Monster 11 by Naoki Urasawa: A-

From the back cover:
More pieces of the puzzle to Johan’s past are uncovered in Prague! Everyone is after an old tape recording of an interview with Johan as a child, and Tenma learns more about Johan’s mother—a beautiful woman taken away by the secret police. And then Johan makes his presence known when a brilliant young detective of the Prague Police Department is accused of poisoning three of his superiors… with whiskey bonbons.

A timeline! Well, sort of. At least, there’s a chart with character descriptions and relationships, though it seems to indicate that the action in Prague is happening in 1996, which contradicts the letter Dr. Reichwein wrote a few volumes ago that was dated 1997. Maybe everyone is confused about the passage of time in this series! Anyway, on to the list.

Awesome Things:
1. The reveal about Grimmer’s background. I probably should’ve expected that, but I didn’t.

2. The truth behind the “Is Nina killing people?” subplot. I had considered this possibility, but the grand reveal was still nifty.

Super Awesome Things:
The tape! Any scene involving the tape is simply fabulous, the last chapter particularly.

Confusing Things:
1. Nina’s identity crisis. Nina returns to her childhood home and reawakens some memories, one of which involves welcoming herself home. Several times during this volume I had to remind myself that it’s confirmed that Nina and Johan are not the same person, because it kind of seemed that’s where the story was trying to go.

2. Johan’s agenda. It’s been stated previously that he enjoys playing with humans as if they were ants, just to mess things up. So, is he simply having fun making bad situations worse, or what? I still have no idea whether he has a grand goal or what it could possibly be. I also wonder how he always knows what’s going on, when shady organizations are making their move, etc.

I also have to wonder how exactly learning about Johan’s past is going to lead to some kind of resolution to the story. Granted, there are still seven volumes left, but as of right now, I have absolutely no clue how this will all end.

Monster 10 by Naoki Urasawa: A-

From the back cover:
“Cedok Bridge, the three frogs… the mother of the twins is in Prague.” A cryptic message from wealthy financier Schuwald sends Tenma to the city of a hundred spires. There, he meets Grimmer, an investigative reporter tracking down the former director of the infamous 511 Kinderheim orphanage. Could it be that the horrific experiments of the past are being recreated in Prague?

The intense events of Munich are left behind in this volume as Tenma travels to Prague to follow a tip from Schuwald. Most of the events are actually told from the perspective of freelance journalist Grimmer, who’s a very likable guy looking into abuse allegations at 511 Kinderheim.

The change of venue offered by this shift in the story is actually quite welcome, as it offers a slightly lighter read, even though there was a torture scene that was painful to watch. Two cool new characters are introduced, too. Grimmer helps Tenma out on a couple of occasions and discovers the location of a tape that will reveal more information about Johan’s past. Detective Suk is a newcomer to his job, very clean and earnest, but as he investigates the murder of his superior, he begins to realize that some people on the police force are not as respectable as they seem. Both are excellent examples of how Urasawa can introduce a new character and have him feel well-developed pretty much instantly.

Nina has also made her way to Prague and might possibly be killing people. It’s not certain yet, but it would be interesting if true. The picture book that freaked Johan out did make me think there might be a dark side to Nina, and it was she, not Tenma, who was capable of shooting at Johan during the book donation ceremony.

I like the direction the story has taken, and hope these new characters stick around.

Monster 9 by Naoki Urasawa: A

From the back cover:
When an unusual children’s book causes a disturbing reaction in Johan, it may provide an ideal opportunity for Tenma to fire a well-aimed sniper shot. Could this curious book created by an obscure Czech writer also be the key to unlocking more secrets of Johan’s enigmatic past?

I doubt any book donation ceremony has ever been as exciting as the one in this volume! I seem, however, to be lapsing back into plot summary with my reviews (Connie had a similar problem with this series), so will try very hard to fight that tendency. Maybe if I limit myself to lists it’ll help.

Awesome Things:
1. Interesting older characters. There’s a whole scene occurring between two older guys—Schuwald and Dr. Reichwein. The latter is kind of badass, too, even if he does look like Wilford Brimley.

2. Tenma’s confrontation with Roberto (!) and later with Johan. I also like how he muses upon past events while waiting for his opportunity to shoot Johan. It’s a neat way to remind the audience how things got to that point.

3. The growing group of people who are trying to unravel the Johan mystery. This includes Dieter, who is absolutely adorable and keeps foisting kaiser rolls on distressed people who need to eat.

