The following was written on January 2nd, 2009:
So following my last post on the recently completed Naoki Urasawa’s MONSTER, I went for a drink with my friends Derek and Gary, and we shot the shit about the series over beers. I have to say I feel a lot better about the ending having bounced my thoughts off of a couple of smart, well-read comics fans.
Essentially, I wasn’t sure if all of the plot threads that had been developed had actually woven together in the end. My biggest problem was that the exact nature of the lessons were never really revealed. We even got to see into them at one point, but it seemed to be mostly recitations of a few songs and books… I ended up filling in the gaps, realising that the same sort of subliminal manipulation that Johan had been using throughout the series is the same way that he was manipulated, that the books/songs were part of that… but considering the volume of… data… dumped on the reader in the last few volumes, it would’ve been nice to get more than a peak through a partially-opened door. But yeah, I made my peace, and the theme of tearing down society being repeated from small to large (Johann manipulating individual children, the orphanage, the cartels, and finally a whole town) helped put all of it into perspective.
The other thing that bothered me was the cross-dressing. It was immediately obvious to me that Nina and Johann were switched during the scenes with the children being taken away to the Rose Mansion the first time, that it was Nina that was “awakened” and that Johan was fucked up in other ways, but I don’t understand why they were both dressed as girls as children. I suppose it’s because their mom would’ve gotten kicked out if she had two children rather than one? I don’t remember that being addressed though, and it just struck me as a little “surprise for surprise’s sake.”
Finally, I had a general sense of unease about the very ending, the conversation between Tenma and the twins’ mother, and the ‘conversation’ between Tenma and Johan. Essentially, I thought the former should have been more explicit, and the latter seemed like a cheat. My friend Derek put forth the theory that the conversation between Tenma and Johan really didn’t happen, and instead, Tenma’s dream was actually the content of his conversation with the mother. Johan wouldn’t have known about the mother’s decision. That kind of works, for me, but it requires some logical leaps that aren’t really in the story. I’m inclined to be more foregiving because I enjoyed everything up to the end very much, MONSTER is really a fantastic page-turning read, but I also feel it’s the kind of series that, because it turned on its plot reveals, needed an ending that was really conclusive and put all of the toys back in the box. Abhay has the right idea in the comments section:
“I was really disappointed with Monster’s ending when I read it, but having looked at it again since, I think it’s an okay set of chapters on its own terms, that just suffers just in terms of the expectations that are built going into it, based upon 17 previous books with more at stake. On its own terms it’s as thoughtful and entertaining as any previous episode– just as an ending, I felt disappointed.” – Abhay
…and then I stopped writing. I got distracted by the site re-design, and my manga industry posts, and tenthousand other things. And now it is February 16th and I have something to add.
Since beginning to write a follow-up on my reaction to Monster, I’ve had a chance to really ruminate on the series and discuss it with people. A good number of my customers read this site now, and so they’ll come in to the store after reading something I’ve written here and ask me questions like “So you didn’t like Monster’s ending… should I keep reading it?” and my gut reaction is “Yes, of course.” Not because I’m a salesperson (heh) but because when I think about the time I spent reading Monster, I realize that I really, really enjoyed it. My disatisfaction with the ending was for what I thought were very specific reasons, but the ending very clearly didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the rest of it. And! And the more I thought about it, the more I really enjoyed it.
Okay, I’m going to stop talking in bold.
So, I went back and read the comments to my last post on Monster a couple of times and I think that, really, there are different readings of the series and some of them work and some of them don’t. Myk, one of the commenters, said this:
Well, it’s been something like two years since I read Monster, but I always thought that, as much as it is a riff on the classic “innocent fugitive wants to prove his innocence” theme, it is also an allegorical take on the creation process of an author.
Case in point, the huge role that books play in the second half of the series, how theMonster is created and all that. I saw Tenma and Johann as the two main forces an author has to fight with, when creating a work of fiction.
Tenma – the good guy – as the author’s side that is necessarily in love with the characters he created, who wants to preserve them, save them and keep the safe from harm.
Johann on the other hand as the destructive force, that knows that there must be destruction, tragedy, to propell the story forward to a conclusion.
So is Monster just an author’s extended internal monologue on how to treat his creations? Might be. Might be I’m reading too much into it. But at the very least I think people are not giving Urasawa quite as much credit as would be due. – Myk
And that’s fair. And the more I think about it, I do think that judging the series entirely on how it sets up, and then follows-through, on the plot is maybe not entirely fair to the work. Or as Myk said, extending enough credit to the author. I know that in the one comic I’ve written in the last 20 years, the plot wasn’t nearly as important as emotion and resonance, and so maybe I should extend the same consideration to the author?
Further, as you can see above I really was starting to come around on the plot, that most of my initial problems with how it came together worked themselves out once I was able to start a dialogue about the work. Sort of like an impromptu book-club, discussing the work to see if it succeeded or not. In short, I think Naoki Urasawa’s Monster is a successful series (though not without its problems), and I feel a lot better about it now then after I read the whole series in a single day (surprise, surprise). I’ve got no problem recommending it to folks, and I’ll be keeping copies of all 18 volumes on my bookshelf, to be re-read again sometime (maybe with a bit of a break between volumes though…).
Thanks to everyone who chimed in with their thoughts on the series both in the comments and at the store!