Master Keaton Volume 1 by Naoki Urasawa, Takashi Nagasaki, and Hokusei Katsushika
I don’t have the best track record of finishing Naoki Urasawa series. I own all of 20th Century Boys and mean to read it all the way through again. I’ve checked out a couple volumes of Pluto and the first few volumes of Monster. One of these days I will finish an Urasawa series! This failing on my part didn’t stop me from trying out Master Keaton, and I enjoyed the first volume, even though there were a few aspects of the manga that didn’t quite come together for me.
Taichi Hiraga Keaton is a half Japanese half British archaeologist, apathetic professor, and insurance investigator with a unique set of survival skills due to his background in the SAS. He bounces between giving lectures and handling cases for Lloyd’s of London. Many reviewers have referred to Keaton as a mash-up between Indiana Jones and Macgyver, and that’s a good way to sum up the series. Keaton seems to have a bit more inner turmoil than a action hero though, and that’s what makes this series entertaining. We’re introduced to Keaton when a man named Leon Pappas with a substantial life insurance policy dies in Greece. Keaton is dispatched to investigate the murder, but he only has a certain number of days he can allocate to the task, since he has to get back into the classroom the following week.
Keaton’s sensitivity towards antiquities and his excellence in creating weapons out of random kitchen implements are showcased in this story, as he uncovers more facts about the subject of his investigation when he meets Pappa’s girlfriend and manages to fend off some unscrupulous and armed business associates. The rest of the volume is a bit meandering, as different chapters have Keaton explore new mysteries, deal with his teenage daughter, and confront a significant figure from his own past. Aspects of the story here and there are a bit didactic, as the reader is informed about illegal weapons trade, aspects of art forgery, desert survival tactics, and the opium trade. I enjoyed the way the manga skipped around from topic to topic, but I generally enjoy manga with infodumps more when there is some genuine enthusiasm behind conveying all the information. I would happily read chapters upon chapters of a Fumi Yoshinaga where the characters discuss nuances of vegetable chopping, but in Master Keaton I have to admit I found my attention wandering at times.
Keaton’s personality is so reserved and unaffected for the most part. He tends to create a random gadget that saves the day very casually, which is amusing, but it is difficult to see how his adventures are having any impact on him personally. I was glad when his daughter showed up and drew him into an adventure protecting an archeological site, and Keaton’s odd reflexive anxiety about his ex-wife getting married again hints at some deeper emotions. While Urasawa’s art isn’t as polished as his later works, the character designs are all unique and enjoyable and the action scenes are all capably handled. Early Urasawa art is way above the quality of what most artists could aspire to. The over ized deluxe signature edition is really nice, with color pages and a sound effects glossary in the back. I’m curious to see what the next volume of this series is like. In some ways, I liked the shift in focus from unraveling a mystery to family, back to a thriller type story dealing with the drug trade, but at the same time I’m wondering how well that will pan out if the plot continues to skip around like that too much in subsequent volumes.