I’m going to be totally honest: I’m a recent Naoki Urasawa fan. I’ve seen many, many creators out there speak volumes about his work on manga like “Pluto”, “Monster” and “20th Century Boys”, but it took a trip to Portland and coming across the first couple volumes of “Boys” to finally take a leap into that pool. And what a leap it was, as Urasawa’s manga has been some of the most exciting comic work I’ve read over the last year. When I heard that VIZ Media was releasing another of his works – “Master Keaton” – in English for the first time, I couldn’t resist.
This manga series released its first volume in English in December, and it finds Urasawa, Hokusei Katsushika and Takashi Nagasaki telling the tale of Taichi Hiraga Keaton, a half Japanese/half English archaeology teacher and insurance investigator who is equal parts Indiana Jones and MacGyver, but all awesome. This volume digs into twelve chapters of his life, and while each episodic element exists as quality standalone tales, they all work together to help build up the world, history and family of Keaton while also unleashing one of the great characters in fiction at the same time.
And I don’t mean to speak in hyperbole, but it’s true: Keaton has immediately leaped near the top of my list of favorite characters ever after reading this first volume. His calm, collected nature and ability to get through anything makes him endlessly fun to read, but his practicality and surprising foibles make him not just feel real, but relatable. He’s not an unrealistic superman, but he is a true Qehriman, as one character calls him at one point in the book. Not only is he incredible to read, but he approaches so many different scenarios – a former teacher of his in the SAS entering the drug trade, the confusion an odd relic causes him, his daughter’s relentless attempts to get he and his ex-wife back together – with such alacrity that it makes the book an endlessly compelling read. You’re excited to read because he’s excited to adventure, and it’s hard not to love for that reason.
It’s not just Keaton, though, as supporting characters like Keaton’s daughter Yuriko and his father Taihei are fully realized as well. The pair of them bring a lot to the book when they appear, and they never cease to amuse and amaze. Other characters, like Keaton’s former instructor James Wolf, are there as instigators to stories, but they’re never just used as devices. They have their own fully realized identities, and that makes them all the more valuable.
The book itself is very smart, with the trio of creators not just telling a ripping yarn but delivering stories in ways that actually teach readers new things. Do you know how to how to create a still in the desert or how to tell your location simply using the North Star, a string and a rock? Probably not. But you will after reading this comic, which helps educate even while it entertains. It works so seamlessly into the story because Keaton’s such a clever guy, and so many story solutions come from the fact that he has an answer for nearly everything. His answers help deliver real knowledge to you, the reader, and it makes the read not just a fun one, but a valuable one.
Throughout the twelve chapters, one of the things that surprises is just how drastically the tone shifts without losing the book’s identity. At times, the book had me laughing out loud. At another time, it nearly brought me to tears. It’s an amusing book always, but the team never ceases to deliver emotional weight with its stories no matter how much they make you smile. IT gives the book a consistently surprising feel, and makes the book overall a far more well-rounded experience. It’s not schizophrenic, it’s just episodic in a way that sends Keaton into drastically different situations with him always being the constant.
Because it’s Urasawa, it’s also a really good looking book. The art is effective but never showy, as it draws readers into the story but never going over the top to shove something down readers throats. There are moments, like sad memories of Keaton’s mother in a field of Pennyroyal or the endlessly hilarious Taisuke (a Chow/St. Bernard mix Taihei picked up that is fat and adorable), that the art elevates to much higher planes, and shows off Urasawa’s abilities as a cartoonist and storyteller. Also, because of the book’s connection to famous pieces of art and world history, the book clearly required a lot of visual research, and you can see the care Urasawa puts into respecting the art and history of Keaton’s world. This wasn’t a quick project. This was something he clearly cared deeply about, and you can see it on each and every page.
The packaging itself is very nice too, with the paper being of a high quality, the presentation of the covers fitting it very well, and a lot of thought clearly went into designing it. I’d say that my only complaint about the book is the fact that some pages – very few, but some – are in color. It seemed like an awfully odd choice to make – by my count – 12 of the book’s 318 pages in color. For me, I’d preferred it to have been all black-and-white for consistency sake.
“Master Keaton” and its first volume is a wildly enjoyable read, with an incredible lead character that makes the book a breeze to read and easy to get hooked on. I heartily recommend it, and the good news is, there are eleven more volumes to follow. There’s a lot more where this one came from, and I for one can’t wait to go back and read more of Master Keaton’s adventures.