Super Awesome Things:
The picture book! I was totally blown away by the inclusion of these sepia-toned pages telling the story that so freaked out Johan. Not only are they beautiful, but the tale is nice and creepy, too.

Slightly Confusing Things:
1. The mystery of Johan’s already muddled past thickens, as there is evidently a connection between his mother and Karl’s (the university student who is Schuwald’s son) back in Prague.

2. I can’t tell yet whether Lunge believes in Johan’s existence or not. He seems to, but he is kind of crazy himself and prefers his version of reality where Tenma is the killer, despite any evidence presented to the contrary.

There. That did work out better.

Monster 8 by Naoki Urasawa: A-

From the back cover:
Tenma is hot on Johan’s trail and he’s more determined than ever. Now in top physical condition and armed with a high-performance sniper rifle, has Tenma acquired the keen hunter’s edge necessary to bag his prey? Or will his physician’s instincts prevent him from carrying out his dreaded task?

The first and last chapters were the best in this volume, though, as ever, the whole thing was consistently good.

In the first chapter, Inspector Lunge pays a visit to Dr. Gillen, having seen the classified ad for Tenma that the latter placed (in volume seven) in the paper. Gillen analyzes Lunge some, which is great, and also shares with him the data on the various killings surrounding the elderly billionaire, Schuwald. Lunge proves once again how awesome he is by pretending to be swayed, saying he might’ve made a mistake in disbelieving Tenma’s story about Johan, and getting Gillen to tell him where Tenma is likely to be now.

Throughout the volume, Tenma has been observing Johan and plotting when and where would be the best place to shoot him. He finally decides on a ceremony for the donation of Schuwald’s book collection to the university library, and the very end of the volume is him hiding atop a stack with his sniper rifle while the library gets locked up for the night. It’s a terrific cliffhanger, and a pretty clever plot, too.

And in between, there are some entertaining chapters about the students at Munich University, an old guy in a forest, a game Johan instigated wherein children fall to their deaths from rooftops, a teen underground doctor, a prostitute’s attempt to blackmail Johan, Lunge’s efforts to understand Japanese people, and a very peculiar Czech picture book that makes Johan break out screaming and collapse. Like always, the side stories are never dull, but the picture book was obviously the most interesting development.

The passage of time issue continues to bother me. For example, Lunge refers to the events of volume five, wherein Tenma was almost nabbed by police while meeting with Dr. Gillen, as having happened in “May of last year.” Later, Lunge says that the classified ad was scheduled to run “from the 1st to the 22nd of May.” Does that mean that several weeks passed between volumes five and seven, or a year? I’m inclined to think the latter, since in volume seven, Dr. Reichwein was seen writing Dr. Gillen on 1.3.97 (March, by the European date format), but in volume six, Eva was talking about the events of volume one as having been a year ago, which seemed about right, so… I’m all confused.

Monster 7 by Naoki Urasawa: A-

From the back cover:
When Johan works his way into the inner circle of powerful financier Hans Schuwald, things get dicey for Richard Brown, a private detective hired to find Schuwald’s long-lost son. As Richard edges closer to a horrifying truth, his path clashes with Johan’s hidden agenda—and his unfortunate fate is all but sealed.

I’d say the back cover blurb was spoilery, but really, that’s pretty much what happens when you interfere with Johan.

Tenma appears very little this volume, which mostly focuses on the efforts of Richard Brown, an ex-cop turned private detective, to work out what his unsolved cases have in common. I love how Urasawa is able to flesh out this character so well and so quickly. Plus, his investigation is interesting, since it seems to indicate that Johan systematically murdered people close to the rich old dude (from the last volume) over a period of years to ensure he’d be good and lonely when Johan’s plan came to fruition.

I also like how everything Johan does is suspicious and how it’s not been confirmed yet whether the multiple personality thing is true. There’s a scene where I was sure he was going to betray a friend in a very straightforward way, and was dreading that even more than further killing, but then it didn’t play out as I was expecting. While on the one hand I really like being puzzled about Johan’s mental state and motives, sometimes the confusion gets to be a bit much. He has so many plots and schemes going that it’s difficult to keep them straight, and I really have no idea what’s up with these people pretending to be his parents.

Another thing I like about this volume is that Richard’s former therapist gets into the act of trying to prove Johan’s guilt, and brings the clinical psychologist from volume five back to help. Even though Tenma isn’t trying to prove his innocence, it’s still heartening to see that he isn’t alone anymore. Volume seven ends on a cliffhanger (I love Deiter) but I think I may need a mental palate cleanser before tackling volume eight.

