20th Century Boys
Created by: Naoki Urusawa
Published by: VIZ Media
ISBN: 1591169224 (Amazon)
There are moments in history that are more important than others.11 In one sense, this is much not the case. Since history is merely a collective parade of discreet moments, one leading seamlessly into another, it is impossible for one moment to be more important than the next—all moments are merely the product of all the moments that lead up to their occurrence. Bolaño puts it this way:
“Mickey was not only irritating but ridiculous, with the particular ridiculousness of self-dramatizers and poor fools convinced they’ve been present at a decisive moment in history, when it’s common knowledge that history, which is a simple whore, has no decisive moments but is a proliferation of instants, brief interludes that vie with one another in monstrousness.” Not in themselves, not in their significance on their own merits. These moments are notable in that they trigger more cataclysmic events years later. And they are genuinely interesting because the true weight of their value cannot be discerned in the moment of their occurrence.
Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys is a work founded on such moments. Part of Urasawa’s thesis seems to be that while one can never tell what will result from his or her actions, it is also impossible to discern which actions will have far-reaching implications. What could bring about the end of the world? The Apollo moon landing? The 1970 World Expo held in Osaka? The destruction of a child’s fort? A chance encounter? The theft of a trinket? The discovery of a haunted house? The playing of an obscure American rock song on a junior high school’s PA system?
20th Century Boys is a sprawling, complicated work. It’s all over the place. Its plot spans from the Apollo moon landing of 1969 to the near-future of 2018. Its narrative bounces back and forth between a robust and ever-expanding cast of characters—even while skipping all over its own historical scope, sometimes through flashback and sometimes through a particular sci-fi conceit. Yet through it all, Urasawa never abandons his exploration of Today having been built on the bones of Yesterday.
For all his story’s complexity, Urasawa is always certain to give the reader plenty of historical hooks to help us keep our bearings. References to cultural phenomena abound. From raw historical notes like the 1969 moon landing and the 1970 Expo to related cultural realities (such as the proliferation of salesmen hocking “NASA-approved” pens, foods, and other ephemera). Urasawa especially excels at noting pop cultural artifacts that boys of the ‘70s would have remembered: wrestling stars! manga! anime! These were every bit as essential to the cultural landscape of Urasawa’s cast as the Atari, Wolverine, MUSCLE men, Transformers, and “We Are the World” were to my own. These things ground 20th Century Boys in a real world so that when things start going crazy, readers will at least have a foothold to rely upon before the ship begins to sickeningly sway.
Principally, 20th Century Boys concerns a group of friends and how the club those friends formed as children in 1970 somehow laid seed for a cult that would try to take over the world. Twenty-five years later, a virus that causes the human body to expel its blood is released and the Friends cult may be responsible. Kenji, one of the two former leaders of the group recognizes that the virus and some other things line up with the Book of Prophecy he and his friends developed in their secret hideout. What was once a story of crude, cliche-ridden heroism has seemingly become a reality. It’s up to Kenji to discover the identity of The Friend and stop his cult from destroying the world.
Or something like that.
Urasawa does a good job of keeping the story from being about one thing for too long. He seems to have no interest in maintaining anything resembling a status quo and migrates from protagonist to protagonist with alacrity. Kenji’s the hero, but sometimes its Otcho. Or Kanna. Or Chono or Kyoko or Father Nitani or Yoshitsuni or whoever else might fit the bill in the moment. 20th Century Boys is a true ensemble, not just of cast but of era and genre. I’d be tempted to say it can’t make up its mind but for the fact that it seems so meticulously plotted. Small details from the first volumes show themselves to be essential in the later ones. The whole thing plays out as one exuberant thrillride and Urasawa rarely lets up.
Beyond proving himself a masterful plotter, Urasawa does something rare in having his characters age. We see them as ten-year-olds, as teenagers, and at ages thirty-five, forty, fifty-five, and older. While most authors would want to keep their protagonists young, handsome, and beautiful, Urasawa lets them spend significant time in the form of raggled muffins. Their lives are hard and few age well. All of this, of course, plays well with one of Urasawa’s themes: the question of growing up vs measuring responsibility vs and wondering if the games children play ever really end. For all its compulsively delivered thrill sequences and hell-yeah moments, 20th Century Boys can sell poignant pretty well when it wants to.
With the final volume of 20th Century Boys (vol. 22) releasing in September and the two-volume epilogue, 21st Century Boys, releasing in November and January, the hot question is going to be how well Urasawa wraps it all up. While volume 22 does tie up the main story fairly nicely, it does feel as though Urasawa is rushing a bit near the end. There remain a lot of questions regarding loose ends. It’s an exciting climax and he tries to reward readers who stuck with him through a long and perhaps psychologically draining work. I’m not sure if dissatisfaction with the series’ conclusion is why the second collection, 21st Century Boys was released, but those two volumes resolve a lot (though not all) of the remnant story- and character-points.
I’m grateful for the epilogue and found myself entirely satisfied with Urasawa’s conclusion to the work. While it feels a touch weird to have the story linger on after its initial conclusion, Urasawa invests the follow-up with its own climax and takes the opportunity to further reward readers with answers that harken back to 20th Century Boys' first volumes. I can’t wait to have Viz’s English translation of these final three books on my shelf—I’m excited to be able to loan these out in my ongoing quest to evangelize friends to the merits of the comics medium.
20th Century Boys is a fantastic story and Viz’s production of the American release is stellar. They’re handsome books with French flaps, good paper, and a satin feel. I highly recommend.
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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