The Child is father of the Man.
— William Wordsworth
We are, all of us and inevitably, the heroes of our life stories. The camera is in our own head; the plot was always written specifically to accommodate us. Time and again come those moments when it all seems true — those perfect few seconds here and there you had as a kid, when you climbed to the top of that tree or pitched that no-hitter or snuck into the P.A. room at school and piped T. Rex’s chart-topping new single into the ears of all those unsuspecting other kids.
You never did notice when those moments had grown so few and far between that you can’t even remember the last one by itself. Just that there was a span of time, Childhood with a capital C, where even the bad days seemed wonderful. Where even the skinned knees and the boredom and the near-drowning in the pool at the bottom of the gravel pit all had the haze of transcendence about them.
And now you’re in your thirties and you’re still working at your parents’ liquor store — well, it’s a convenience store now; that was something you managed to pull off — and you’re spending your days with your derelict sister’s baby strapped to your back. The movie’s not about you anymore. There are no heroes except in the comics you threw out decades ago. You’re just another one of the faces that spend most of its time turned to the gutter and, only very occasionally, up at the stars.
This is the opening of Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, the newest manga from the creator of Monster. After Monster concluded its run in English, it was like watching a friend die: that series stands to remain in my library long after many others have been given away or sold off. I suspect the same thing will happen with 20th Century Boys, which like Monster wastes no time in announcing its ambitions and its epic scope — even if the two stories couldn’t be more dissimilar in tone and outlook. Monster was about the fact that evil is quite real and is done by mortal men; Boys is about how we can be heroes, even if just for one day. Sometimes more. Read more
Closing the cover on the last volume of Monster was like burying a friend. Like Vagabond, Berserk, Vertical / Viz’s Tezuka reprints and Blade of the Immortal, Monster is one of the few manga I know I will own long after many others have been given away or sold off. Assuming you can get the whole thing for an average of $7 a volume, it’ll be among the best $126 you’ll ever spend on any manga series.
The hardest part of talking about this final volume is the fact that there is little way to do it without ruining everything. So much of what makes Monster special and worth reading in the first place is the way things are revealed — how one character’s salvation is another’s curse, or how people who seem to be polar opposites in fact share both common origins and destinies. A plot summary also does not do justice to Naoki Urasawa’s dialogue and storytelling: it’s not just what happens, but the way he has his characters confront it and dramatize it. As fantastic as the circumstances may have been through this whole series, they have been happening to people we care about. Read more
An installment of Black Lagoon where scarcely anything blows up would seem to be, on first glance, not much of an installment of Black Lagoon at all. Like glycerin without nitro (har, har). But one of the pleasures of this story is how there’s, well, a story in between and above the sound of gunfire and empty shells hitting the ground. A story is about people. Lagoon listens to its characters and gives them freedom of speech and thought, and so the story’s about them and not just a pile of spent ammo.
The last book closed off on a cliffhanger, which is quickly concluded in the first chapter here — it’s notable mostly for the way Revy tears Rock a new one (verbally and darn near physically, too) for nearly messing up the whole mission. She doesn’t respect anyone she has to go and bail out, and what’s more she figured she was beyond all that with Rock: he can go to the bathroom all by himself and everything, right? Of course, the real insight here is not that either of them is going to abandon their position completely — Revy’s no more going to become a marshmallow than Rock is going to become a stone cold killer — but that over time they’ll find a place somewhere in the middle of both extremes. Read more
Nobody, certainly not the reader, gets off easy in the end with Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack. This is a fantasy medical drama used as the disguise for one troubling meditation after another about life and death and our place in the universe and all the other things Tezuka was determined to use to keep his readers awake at night along with his wild visual imagination. What’s worse: to be powerless, or to have the power of a god but not be able to use it when it most matters? Should the two even be compared like that? Or is it best to just put your head down and do what you can with what you have, and not fret about the larger implications even when they make a mockery of you? Is your head hurting yet?
This third collection of Black Jack stories delivers everything we’ve come to expect from manga’s most infamous unlicensed practitioner: maladies that would make Dr. House’s head spin (House vs. Black Jack — who’d win that showdown?!); human nature in all of its grand and grotesque extremes; and Pinoco’s elastic face and physical pratfalls. You laugh, you wince, you watch in wonder, and when it’s all over, you find yourself reflecting on what you’ve seen for a lot longer than you might originally suspect.
Now that I have three volumes under my belt, my favorite stories from the series consistently tend to be the ones about Black Jack himself. Come to think of it, the comparisons to House aren’t wholly off-base: he has few, if any friends; his work garners the ire of colleagues and superiors; and his curmudgeonly skin conceals a more fragile and loving soul than he lets on. (Heck, he was House before House was House, but don’t tell Hugh Laurie.) And like all the best anti-heroes — like, say, TV’s Dexter, to draw another parallel — he’s compulsively watchable. We keep turning the pages just to see what the heck he’s going to do next. Read more
“Epic” is such an overused word. Everything from Harry Potter to Lawrence of Arabia to (gag, retch) Twilight gets the “epic” label. Keep this up and before long, everything will be epic — which means that by that token nothing is epic, and the whole idea of epic has been ruined to boot.
With this in mind, I hope I don't get yelled at too much if I apply the “epic” label to Vampire Hunter D: Pale Fallen Angel. The book is 324 pages and it's not even the whole story — it's just the first half of what was published in Japan as four separate books, each one only slightly shorter than any of the previous VHD novels. To not use the word “epic” for something of that scope seems like a mistake. The only thing remotely close to PFA among VHD's previous episodes was the two-part Mysterious Journey to the North Sea, long rumored to be the source material for a VHD animated series. (Hey, we're getting an animated Guin; if we get a new animated VHD on top of that I might have to retire early.)
I should note that “epic” is not automatically a synonym for “quality”. With North Sea, the extra effort to show us that much more of the D-verse was worth it. With Angel, I feel like Kikuchi is getting a bit overdrawn at the fantasy bank. The book teeters between being epic and merely long — $14.95 worth of long — with enough adventure and calamity and mishap and comings and goings to grant it fail-safe redundancy. By the time I got to the three-quarter mark for the volume (which isn’t even the halfway mark for the whole story) I started doing that thing where you thumb through the rest of the book to see how much further you really do have to go. Turns out the excerpt in the back and the note from the author shaved off a good twenty-seven pages. Lucky me. Read more