Monster 6 by Naoki Urasawa: B+

From the back cover:
Tenma’s former fiancée Eva Heinneman’s life has gone downhill since the death of her father and her breakup with Tenma. Now she’s involved with a menacing man with a shady past and a mysterious connection to Johan. Meanwhile, Johan has worked his way into the graces of a powerful but lonely old financier. Could Johan be targeting this man for more than just his money?

Volume six picks up directly where the previous one left off, with Tenma fleeing the copycat crime scene where he had encountered Inspector Lunge. Lunge, for his part, is delayed in pursuit by the copycat killer, but this results in an AWESOME scene where Tenma is in a car, trying to get it to start, when Lunge suddenly appears and taps on the window. My reaction can only be described as, “Eeeee!” The rest of this first chapter is also great, as Lunge is wounded and Tenma would like to treat him, but Lunge is fixated on getting Tenma to confess.

Unfortunately, the rest of the volume is not as riveting, though it’s at least interesting. The story checks back in with Eva, who has hooked up with an assassin in Johan’s employ. He uses her to try to get into an ultra-secure villa where Tenma is treating a patient, but she betrays him, he shoots her, and, of course, Tenma patches her up. There’s a terrific panel at the end of these chapters where Eva is sharing a meal with the other guy (a criminal) that Tenma had been treating. It’s the perfect place for her to be at the moment, I think.

The last few chapters involve a likable pair of college students who work part-time for a very rich old man. One of them is writing a paper on him while the other is actually his son. Someone else is also claiming to be his son, so they team up to figure out who. Johan is involved for some as yet undisclosed reason, but what’s interesting about this story is that Johan either truly suffers from multiple personality disorder and is seen in his nice persona here, or he’s a manipulative actor extraordinaire. I lean toward the latter interpretation at present.

One thing that frustrates me about the series is it’s hard to tell exactly how much time has passed. As near as I can figure, it’s a little less than a year since Tenma was forced to go on the run, but it would be nice to be thrown an exact date every once in a while. Also, while these side trips are good, they’re not want I want to be reading about. Probably this is on purpose, though, to stoke the anticipation for a Tenma and Lunge reunion so that it’ll be extra exciting when it happens. If that’s the case, it’s certainly working.

Monster 5 by Naoki Urasawa: A

From the back cover:
Suspecting that Johan suffers from a multiple personality disorder, Dr. Tenma calls upon expert criminal psychologist Rudy Gillen to help him in his campaign to stop Johan. But will Dr. Gillen come to the same conclusion as the authorities—that Tenma is the killer with the split personality?

Wow, this volume is really good! I’m sure I could spend several hundred words just detailing everything that happened, but I’m going to try to avoid doing that.

The highlights for me are the first few and last few chapters. In the former, Tenma consults with a former classmate who is an expert in criminal psychology. Once he hears Tenma’s story, the classmate is dubious about Johan’s existence. It’s really neat seeing this dude interviewing an inmate, and then how that fellow’s story actually proves Johan is real. Also cool is that Tenma says he’s not out to prove his innocence, yet he manages to convince a traveling British couple of that fact when he refuses to abandon them when they have car trouble.

The middle is devoted to Anna and one of the detectives responsible for killing her parents. It’s useful, both to tie up loose ends and show what she’s up to, but it doesn’t really hold a candle to the smattering of scenes Tenma and Inpsector Lunge share. The last couple of chapters are absolutely phenomenal, as Inspector Lunge uses a copycat killing similar to Johan’s M.O. to lure Tenma out. This is such a clever plot twist; I am really impressed.

I certainly hope this cat and mouse game between Tenma and Lunge continues to the end of the series; it’s my favorite aspect of a great manga. I am literally going to be starting volume six in about five minutes.

Monster 4 by Naoki Urasawa: B+

From the back cover:
Johan is a cold and calculating killer with a mysterious past, and brilliant Dr. Kenzo Tenma is the only one who can stop him! Conspiracy and serial murder open the door to a compelling, intricately woven plot in this masterpiece manga thriller.

As Tenma uncovers more about the infamous 511 Kinderheim orphanage, Johan’s twin sister Anna sets out on her own to stop her brother. Their separate searches lead them both to a powerful neo-Nazi organization conspiring to establish Johan as their new superleader! Can Tenma and Anna stop Johan from becoming another Hitler?

In the last volume, Tenma received a clue from one of the officials involved with the orphanage. He was told to seek out General Wolf. So, what is he doing as volume four opens? Is he seeking out General Wolf?

