Welcome to the Wellington Comic Lover’s Guide, where we take you through the Wellington City Libraries’ collection of a comic book character. This post is all about Japan’s first manga sensation, the super-powered robot Astro Boy, and his recent adaptation, the science-fiction crime comic PLUTO.
(Astro as seen in the 2003 anime – GIF via Tenor)
(Atom from the 2023 adaptation of PLUTO – GIF via Tumblr)
Who is Astro Boy?
Astro Boy (‘Tetsuwan Atomu‘ in Japanese) was created by Osamu Tezuka, one of Japan’s most prolific cartoonists, and published from 1952 to 1968 in his original run (then adapted into several anime and a feature film). While the series was drawn in a light-hearted style inspired by old Disney cartoons, Tezuka used Astro Boy to explore heady themes about environmentalism, war, prejudice, and the cost of technological advancement.
In a futuristic world where humans and robots co-exist, Astro was built by roboticist Dr Tenma as a replacement for his deceased son, Tobio. When Astro failed to live up to Tenma’s expectations, he sold Astro to a circus, where he was rescued by the kindly Dr Ochanomizu. Designed with ‘100K horsepower’ and an array of gadgets like jet boots and finger lasers, Astro’s greatest strength is his emotional intelligence, as he often finds himself acting as a mediator between robots and humans when they come into conflict.
We have the first eight collections of the original Astro Boy run by Tezuka on our eLibrary Libby, plus a graphic novel of the first collection.
On eLibrary (Libby)
We also have a spin-off of the original Astro Boy series by Tezuka, A-tomcat, in which a young boy becomes friends with a cat who has all of Astro Boy’s abilities.
What is PLUTO?
Astro Boy‘s most famous story arc is ‘The Greatest Robot on Earth’, in which a colossal, powerful robot named Pluto begins hunting down and destroying the seven most advanced robots in the world, including Astro (you can read it in Astro Boy Volume 3). It was one of Astro’s biggest challenges, requiring him not only to increase his power to match his new rival, but also learn to reason with Pluto, who turned out to be more sympathetic than initially believed. This storyline was adapted by artist Naoki Urasawa into PLUTO, a manga for mature readers (seinen) between 2003 and 2009, and later turned into an anime for Netflix in 2023.
In PLUTO, the seven most advanced robots are destroyed and have their bodies left with objects resembling horns sticking out of their heads. Not only that, each robot’s human creator is hunted down as well, with the crime scenes left in a way that indicates only a robot could have done the deed. There’s just one problem: it’s impossible for a robot to kill a human. Or is it?
While Astro (here called Atom) is still in the story, the main character of PLUTO is the detective robot Gesicht (pronounced GEH-sicked), who is tasked with investigating the case. As the plot unfolds, he learns the deaths of the robots and their inventor are tied to a vast conspiracy involving a recent controversial war, a secretive anti-robot hate group, and Atom’s original creator, Tenma.
Urasawa’s PLUTO is the ‘gritty adult version of a childhood property’ done right. It expands on Astro Boy‘s themes and setting to tell a new story with classic characters, who gain a far greater amount of depth than they were allowed in the original Tezuka story. PLUTO’s themes about prejudice being the likely human response to living with robots and the psychological harm from conflict has never been more relevant in an era of ongoing wars, political extremism, and the pressing fear of AI replacing human labour. Yet, due to the presence of Atom/Astro Boy, it contains an element of irrepressible hope for a better, kinder world where we can overcome hatred and difference.
With its recent pitch-perfect adaptation to anime, it’s never been a better time to read PLUTO, and it may only grow more prescient with time.
How to read PLUTO
The complete story of PLUTO is collected in eight tankoban volumes.