Viz Comics (U.S. Release)
Near the completion of this fan-subtitled version of Urasawa’s manga masterpiece, Viz Comics announced they were finally bringing out this title in the States, scuttling what was til then a 17 volume labor of love. I was fortunate to grab a Bittorrent file of Vols. 1-16 off the web just before they disappeared for good.
So consider this a preview.
If American comics have to go through the rigmarole of dopey “They aren’t for kids anymore!” articles every couple of years, imagine what it would take to get something like this unfolding manga serial taken seriously. Yet out of anything I’ve read this year, this multi-layered comic has be one of the most satisfying and emotional experiences I’ve had for a long time.
It’s a genre-busting series that combines sci-fi, horror, and adventure elements into a generation spanning plot. Influences and allusions abound: Stephen King’s “It”, Patlabor 2, The Seven Samurai, Dennis Potter-esque time jumps, The Stand (King again!), and much more.
At the center is failed rockstar Kenji, who is currently running a mini-mart and looking after his sister’s baby daughter. Yet his childhood comes back to haunt him, when it is suggested that a religious cult, the leader of which is a man named “Friend,” is plotting to take over the world, using a secret plan that Kenji and his friends designed back in elementary school as a joke. As Kenji assembles his old school friends, now all in their thirties and a various stages of their lives, they try to figure out through their collected faulty memories who Friend could possibly be, and how to stop him.
This is just the launching pad for an adventure that jumps backwards into the past, forwards into the future where things haven’t turned out for the best, and into a virtual world where the memories of their 1970s childhood are replayed and “corrected.”
Never, unlike other series, did I get the sense that Urasawa was just making this up as he goes along. Like The Sopranos, otherwise meaningless exchanges and scenes from the early volumes return much much later, revealing their deep meaning and throwing me for a loop. The manga is full of mysteries and unanswered questions, and each time one is answered, 10 more mysteries present themselves.
The emotional core of the manga deals with the idealism of youth and the failures of adulthood, and whether that can be regained despite (or because of) impossible odds. We see this in Kenji and friends, but also in Kenji’s niece Anna, who grows up to be a sort of savior herself.
“20th Century Boys” is also quite frightening. The pacing is cinematic, with big scares revealed in full splash pages. The face of “Friend” starts as a device out of suspense film: shrouded in shadow, we assumed his identity will turn out to be a character we’ve already seen in broad daylight. But as 20th Century Boys progresses, “Friend”‘s face becomes a thing of horror, causing paralysis in those who gaze upon it (we only see reaction shots). It’s a device that Urasawa uses again and again, and he always finds a fresh way of employing it. (I read the fansub as a slideshow on my LCD monitor, so I never see the pages ahead of time. It’s an excellent way to get maximum frights out of the comic!)
Urasawa is still writing the manga, and some of these series can stretch to thirty volumes and beyond. In Volume 16we jump ahead in time again and a new whole chapter of the story begins to open up, so I believe we’re nowhere near the finish. And now that Viz will start bringing out the series officially, we’ll have to wait for them to catch up. Unless Urasawa drops the ball near the end, this will be one of the most important mangas in recent memory.
P.S. Bush-haters may notice that the story of a religious cult that orchestrates its own terrorist attack to take over the government is…a bit familiar. But having been started in 1999, Urasawa’s comic is either prescient or tapping into the same evil forces in the air that are now part of our reality.
P.P.S. Now that I’ve discovered this whole underground of fansubs, I’m going to be reading a lot more manga!
UPDATE (5/25/06): From Wikipedia: “20th Century Boys is still running strong in Japan, and currently has 21 volumes so far. It seems to have been inspired in parts of the story by the works of Stephen King, containing allusions to It and The Stand. It was recently licensed by Viz (2005), however at Urasawa’s request it has been rescheduled for release after Monster finishes its English serialization due to a change in art style over time.”
Currently, scanlations are available here, but you must register: http://www.x3gen.com/new/manga_downloads_20thcb.php
Viz Comics (U.S. Release)