He is not. Instead, he has gone back to investigating the murder of Nina’s parents and looking for one of the suspicious police detectives who were on the scene that night. The leads he follows eventually (and completely accidentally) lead him to a meeting with General Wolf, so at least that thread isn’t utterly abandoned, but his lack of immedate follow-up left me quite confused.

Most of this volume has to do with some men involved with the orphanage who want to lure Johan back to lead their neo-nazi group. They plan to do this by setting fire to the Turkish part of town. Johan’s sister Anna returns, also on the hunt for her murderous sibling, and agrees to serve as bait for her brother. But, of course, Johan doesn’t care for petty issues like racism, so he kills all the neo-nazi dudes instead. Tenma and Anna separately work to stop the fires, and eventually encounter each other in a climactic scene in a factory.

The fire plot is largely unrelated to the actual story of the manga, but it did provide some suspense, and it was good to see the characters acting so nobly. I really like Deiter, Tenma’s boy sidekick, who is brave and honest. Anna, too, has become a strong character; my favorite chapter of the volume reveals how she (like Tenma) spent months learning how to shoot in preparation for a confrontation with Johan.

Artwise, I didn’t notice any of the Tenma-headshot-on-white-background panels this time, which I appreciate. The visual pacing of the action scenes is terrific, as usual, but so are some of the quieter scenes, like those Anna shares with the former hitman in whose restaurant she was once employed. I absolutely love the panel where he’s standing forlornly on the station platform as her train pulls away.

I’m not sure how I feel about the new information about Johan that is revealed in this volume. I can easily picture it leading to lameness or to awesomeness, so I’ll have to wait and see before I form an opinion on it.

Monster 3 by Naoki Urasawa: B+

From the back cover:
Tenma’s on the run! A wanted man, he’s the prime suspect for the serial killings he’s trying to stop. But he still manages to edge closer to the truth about Johan’s mysterious past, and everything seems to point to a now defunct institution of East Berlin—an infamous “experimental” orphanage called 511 Kinderheim!

The pace is pretty slow in this volume, making it seem less like Tenma’s on the run and more like he’s on the mosey. He travels about, forming temporary alliances with locals (both virtuous and not so) and performing medical procedures when necessary. In between, he meets with a government official with information about 511 Kinderheim, the government-run orphanage where Johan once resided, and obtains a sidekick.

I was a little disappointed in the reveal about 511 Kinderheim because, just like in Blank Slate and other stories before it, it turns out to be an experimental program to mold kids into perfect soldiers, cold-hearted and compassionless. The official, who gets progressively more creepy until he reveals an obsession with Johan, claims that the program isn’t responsible for Johan’s murderous ways, however, since he was a monster from the start. He does, at least, give Tenma a clue about where to go next, and I thought it was cool that Tenma ends up rescuing an abused boy from his clutches. I thought for sure something terrible would end up happening there.

The art is a mixed bag. Some images are gorgeous, the exteriors of homes particularly. Urasawa uses a wide variety of character designs, and I particularly like the way Tenma is drawn. However, some of the panel framing gets repetitive. There are many, many panels that focus on Tenma’s face against a white background as he reacts to something or other, for example. By contrast, Urasawa does exceptionally well with scenes where characters are in motion. I particularly love the scene where Tenma is trying to leave the abused boy (Dieter) at a bus stop on a desolate stretch of road but keeps turning back.

Tenma doesn’t follow up with the official’s tip immediately and, after an interlude helping out at a rural clinic, the story shifts to focus on relentless Inspector Lunge, who has now lost everything in his life except the conviction that Tenma is a murderer. Looks like things will be heating up soon!

Monster 2 by Naoki Urasawa: A+

From the back cover:
Tenma springs to action when he discovers that Johan, the boy whose life he saved nine years ago, has grown up to become a serial murderer. But when Tenma finds out that Johan has strong inside connections with government officials, he realizes that this monster is far more powerful than he could have ever imagined.

The second volume in this series is not a let down whatsoever. In fact, few complaints I had about volume 1 were not a factor here. As the essential premise has been established in the first volume, this one plunges on with the story, focusing on Tenma’s investigation and efforts to right the wrong he unknowingly perpetrated. The plotting and pacing are both first rate, the scenes so well-timed and organized that reading it feels very much like watching it on the screen.

It took me a little while to figure out what it reminded me of—an honorable, tortured leading character, racing around trying to do what’s right before more people are harmed, encountering twists and turns at every angle, and being pursued by others on the side of good. 24, of course! I fully believe that anyone who likes that show will love Monster. Even if Tenma does make a classic Kim Bauer-esque blunder in this volume.