Powerful Panels: Halloween Edition Part II - What You Can't See Will Scare You: The Unseen Terrors of Naoki Urasawa

by far the most terrifying things are those which elude us
-Georges Bataille

While Jesse has taken a look at some of the more terrifying moments in the venerable horror comics genre, some of the scariest comics I've ever read aren't horror comics at all, but are sci-fi manga. Books like Otomo's Akira--seriously maybe the most terrifying thing I've ever read--and Naoki Urasawa's 20th Century Boys and Pluto are frightening not only because they ask important questions about the possible ramifications of technology, but by their creators' ability to create an atmosphere of dread centered on some unseen and terrible power.

This technique of enhancing fear by occultation certainly isn't new and it is flawed insofar as eventually you've gotta show just what it is that is so scary. Urasawa manages to avoid this flaw and thereby redefine what is scary in comics in a couple of ways. First, he doesn't rely on suspense to move his stories forward and instead reveals the nature of the threat early on--like, you know what it is but you don't know what it's going to do. Thus Urasawa's is a terror of suggestion and dread, a psychological fear which is far more awful and satisfying than mere "heart-pounding" suspense. Urasawa also stays ahead of the need to simply reveal his monsters by constantly changing the stakes in his stories, demonstrating repeatedly that everything that readers might have thought was sacred up to a certain point no longer matters at all.

20th Century Boys:

Each of the three panels shown here depicts the apocalyptic robot weapon created by the Friends cult to terrorize Tokyo in December 2000. Though each panel illustrates the same beast, each is terrifying in different ways in large measure due to their context.

20th Century Boys Volume 2

The first couple of volumes of the series are concerned with laying down the basics of the story and readers are just becoming accustomed to the rhythm of the series's jumps in time. The panel from volume 2 comes as the derelict-prophet Kamisama recounts one of his prophetic dreams. Thus readers are getting one of their first real tactile tastes of the devastation that is in store for Kenji and his friends and it is massive and foreboding.

20th Century Boys Volume 4

A lot has happened by the time we get to the next panel taken from the final pages of volume 4. Kenji's convenience store has burnt to the ground; he has been branded a terrorist by the Friends-infiltrated government; and he and his friends are now living underground preparing to fight an enemy they know next to nothing about. As Kenji and his childhood friend Otcho are led by the Friend himself into the warehouse where the robot is being stored, the scale of the thing is apparent. Kenji's observation that the thing's glowing eyes seemed to be watching them pretty much nails the terror in this panel.

20th Century Boys Volume 5

Volume 5 of 20th Century Boys is a prime example of Urasawa's tendency to change the stakes in the middle the game. This final panel comes early in the volume, right after the group's abortive attempt to kidnap the Friend's right-hand man, now an important government minister. The date is December 31, 2000, zero hour for the Friends' millenarian plans. But when you see that robot moving through the streets of Tokyo, just at the moment Kenji and his group seem at their weakest, you cannot help but think, this isn't the way this is supposed to happen. The good guys are supposed to stop the nefarious plans of the villains and go on to live happy lives, right? In short measure it becomes clear that this isn't right at all and this is precisely why Urasawa is so good at terrifying readers again and again.


Each of the panels or pages I've scanned from Pluto also depict the same thing, even though they sorta don't. At a basic level, each panel shows Pluto, a robot bent on destroying each of the world's most advanced robots. The reason for my equivocation, however, is that as Pluto develops, it becomes clear that the identity of the eponymous character is a bit more complex than it first appears.

Pluto Volume 1

This page, taken from the early pages of the series's first volume, show the robot detective Gesicht reviewing the memory chip of a security robot that was destroyed. As the page indicates, the robot's attention was distracted for a split second by what appears to be a human, jumping from one building to another so quickly that the robot only registers it as a blur. That suggestive blur, so minuscule and yet powerful enough to distract a robot-cop sufficiently to allow a drug addled hoodlum to destroy him is among the series first terrifying moments.

Pluto Volume 2

This next page also depicts Pluto, in this case as he prepares to destroy the Turkish warrior robot Brando. Pluto's obscured appearances in these early volumes is terrifying not only because we never get a complete picture of the thing, but also because of his ability to summarily destroy what are supposed to be the world's most powerful weapons. Finally, take another look at the close-up of Pluto's eyes; there is a humanity to them that enhances the terror, an effect that will be magnified in later illustrations.

Pluto Volume 3

This panel from volume 3 is a bit of an oddball, since it only becomes clear later in the series that the giant in the desert is probably Pluto. At this point in the story, however, all we know is that this terrifying silhouette was seen by a small Persian boy just after his village had been completely destroyed in the war. The terror of this image comes from a compounding of the creepiness of the obscured image itself, the massiveness of the figure and the disabling terror that the image has wrought into the little boy.

Pluto Volume 6

The final page, coming near the end of volume 6, shows the confrontation between Pluto--or what we've known as Pluto for most of the series--and Gesicht. What is terrible about the images on this page is not just those horrible gnashing teeth at the top of the page, though they are frightening enough, but even more those eyes, that look of terror, anguish and recognition that is so very human. As I mentioned above, you get a suggestion of this in the panel from volume 2, but in this case it is more extreme. At this point in the story, we have a better idea of what Pluto is, his origins and identity and thus the suffering in those eyes is more devastating. With this volume, as with volume 5 of 20th Century Boys, Urasawa completely changes the stakes and it is unclear what direction the series will take in volume 7.


Rod McKie said...

Excellent piece. Enjoyed it immensly.

david e. ford, jr said...


thanks very much for reading and the kind words.