March Manganess: 20th CENTURY BOYS

As you may well have sussed, I've got it hot and heavy for alliteration. For that reason, I've singled out the month of March to highlight a few of the best and brightest manga titles from my ever-swaying stack. Each week I'll showcase a new Japanese comics title, be it popular or obscure, right-to-left or flip-flopped. These import digests have flooded into chain book retailers, often outnumbering the domestic fair. It isn't all nose-bleeds and sweat-drops though, and I promise you won't get slapped with any tentacles. So if you're up for something slightly different, join me in celebrating March Manganess



Since reviewing PLUTO two weeks ago, I've been debating whether or not it would be reasonable to spotlight an additional Naoki Urasawa title for this month-long survey of modern manga. After all, there are only five Tuesdays in this thing, and there's a lot to explore. Ultimately, I enjoyed PLUTO too much not to hunt down the first volume of his other recent hit 20th Century Boys. Urasawa is also a megastar and his stature truly warrants the extra attention. To look at just one of these phenomenally popular books for an idea of Urasawa's breadth of work is to miss the whole picture. It'd be like using New Avengers as the single frame of reference for the comics work of Brian Michael Bendis. You don't want to skip over Alias, Powers, Torso, or Ultimate Spider-Man, right? It's like looking at just Annie Hall or just Scoop for one definitive illustration of Woody Allen's abilities, good or ill. 

Now that I've invested in the start of another manga series with a volume count in the double digits (the series is composed of 24 digests, the final two serving as an epilogue called 21st Century Boys), I'm ready to offer my first impressions of the story and my second of its creator. 

I've never read Stephen King's It, or the movie it spawned. I had that very common clown phobia until the late 90s when I discovered a large portrait of a circus-style hobo in my grandparents' basement. When I regained consciousness shortly thereafter, I dusted it off and asked my grandmother if I could hold onto it for a while. For a few years it remained on the wall facing my bed, a challenge to face one of my deepest fears during the hours where I was most vulnerable. I positioned a dream catcher somewhere in the space between to nullify the sense of dread. There were nightmares, but eventually I got to like that portrait and was no longer afraid he might pull me up on some stage and make me sing in front of my peers. I still sometimes get antsy when approached by people in mascot costumes (it could be anybody in there, or worse there could be nothing in there), but me and clowns are okay these days. Anyways, that was all after the movie It and the evil clown box art that I was never able to avoid on my trips to the video store for the latest installment of The Land Before Time ("It's snowing in this one! Littlefoot's screwed!")

No, my only experience with It, was a horrifying return trip from a New Jersey vacation and my cousin's lurid, two hour account of everything that happens in the movie. Patty's eight days younger than me, but he'd always been the fearless one. I might've escaped our shared childhood unscathed while he collected all the bruises, except for one critical wrench in the works. Everyone let him know he was the brave one and I was the sensitive one who practically named his juice boxes. They meant well, but they were so tickled by our Frog and Toad differences that it came up at every opportunity. This knowledge led to a little over a decade of fraternal terrorism. But really, who doesn't experience some part of that in the years where your skull is soft and your idea of martial arts is to transform into a tiny human windmill of flailing arms and the asthmatic screams of "Times! I called times!"  I doubt Patty got much of the movie's plot right, but time and experience have shown that it really was about a horror that pursued a group of friends from childhood to adulthood, often in the form of a fanged clown. I was convinced that it was scary. It was a pretty terrible night, sitting there in the back of the car, worrying about evil clowns and the omnipresent Jersey Devil lurking in the trees, and trying desperately not to cry or to itch at the full-body rash I'd gotten from the high cedar levels of Lake Laurel. Again. 

Okay, so why go into a lengthy tangent about It and me being a total pussy? Well, 20th Century Boys is very much a story about childhood's ruthless pursuit of several Kingsian young boys who once formed a secret club and drew a secret symbol. It's one of those coming of age stories that isn't just a series of flashbacks. It's not about who these kids ultimately become, but how they stay the same in many ways. It's a thriller, sure, but a lot of this first volume reads like Stand By Me. There's even a fat kid. He doesn't grow up to marry Rebecca Romijn, but still, this is a classic setup. I still have, literally, a score of volumes to read through, but this could end up like The Sandlot if James Earl Jones' mastiff really did eat kids.  There's something about these period dramas or comedies about kids with baseball cards in their bicycle spokes. Even with some looming dread, like an actual monster or a divorce or Vietnam or a big dog, the biggest concern is still getting an unwanted erection or the approach of a couple of glandular cases who want your allowance or else. Tie that nostalgia in with that tried and true horror element of a past coming back to haunt you, and you've got a relatable suspense story. Maybe because of the comedy and light-heartedness of many scenes, it doesn't quit pack the same wallop as the first volume of PLUTO did, but again, we are comparing two different genres here. It's almost like looking at Blade Runner and some kind of cross between Stand By Me, Mystic River, and I'm not even sure what else. Maybe, maybe, even a little bit of Watchmen's then-and-now brand of mystery. 

