After “20th Century Boys” ended last year, I and everyone else who followed it were left without our bi-monthly Naoki Urasawa fix. For years Viz had been serializing his most famous works -- the aforementioned title, along with “Monster” and “Pluto” -- and now we were left with nothing. What was going to take its place? Unfortunately, Urasawa’s current series “Billy Bat” is a Kodansha title and has yet to be picked up for U.S. release. So someone at Viz decided to dig into the mangaka’s back catalog and bring us the title most likely to appease his burgeoning fanbase out here. This is how we got “Master Keaton,” and while it’s enjoyable on its own terms the series isn’t a patch on Urasawa’s defining works.
Taichi Hiraga Keaton is a man of many talents. Not only is he a college professor of history, but he also moonlights as an insurance investigator for Lloyd’s of London. In addition, he’s also a veteran of Britain’s Special Air Services as well as a former instructor of survival skills for that particular organization. It’s an eclectic background, to be sure, but one that allows him to live out his passions. Keaton travels around the world, investigating present-day murder tied to ancient treasure, protecting Japanese archaeologists who are having trouble with the locals in the Middle East, and even being badgered by a persistent old German lady. All of this while using whatever he has at hand to get him out of all the danger he winds up in.
It may be a little vague, but that part was meant to set up the fact that this series reminds me a lot of “MacGyver.” Much like that legendary troubleshooter, Keaton has a gift when it comes to improvisation. Over the course of this volume you’ll see him come up with a handmade arrow/rope launcher, utilize homemade pepper bombs, and create an irrigation system from scratch at his dad’s place. It’s not all about creating crazy devices, as we also see Keaton utilize his survival and people skills to manage that old German lady, keep himself and several others alive for days in a desert, and get his former S.A.S. instructor out of immediate trouble with some mobsters. This is a series where its protagonist relies on his more on his wits than anything else to get him out of a jam. Thanks to MacGyver, that kind of action has always appealed to me and the same holds true here.
Keaton is his own character, though. The man glides through most of these stories maintaining an almost supernaturally even-keeled persona regardless of whatever danger he finds himself in. Throughout this first volume, his biggest concern appears to be what’s going on with his ex-wife and her new man. Even when he’s being chased by thugs or roasted by the desert sun, you sense that his last regret would be that he forgot to call her. Keaton’s personality never manifests as arrogance, more like a whimsical desire to see where the day takes him and to make sure that justice prevails wherever he winds up.
Even if Keaton’s an interesting enough character to build a series around, we don’t really get any truly memorable stories in this first volume. They all tend to play out in a fairly straightforward fashion with the twists being readily apparent before they hit. These stories are also populated by a very familiar assortment of character types who fail to get much development beyond the one personality trait they display upon their introduction. That holds particularly true for Keaton’s daughter, who won’t stop hounding her dad about how he needs to get his act together in an annoyingly shrill manner. Even when other characters, like Keaton’s former instructor and the aforementioned old German lady, are shown to have more to them than first seen these developments feel like they’re taken straight out of a writer’s handbook. The only exception here is Keaton’s dad, whose itinerant manner shows that the apple does not fall far from the tree.
What makes these stories readable, aside from the title character, are the details that Urasawa and his writers bring to them. These are men with clear interests in history and art, and they bring them to bear when putting Keaton through the paces of whatever plot he manages to stumble upon. These touches give the stories an exotic feel that they wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s also worth noting that the storytelling confidence which carried “Pluto” through its roughest parts is here on display as well. The stories may not be anything special, but Urasawa, Katsushika and Nagasaki know how to pace them to hold the reader’s interest.
He’s not MacGyver, though Keaton’s adventures in this volume are satisfying on the same level as that troubleshooter’s. They’re simple, self-contained adventures that have more imagination and charm than you’d expect and that allows them to succeed in spite of their more grating attributes. As a fan of Urasawa, this is satisfying enough in comparison to getting no new manga from him. It does serve as a reminder that he’s a creator who definitely got better with age.