Volume 3 of 20th Century Boys plays like a compendium of every paranoid nightmare you’ve ever had. You are in front of a hostile crowd, singled out for ridicule and aggression. You are dead certain something horrible is going to happen mere minutes from now, but you cannot get anyone to believe you. And you’re convinced there’s some tiny unremembered piece of your past which is crucially important to everything that’s going on, if you could just remember what the hell it was!
That’s been Kenji’s problem: the clues to the imminent apocalypse being unleashed by a former childhood friend are scattered far and wide through his life. What’s worse is now that he’s finally started to fit the pieces together, the one great discovery that comes to him is that he is the only one who can comprehend the full scope of what’s happening. The attacks taking place around the world are all based on the daydream scribbles he came up with all those years ago. Ergo, it’s a warning, a message aimed directly at him: Come get me. You know who I am, don’t you?
With nowhere else to turn, Kenji takes the bait. He attends a variety concert being held by the “Friends” cult, and ends up face-to-face with the mastermind of the group, “Our Friend”. Despite his penchant for masks, he is only too willing to drop broad hints about who he is. Perhaps he’s Sadakiyo, the shyest and most “invisible” member of his old circle of friends. Perhaps he’s Kenji’s brother-in-law — something this nemesis admits to flat-out, right as they stand in front of each other. Or maybe he’s none of these things — just someone who has learned enough about Kenji from a distance to exploit him.
Maybe who he is, isn’t as important as what’s about to happen. If the disasters unfolding across the globe are playing out in the order and fashion that Kenji laid down all those years ago, what’s next? It’s a bombing at Narita Airport, if memory serves — the same airport where Kenji’s now-grown-up childhood friend Yukiji works as a drug-squad member. How this unfolds is a terrific example of the way this series generates and plays off suspense, with Kenji throwing himself heedlessly into the middle of danger and trying to convince passers-by that their lives are in mortal danger. The tension doesn’t end there, either: in the next scene his convenience store is mobbed by Friends and burned to the ground, and he and his family are forced to go into hiding to avoid further reprisal.
This nightmare hasn’t even really begun to unfold, and now it is preparing to encompass everyone he has ever known. But before he disappears completely, Kenji manages to track down and find one final, crucial piece of evidence: the very notebook in which the future was written all those years ago, sealed away and buried as part of a game that no one expected would become a roadmap for fate.
Sometimes I have to read a volume or two of a particular series before it clicks, but 20th Century Boys dug its hooks into me the moment I heard the premise. It hasn’t disappointed me yet. It is, of course, a markedly different sort of story than the moral abyss of Monster (which is coming to SyFy in its animated form, by the way), but that’s only further proof that Naoki Urasawa could probably create a manga about the phone book and make it riveting material.