Of all the comic books and manga that I have read over the years, Monster in particular caught my attention in a different way; than usual; most of the time when I first find out or hear about a comic, it’s either through watching the anime, reading the solicitations from the company, or just by randomly seeing them on the shelf of a book store. This series, however, I first heard about through a TV commercial back in 2006. Yes, at one point, Naoki Urasawa’s Monster in its manga form was advertised on TV. When was the last time you have seen any manga or comic advertised on TV?
From there, I checked out the series and fell in love with it back in 8th grade and followed it to the very end as new volumes came out. To this day, it’s one of my favorite comics of all time and it was a shame that it slowly went out of print, making it hard for new people to check it out. However, many years later in 2014, Viz Media is re-releasing the series in a special edition format where its two volumes in one called: The Perfect Edition. With plenty of new changes here, let’s see what this new collection has to offer. Is it good?
Monster: The Perfect Edition Vol. 1 (Viz Media)
Written and Drawn by: Naoki Urasawa
Translated by: Satch Watanabe, Agnes Yoshida (Original) and Camellia Nieh (New Release)
The year is 1986 in Düsseldorf, Germany. At Eisler Memorial Hospital, there is a young and brilliant doctor by the name of Kenzo Tenma who is living the high life. His skills as a surgeon are unparalleled, he’s the Chief of Neurosurgery at his very young age, the director of the hospital completely respects and loves his work, and he is also going to marry the director’s daughter, Eva Heinemann. Everything seems to be going just great for him.
However, his views and personal beliefs are slowly being shaken and changed by events around him. The entire hospital’s political view on patients and who really matters is beginning to clash with his personal stance that all should be entitled to his help. This comes to light when Tenma is confronted by a widow of a woman who lost her husband after Tenma was moved away from his surgery to work on someone famous. It ultimately comes to a head when Tenma is confronted with a similar situation, where has to work on a mayor who promised the hospital a lot of money instead of a young boy with a bullet in his head who came in first.
Tenma makes his choice and pays for it, his whole world unraveling around him. However, that’s not all that happens — all that I can say without spoiling anything else is that a very long, thrilling, mysterious road lies straight ahead for Tenma and the readers.
I have read this entire comic from start to finish several times now and honestly, this is a very extensive, complex, multi-layered story with many, MANY unique and memorable characters, shocking twists and turns, lots of storylines and mysteries, deep themes, morals, and ideas, and several other elements. As such, even at the beginning of it all, it’s hard to even know where to start and what to exactly discuss without diving into spoilers.
The first few chapters are a slow burn — establishing the setting, the cast of characters, and the themes and ideas (To be fair, most of the volume is essentially setting things up for how the rest of the series will go). At this point, it almost feels like a medical drama with the hospital politics and the discussion of morality with the doctors, than a murder mystery crime thriller/drama. That however changes and moves away from that around chapter 5, when the book really kicks it up a notch and gets far more thrilling and exciting. That’s where all the twists, shocks, and changes go down. I guarantee you that you’ll be completely hooked by the halfway mark and want to read more and more when it’s all over. Admittedly, some plot points may seem a bit odd, but they do generally end up making sense as more and more is revealed as the series goes on. The story is very good, even though I can’t really get into much of the details.
Our main character is primarily Kenzo Tenma and he is a very compelling and likeable protagonist. He’s one of the most fleshed out and developed characters I’ve seen so early on a comic series. You understand who he is, his backstory, why he does what he does, his behavior, and his morals and ideals he strives to live by. You also see him grow and watch as the things he held dear and believed in change or be challenged. It really draws you into his struggles and challenges he faces, hoping desperately he is able to overcome them.
There are other characters besides him and there’s not much I can really say about them for various reasons. One reason is that there are heavy spoilers around them, including some early twists, despite they are the other main characters in the book that are followed around. The second reason is that some characters, like Dr. Becker, don’t really have any impact on the story much and are there to really there to establish the tone, mood, and themes of the story. The third reason is that a lot of these characters are not really all that special or well defined at this stage of the game (they are important and a bit interesting, but they haven’t come into their own yet), with later storylines or events that develop them, like Eva or Inspector Lunge.
What a lovely person.
Urasawa’s writing is strong overall. He paces and structures the story very well. Every scene flows and transitions well into the next and the characterization is relatively strong and everyone feels well defined and unique from one another. There’s also the dialogue, but we’ll get into that later. The point is that writing is fantastic, even though I’m deliberately leaving out some of the details to remain spoiler-free.
The artwork is also great. The layouts are well constructed, so there’s no trouble following the story at any points. The scenery and establishing shots are well-done, though there tends to be empty backgrounds a lot of the time. The angles, effects, and ways the images are set up really lead to powerful and chilling imagery, especially during chapter 9 in particular. Of course, that part is really helped along by the characters. This is really where the manga shines the most, with the designs and looks of the characters. I really like it when artists make their characters look unique, distinguishable from others, and full of expression and emotion; something a lot of artists struggle with doing. Just about every single character in this comic is different looking from each other, with their eyes, facial structures, body types, hair, noses, and more. Not one repeat anywhere (except maybe in the background if you squint hard enough) and that’s utterly amazing to me.