20th Century Boys is really interesting because it's both comical and sinister. Urasawa excels at both. Having already read PLUTO, I knew the guy could craft a cool mystery and creepy atmosphere, but he's also got a great ear for funny dialogue and screwball situations. I'm really impressed with how seamlessly he transitions between tones. While I probably prefer PLUTO, I'll admit that that series can be a little heavy or melodramatic. This story is more well-rounded with a nice balance between the darker cult conspiracy and the comical moments between Kenji and his friends both as kids and adults. I get the feeling that having such affection for these generally lighthearted characters will only make for more resonance if and when real harm comes to them later. It's a sophisticated setup and this is just the tip. 

 

They say keep your friends close and your enemies closer. But what if they're all the same people? 

 


Paul Montgomery is a member of many clubs including The National Geographic Society and the AARP (due to a filing error). Find him on Twitter or contact him at paul@ifanboy.com. 

Comments

  1. Hmmm. I’d say it isn’t quite right to write an overview of 20th Century Boys based on just the beginning. You don’t get the full picture of what the series is about from the first volume, or even the first five volumes. The premise… evolves.

  2. Paul,  I just wanted to thank you for this series, picked up Pluto after reading your review and hearing from your iFanboy partner Chris Neesman. Again you have peaked my interest in a series and really want to head out and but this series.  I typically do not like manga, but this series of articles has opened my eyes to this world and appreciate what it brings to the graphic storytelling world. 

  3. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @Bornin1142 I’ll be revisiting this series at some point in the future. It might take a while, but I’ll get there!

  4. I tried reading this, as well as Pluto, today at Borders because this March Manganess has peaked my interest in Manga. Solanin sounded more my thing, but I can’t seem to find it in store to try it out. I’ve never read a right-to-left comic before and i conastantly had to re-read pages because I would read the page from left-to-right or read panels out of order. Perhaps a tutorial article on how to read Manga would be useful. I’m still very interested but it’s going to take some time to get used to "reading backwards."

  5. Aside from classics such as Akira, or Lone Wolf and Cub, I cannot stand most manga.  Saying that, a friend recommended this book by saying it was a combination of Lost and It.  I was sold.  I’m three volumes in, trying my hardest not to blaze through them too quickly.  Credit goes to the publisher though, for releasing a new volume every two to three months.

     Has anyone seen the movies at all?  I’m told they are fantastic.

  6. Old Skool Slice of Lifer. =)

  7. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @OnAsunday – No trick, really. Like baseball and making love to a nine armed goddess, it just takes practice. As they say. 

  8. I just recently picked up the first one from the library,i was blown good this series can’t wait to read vol 2 as well as pluto vol1

  9. This is where my username comes from, so clearly I love it.

    I was reading it when fans were translating it online, but dropped off around volume 18 or so (when I discovered I REALLY hated reading on the computer).  I’m loving revisiting it a second time around, and eventually finishing it.  It’s a pretty fantastic series.  But it is a very slow burn.

    I’m always quick to liken Urasawa to Charles Dickens.  Especially how he’ll intoduce a seemingly minor character and have them drop off the radar, only to appear in a much larger role later.

    @DanFleming: I’ve only seen the first half or so of the first movie and I liked it, but I’ve heard not-so-nice things about the second two.  Under no circumstance should they be viewed as a replacement to reading the series though.

  10. I haven’t read 20th Century Boys — though I do love Pluto — but I just wanted to say I enjoyed the story about your cousin, which flashed me back to the number of scary movies I didn’t actually watch, but (@Albatr0ss, are you reading this?) had described to me in gorey detail by my older brother.  I obviously must have enjoyed this but never had much desire to see the movies myself.

  11. I’m glad to see this series enjoying popularity outside of Japan.  I thought some of the story elements were too quintessentially Japanese to translate well for foreign audiences, but it’s a testament to Urasawa’s storytelling that it’s able to transcend cultural barriers.

     @DanFleming: The first movie is OK, but not great. The second two seem rushed. They’re also overacted (like most Japanese films) and the cinematography leaves a lot to be desired. It’s as if they knew that since they had a hit on their hands they didn’t have to try as hard.  There’s also a lot of little things to that irk me about it. You know how they attempted to realistically translate the Spider-Man and Batman’s costumes into something that worked in the movies? There’s none of that here. Without spoiling anything one of the main female characters wears a blue jacket and white cap in the comics. Instead of giving her something that would translated well in the movies, the give her a bright blue jacket (as opposed to a denim one) and the biggest, whitest, ugliest baseball cap I’ve ever seen. They both look so fake it’s like they didn’t even want to adapt it for the screen. They should’ve just made an anime if they were gonna do that.