until a young boy and traumatized girl are brought into the ER. Their parents, a former East German advisor and his wife, have been murdered while the boy Johan has been shot in the head.
Our hero, still smarting over the death of an Arab laborer from the night before, saves the young boy, but at significant cost to his career. He refuses to leave the operating theater when a politically important patient is also brought into the hospital ("No life is worth more or less than another," he states more than once, but as the story progresses, this belief will be severely tested), and the politico dies. Fast-track Kenzo is quickly relegated to a less prestigious position in the hospital; his promised promotion to director of surgery is taken away from him and his fiancé quickly dumps him for a new rising star. In frustration, Kenzo vents his anger to the seemingly unconscious Johan. And before you can say, "Careful what you wish for," both the director and Kenzo's rivals are slipped some poisoned hard candy.
The story quickly moves forward to 1995 – where Kenzo is once more firmly established in Eisler Hospital. A series of murders is in the news, and they look to be duplicates of the killings that originally brought Johan and his sister to the doctor's attention. Investigating both sets of slayings: Inspector Lunge of the Bundeskriminelamt (the German equivalent of the FBI), who looks to be this series' Javert. Sharp-eyed and with a fully catalogued memory that he accesses by tapping an imaginary keyboard at his side, Lunge is sure that Kenzo is connected to the still-unsolved hospital killings. This suspicion will doubtless be compounded when a potential witness to the serial slaying dies while under Dr. Tenma's care.
Throughout the first volume, there are hints that the boy and his sister are connected to something larger. The candies that were used to poison the hospital director, for instance: were they meant for their final victims or for Johan himself? Our serial killer is described by one of his henchmen as a monster, and his ability to show up from one place to the next borders on the preternatural.
Too, throughout the book we're regularly reminded of the first killings' political dimensions. "I thought the world would be a better place with the fall of the Berlin Wall," one disgruntled cop observes as he contemplates the city's escalating crime rate, "but nothing good has come out of it." As with Kenzo's moral decision to save the life of that helpless boy, what seems to be a positive act has possibly led to negative consequences.
Urasawa lays this potentially murky morass straightforwardly. If at times his characters speak more bluntly and thematically than necessary, in part this can be seen be seen as characteristic of the diagnostic world in which they live. Urasawa's art is clean and immediately accessible to Western eyes, while his page layouts frequently can be quite compelling (he's especially strong setting up silent suspense sequences, but can be equally striking just building up to a significant conversation between Kenzo and his flighty fiancé).
Rated for "older teen" readers, Monster has its bloody murderous moments (not to mention a few overhead brain surgery shots), but it's nothing that a CSI fan can't see any night in pre-prime time reruns. Me, I wonder how many teen readers will get caught up in this well-mounted serial's moral ambiguities which, in best noir fashion, are effectively designed to make the reader question what at first seem fluorescently lit moral certainties.