20th Century Boys Vol. 1

By Naoki Urasawa
216 pages, black and white
Published by Viz

Every now and then I hear from someone from my childhood. Even before social networking sites like Facebook, Friendster, or MySpace rolled out and made it so much easier for people to connect, I’d get e-mails out of the blue, often from people that I went to school with. (Having your own website, occasional pull quotes on books, and a very uncommon last name helps matters.) Sometimes I’d know who the person was instantly and be delighted to hear from them. Sometimes the name would ring a bell and it would take a while to turn the hazy memory into a picture in my head.

But every now and then, I’d have no idea who the person was. I’d pull out my high school yearbooks, look at the person’s face, and think, "I have no memory of you at all." We had classes together, sometimes even mutual friends, and the person had still entirely slipped out of my memory. With Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, then, I found myself appreciating the fact that this is a story about a group of adults whose past is coming back to haunt them—but most of them don’t remember some or all of the details. It’s just the tip of the iceberg, needless to say, but still the perfect place to begin.

At the end of the 1960s, a group of young children formed their own secret club, complete with symbol, buried treasure, and fort. Now, almost 30 years later, the group is scattered throughout Japan and elsewhere. Kenji dreamed of being a rock star, but now he runs the family liquor store and looks after his runaway sister’s daughter. When Kenji hears that one of his delivery clients is missing and presumed dead, it doesn’t mean much at all—until he sees his childhood secret club’s symbol at the missing residence. Then one of his friends from the club commits suicide, and as the remaining members gather for the funeral, Kenji begins to discover that these two events have a common connection. Who has brought the children’s symbol out of retirement, and what is this strange new cult’s real plan for the future?

It was hard to not find myself drawing instant connections between 20th Century Boys and stories like Stephen King’s It, with a group of friends coming back together as adults. Happily, while the immediate basic thrust is the same as a lot of other stories, Urasawa proves himself in the actual telling of 20th Century Boys, making it stand out as its own entity. Where other stories of this nature will present the modern-day characters as still troubled or disturbed by the events of the path, Urasawa takes a different route entirely; they’re all grown up, have their own lives, and any problems they do have involve mistakes or consequences of the present day, not the past. This is an important element for the storytelling, because it makes Kenji’s claims to his old friends at the funeral seem that more ludicrous. They’ve all moved on and have lives, and suddenly Kenji is dredging up moments from the past that they can barely remember.

It’s also worth noting that about half of 20th Century Boys Vol. 1 is set in the past, shifting between then and now so that we can start to learn about how these children all originally came together. With their memories hazy, it unspools at just the right pace, laying clues and plot points at just the right rate so that both past and present feed off each other and come across as one large, unified story. It’s funny, though, because as much as I love the two working in concert and the modern day thriller aspects of 20th Century Boys, I’d have been happy if the entire series was set in the past. Urasawa’s stories of their childhood years are engrossing and entertaining; I’d love to see Urasawa just write and draw a story about a bunch of children’s lives with no greater goal, because it’s just that instantly accessible and fun.

Urasawa’s art is up to its usual standards. There’s a key at the front of the first volume showing the past and present day versions of all the characters, but I don’t think you actually need it. Urasawa does a good job of drawing "adult" versions of the young characters, and by more than simply making them taller. Donkey, for instance, has a face that’s filled out some more (and that forever runny nose has finally stopped running), but there’s also a slight air of maturity about him in those images that you didn’t see from him being a child. Still, that goofy smile is on his face as both a child or an adult, and in an instant you can tell it’s him. I also really like how Urasawa pays attention to the smaller details. When Kenji has his baby niece Kanna strapped to his back, I love that she’s never always in the same position. She’s forever shifting around, looking at different things, just like a tiny child her age would do. It’s that attention to detail (that wouldn’t exist with so many other artists) that is present all throughout 20th Century Boys Vol. 1.

Naoki Urasawa is experiencing a little English-language renaissance these days; his series Monster began its release several years ago, and now that’s done is having if followed it up with releases of his Tezuka remix series Pluto as well as 20th Century Boys. It would be easy to feel Urasawa fatigue if his work was merely ok, but I have to say that I think it really is living up to all of the hype. This is a really strong debut for the book, and Viz has treated it well with heavy cover stock, an embossed logo, and end-flaps. I, for one, am really looking forward to the next installment of 20th Century Boys; reading this book, it’s easy to see why Japan is crazy about Urasawa. I am, too.

Purchase Link: Amazon.com

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