Now the big thing about the book I should really discuss is the fact that it’s a new edition. How does it compare to the original volumes (which all own)? What’s new and there to see? If you already have the original volumes, is it worth upgrading to this new edition? Besides it being a two-in-one collection, the size of the volume is now with the standard width and length of the rest of the Viz Signature line, so it should fit easier next to those volumes on your shelves.
Here’s a comparison between the regular Viz editions and the Signature ones. Also, all those other non-Monster comics are awesome.
On the inside of the book, there are a lot of French flaps, which seem a little pointless to me if nothing is written on them. There’s a see-through page so you can see the image on the next page, sort of similar to the Ooku: The Inner Chamber volumes. There’s now color pages in the book, which is very nice to see when compared to what the pages looked like in their original form (the original just had the pages in black and white) and they look rather good. Though the coloring seems to get muddier as it goes on until there are no more color pages. Also, thanks to the new size of the book, the images are stretched out a little bit on the inside to accommodate the new page dimensions. It doesn’t take away from anything mind you, but I’m just a bit confused by why some of the artwork was cut off around the edges.
There were two big things that stood out to me the most as I read the book. One is the fact that the book has an entirely new translation, which I actually appreciate. It could be a very simple and easy thing to do to take the original translation job Viz did and put it back into the new editions, but to their credits, they updated the book. Handling translation this time is Camellia Nieh (the previous volume had a strange rotating cast of translators), who had done work on Afterschool Charisma, a few Osamu Tezuka’s works (including MW, my arch-nemesis), Blood+, and Bokurano: Ours. This is where things get a bit iffy to me:
Both translations done by the original team and Camellia are good, but have their flaws. With the original team, there were a couple of mistakes in the volumes, like empty word balloons and mistaken identity of a character’s gender. The new edition corrects these errors thankfully and improves on the writing in some areas, like making some lines or moments make a bit more sense. Both versions keep the original Japanese sound effects in them (also still has a nice glossary at the back as well) to keep the versions consistent in some way. The new version adds in a bit of German language to make everything feel a bit more authentic to the setting of the series, like with the use of Herr and Frau instead of Mr. or Mrs. (though I am confused about the use of English names of Germany cities in the translation instead of the real German ones like the old version).
Where the problems with the new translation lie is solely in the dialogue. The dialogue is genuinely the same with its rewordings and in some areas it has improved over some lines in the original translation. However, a lot of lines sound completely unnatural, corny, or very inappropriate for the character to say due his/her personality or profession. For instance, when Dr. Tenma is performing surgery and some doctor is commenting on it, in the original version, the guy says: “Amazing!” In the new version, he says: “What a wizard!” Unless Tenma started idolizing Gandalf the Grey, that comes off as just a bit too goofy.
There’s also where Detective Lunge asks someone why he “iced” some people (the original version has him asked why the suspect “targeted” these people). Considering how serious and professional Lunge is as a character, it really makes no sense for him to talk like that. The oddest part of the translation though is that it cuts out almost all of the swearing. It’s not even the really harsh ones, like s**t of F-bombs; it’s words like damn, ass, bastard, etc. It doesn’t make sense and what does replace the swearing ends up sounding rather silly at points (this is a rated T+ for 16 and up by the way). I honestly don’t get it and this really all adds up to the original translation being the better of the two.
Last thing to note about the new edition is something that was rather surprising to me that I never expected to see. Some of the panels are redrawn or updated a little. I have no idea why these panels were redrawn at all and it’s really bad in terms of consistency. Here’s an example below of what I mean…
The original edition
The new edition
That’s what I mean by redrawn. Focusing on this particular image of Lunge, here’s the problem: outside of this scene, he never looks like that again in the rest of the book. Even in some of the panels, he doesn’t look like that, so it often looks like he ages and de-ages constantly throughout the scene. It’s not consistent with how he looks much later in the book, even after a time skip when it should be like he aged a bit. I just don’t get this decision to update some panels, since it honestly kind of hurts the book a bit.
Is it Good?
Monster: The Perfect Edition Vol. 1 is a great book. The story is fantastic, the writing is masterful at points, the main characters are really complex and compelling, the artwork looks amazing, and it’s only the beginning of a magnificent tale of suspense, thrills, and many shocks. The only true downside is some of the choices regarding the translation in this new re-release that don’t help the experience. If you are a person who never read this manga before or you only read/own a few volumes, now is the perfect time to check out this masterpiece and experience one of the best stories you’ll ever read in your life. For people who own the original volumes and are thinking of upgrading to the new editions, don’t do it unless some of the enhancements above sound appealing to you. You’ll be just fine with what you have.
Naoki Urasawa’s Monster: The Perfect Edition Vol. 1 is available from Viz Media on July 15. The original volumes of the series are out of print and go for absurd amounts nowadays (I’ve seen fifty in some places). If you were to get the original versions though, they’ll cost you about 10 bucks a piece, which is around the same price the new editions are (about $20). There is an anime adaption that covered the entire series and used to be owned by Viz before it was dropped (only 15 episodes were ever released on DVD). There is also a novel sequel called Another Monster that served as sort of an epilogue in a way that were never released state-side.