Long ago, there was a man the birds trusted so much, they’d land on his shoulder. When he reached out his arm like this, the birds of the forest would perch on it. He spent his whole childhood in the woods with the birds. Then Hitler came to power. . .and he went to work for the kriminal-polizei.
He really believed that the German Workers Party would realize the ideals of socialism in this country. Then, one day, he was given an assignment. A fugitive was on the run in this forest. The man knew the forest well, so they sent him to catch this fugitive. He had orders to shoot on sight.
He chased the fugitive through the familiar forest. He ran and ran . . .
But when he caught up to the fugitive, he wasn’t some terrible criminal. He was just an ordinary foreigner. Still, it wasn’t the man’s decision. So he carried out his orders.
After that, the birds never landed on his shoulders again.
For sixty years. . .
He’s been apologizing ever since, for sixty years. . .I’m sorry. . .I’m sorry. . .But the birds never come near him.
More than thriller, more than mystery, the genre that best describes “Monster” is Tragedy. With each focal character shift, we are treated to a parade of moral failings and mistakes, marching these characters further and further from safety. We watch with fear in our eyes and dread in our hearts, fully aware that every step they take sets them further along the inexorable path towards doom.
Have a Drink on Me: Spoilers ahead
One of Naoki Urasawa’s great strengths is his ability to craft narratives about regular people with deep flaws, get us to care about them in a short amount of time, and then have them suddenly die. Or, more accurately, be killed. It’s no surprise that there is a high volume of death in a comic called “Monster” but each new death remains impactful and every near miss stressful, even four volumes in.
Take the private investigator Richard Brown. When we met him last volume, he was beginning to put together that the death of the other university student was not a suicide. In Volume 4, as the focal character of the first 6 chapters, we learn more about Brown’s life. He was an alcoholic, trying to reconnect with his wife and daughter, obsessed with closing all his cases, and, when he was unable to, he slipped farther and farther into the bottle. When you stare into his eyes, you see the sadness that weighs him down from all his decisions, and from the difficulty in making amends. Throughout the volume, we watch as he delves deeper into the strange happenings around Hans Georg Schwald, Johan, and all the cold cases he once investigated, and the danger that investigation brings to him.
Because 6 entire chapters are dedicated to him, there is plenty of time to see who he is now, what he desires, and how the harshness of life builds him up only to break him down again. When he thinks he’s going to see his daughter again, he is overjoyed, despite the spectre of whisky always at the back of his dry, dry throat. So, when he is denied that bit of redemption, we know what he is going to do before he does it. It’s inevitable. Or, at least, getting closer than he’s been in years before righting himself.
But we see the weakness. We see the monsters that lurk in his mind and we see just how close he is to falling to tragedy. And we are left with the question of just how much, or how little, it will take to actually break him.
How It’s Made: Murderer Edition
Johan, the anti-Tenma, the man who inspires not goodness, not repentance, but guilt and shame and sorrow, has taken on a larger role since reappearing in the back-half of volume 3. Up until now, Johan has taken on three roles: that of the direct killer, that of the shadowy manipulator, and that of the perfect, smooth-talking man. The later has been the bulk of his on-page presence, asking us to question just what his true intentions and plans are, and how much of who he is, is genuine. He does so many good deeds. He seems to care for Neuman and the children he takes care of.Continued below
Prior to this volume, that answer was not clear but as the chapters go on, we see, slowly, chillingly, just how powerful Johan is, and how well he acts as an instrument of tragedy.
Before and after the death of Richard, there are hints as to how Johan operates, how he manipulates people to his own end. At times, his actions seem benevolent, or even contradictory to what seems to have been set up, such as Johan revealing that Neuman is Schwald’s son rather than killing Neuman and passing himself off as the son, a moment that should be a relief and a joy but instead, it births a feeling of dread and sorrow, as Neuman becomes isolated from Lotte and Johan’s true intentions begin to surface. That benevolence turning to tragedy, as is the case with the children he takes care of.
But, the big reveal, the showing of his hand, is in the end of Chapter 55 and Chapter 56, where, just to really twist the knife, Urasawa has Richard’s daughter call to set up a meeting, right as Johan knocks on the door. From there, Johan uses his honeyed words and silver tongue to systematically destroy Richard’s mind, confronting him with his actions and all the regret and guilt he carries, to finally send him over the edge.
Johan never had to touch him, never had to threaten him. All he had to do was find his weakness, give it a nudge, and hand him the tools to his own destruction. It is in that moment, that panel, where Johan holds out the bottle to Richard with the words “What a heavy burden to bear,” that we see Johan role as a piece of the tragedy. As the one who provides the final push and the one who sets in motion the fall. That is what makes him so powerful. Because a tragedy, once begun, can only end in death and destruction.
Next week, we take a look at the mid-way point, Volume 5 (vol. 9 & 10 of the original release) and delve deeper into another of “Monster’s” big questions: what does it mean to kill?