Yeah, it’s been quite some time since I’ve mentioned this series. What happened? Well, the series never really got out of its groove of providing familiar and competent modern adventure stories with a dash of action and/or archaeology. It’s the kind of thing that goes down smoothly enough thanks to writer/artist Naoki Urasawa’s storytelling confidence, as well as frequent co-writers Hokusei Katsushika and Takashi Nagasaki. Even more so if you’re a fan of 80’s action/adventure shows like “MacGyver,” which you could argue this isn’t too far removed from.
I also can’t lie: Keaton’s adventures did get kinda boring after a while. You can only do so many stories where the main character stumbles upon an archaeological find, or mixes it up with unsociable characters during an investigation, or has to outwit the men with guns who want him or his companion dead before they all start to blur together after a while. The good news, and the main reason I’m writing about this final volume, is that Urasawa and co. decided to change up the formula and send the character off with his longest story to date.
Well, eventually that is. The first four stories in this volume are all one-offs as you’d expect, but they’re linked by the theme of academia and Keaton’s theory of the Danube Plains being a source for European civilization. Our intrepid investigator first finds the possibility of full-time academic employment, so long as he’s willing to compromise on his morals. Then he pays his respects to his late mentor, who found proof of the theory he shared with Keaton. Emboldened by this, Keaton starts taking on high-paying insurance investigation jobs -- three of which happen to be linked in the familiar way these stories usually turn out. Finally, Keaton’s daughter Yuriko is studying to get into Oxford just like her dad, but manages to find a potential romance along the way.
In terms of style and execution these stories fall well within expectations for “Master Keaton.” What was nice about them was seeing the commonalities between them. That was unexpected for this series and had me thinking we’d see some kind of loose plot emerge as Keaton pursued his long-held dream of excavating near the Danube.
Then we get to the fifth story and Urasawa kicks things into high gear. Keaton is paired with the somewhat boorish former detective Hudson on a case that has them both heading to Romania to track down stolen cars. So far, so familiar, right down to the gangsters that Keaton and Hudson meet in the course of their investigation. After their encounter with the thugs gives the title character a good idea what’s going on he decides to seek support for his theory at the University of Bucharest and visit the excavation site of his mentor. Hudson, former detective that he is, is determined to track down ALL of the cars. It’s a move that backfires on him when one of them turns out to have the body of a dead woman in the trunk with the police on hand to arrest him immediately.
Things get even more complicated from there when it turns out that the woman had taken in a young boy off the streets and given him some information to relay to the pastor in the town of Jakoba. Keaton finds out about the boy, Ion, after slyly fumbling his way into the police investigation in the way that only he can do. It isn’t long before he learns that his opponents in this matter are the former Romanian secret police with a secret $5 billion fortune at the heart of it all.
The whole arc is a fast-paced, compulsively readable affair as Keaton, along with his frenemy Charlie Chapman and Hudson have to use all of their skills and resources at hand in order to stay one step ahead of the bad guys. When they can’t do that anymore, then we get to see what they can do when they’re forced to dig in and fight. There’s also a decent amount of intrigue on hand as the origins of the fortune slowly come into focus.
This arc isn’t without its hitches, however. Much of the supporting cast is made of of familiar Eastern European stereotypes from minor characters like the con-artist street currency exchanger to more prominent ones like the threatening mob boss who reluctantly works with Keaton. The story itself isn’t also long on depth. It has confidence, a fast pace, and a mystery to unravel, but no real character arcs or development. There’s also one scene where Keaton is ambushed by the secret police in a way that’s just plain silly no matter how you look at it.
To be fair, we’ve seen plenty of sides of Keaton throughout these twelve volumes, and even a few of Chapman and Hudson as well. The appeal of the story is more about throwing them in at the deep end and seeing how well they swim. Moreover, the Eastern European setting also recalls one of Urasawa’s signature works, “Monster.” It’s not hard to see the “man on the run” story here as kind of a dry run for that series, and the town siege that wraps up the story will no doubt remind some of that title’s climax as well. Seeing this arc in “Master Keaton” and knowing what Urasawa would go on to create afterwards only adds to the fun.
I wasn’t expecting a big storyline to wrap up this title, but the results here make me glad we got one. “Master Keaton,” overall, has kind of been one for Urasawa completists as its stories start to trend towards “boring” as the appeal of its formula starts to wear thin after a while. While this final volume has done a good job of reminding me what I liked about the series, I wouldn’t say you need to buy all twelve volumes. Its episodic approach to narrative is such that you can buy as many volumes as you want until your own form of boredom sets in and then go straight to this one without missing a beat. Now that we’re done with “Master Keaton” on these shores, the question then becomes when will we get Urasawa’s follow-up to “20th Century Boys,” “Billy Bat,” over here.