Books: 20th Century Boys, Vol. #1

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.

Boys is not afraid to cut itself loose from conventional front-to-back chronology, since it tells a story that spans decades and covers continents. Its first scene is in 1974, where Kenji (the above thirtysomething stuck with his sister’s baby and his parent’s store) plays T. Rex for his high school, then skips ahead to the year 20×× to hint at what may lie after the end, offers up a snippet of something that could be happening at any time (it’s the one undated scene in the whole book), and then switches to 1997 where the main line of the plot seems to be unfolding. Because things unfold in both the past and the present—and sometimes the future—the story could run the risk of becoming hopelessly confusing. But Urasawa’s storytelling and especially his characterizations are both so strong, they help anchor us all the more in what’s going on, and we’re never lost.

Kenji’s life is a dispiriting round of parental nagging, grouchy customers and a gnawing sense of having missed out on more things than he can name. He’s no stick in the mud, though; he speaks well of his sister, even if Mom thinks she’s a deadbeat, and does his best to keep his own chin up. Then one day he learns that a childhood friend of his, “Donkey”, threw himself from the roof of the school where he was a science teacher.

There is something fundamentally wrong with this. Donkey was nobody’s idea of a suicide-in-the-making. In a series of flashbacks we see Donkey as a kid: a child of poverty, nose perpetually running, nobody’s idea of a playmate. But he’s a fast runner and a quick thinker, and soon Kenji and the others have admitted him, boogers and all, into their little cadre. And just before his death, he sent Kenji a note—a drawing of a strange logo with the caption Do you remember this?

The logo in question—a pointing hand with a stylized eye—has turned up at the scene of another death. Murder or suicide, it’s hard to tell (how do you classify someone who died from something that drained all the blood out of their body, Ebola-style?), but the symbol was present there, too. What’s more, this second dead man was one of Donkey’s students, something the police have also latched onto as being important.

None of them, however, know what only Kenji can know: that he, and the other boys, created that sigil when they were kids. In a moment of frenzied determination, Kenji rounds up the others—the meek Yoshitsune, the froglike Keroyon (his nickname means “Ribbit”, sort of), and the long-absent Mon-chan—and they unearth a time capsule they themselves buried all those years ago. They’d put it together when they were barely into their teens, and had promised themselves they’d dig it back up again when the world needed their help. It all seemed like a childish game back then, but now there is an ominous cast to the whole thing they cannot ignore. Someone has made it all into far more than a game.

Interspersed with all of this are cross-cuts to another, far more ominous plot strand that promises to explain everything in time but for now tantalizes us mercilessly. Somewhere in Japan a “new religion”, akin perhaps to Aum Supreme Truth, has been formed. The leader, “Our Friend”, is a faceless figure who exerts mesmeric powers over his followers. He apparently persuades one of his number to murder the leader of another cult, a “false prophet”. Bad enough, but there are endless hints that he somehow knows everything about the boys and their crew, that he may have been one of them—right down to the fact that his sigil is none other than the same stylized hand-and-eye logo.

If you come into Boys from just having read Monster, the difference in tone will be striking to say the least. Dread and evil dripped off every page of Monster; but Boys is funny and loopy, and imbued with a breathless sense of adventure and wonder. These boys, now men, were once the stars of their own movies. Boys lets us feel a little of that as they realize the movie is a whole lot bigger than they ever dreamed.

Art: Ingmar Bergman once said that the history of cinema was the history of the human face. Urasawa’s style seems informed by the same conceit: if there’s one thing he loves to give us in more detail and with more zeal than anything else, it’s the look on a person’s face. The eighteen volumes of Monster was a good introduction to that aspect of Urasawa’s approach, and he continues that trend here, too. He also manages the difficult trick of giving us a pivotal character who remains faceless and yet compelling (look at the scene where he makes “Our Friend” weep without actually showing anything!). Backgrounds and environments get more than a decent amount of detail, but Urasawa keeps his people and their emotions front and center at all times.

Translation: The most frustrating thing about Viz is how there is no way of knowing ahead of time what approach they may take with a given title. Color me spoiled by the likes of Del Rey, but Del Rey’s ferociously consistent editorial style means most anything under their aegis gets grade-A presentation. With Boys, Viz get it more right than wrong, though: they presented it right-to-left, annotated the book with a few cultural endnotes, and left most signage intact. The only retouching they did was for on-panel sound effects (a peeve of mine; sometimes these things are as much art as the art itself). The translation itself was prepared by Akemi Wegmüller, a new name to me, but the results read with the fluidity and cultural awareness a title like this needs.

The Bottom Line: In some ways, 20th Century Boys is probably even more recommendable a title than Monster—it stands a chance of appealing to a broader audience, for one, although I don’t want to make that sound like one has to choose one or the other, period. Start with Boys, and if you’re curious about how Urasawa tackles more cold-blooded material, go pick up Monster along with it and go broke in style.

Boys is also stone proof of how Urasawa is one of the few superstars of manga who completely deserves the accolades. It’s more than a little intimidating to see Urasawa come off something as impressive as Monster—and then, without even so much as a hiccup, launch himself into another title that radiates storytelling confidence the way the sun throws off light and heat.

Tags: Japan Naoki Urasawa manga review

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the categories Books, External Book Reviews, published on 2009/01/26 00:22.

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