Daily Graphic Novel Recommendation 85

20th Century Boys / 21st Century Boys

by Naoki Urusawa
Genre notes: cults, post-apocalypse, rock-n-roll, nostalgia
24 vols (20th Century Boys is 22 and 21st Century Boys is 21)
ISBN: 1591169224 (Amazon)

There are moments in history that are more important than others. 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.

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