Even in the US, where most of his work is still not yet available, Naoki Urasawa is something of a manga superstar. When his work Monster, a suspenseful thriller about a doctor on the trail of a serial killer, first began to be published in the states, it was greeted by rave reviews and not one but two Eisner nominations. So it’s not much of a surprise that the publication of Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys has been accompanied by very high reader expectations. Could 20th Century Boys really be as good as Monster? Could it even be better?One volume’s worth of story won’t be enough to answer those questions; the verdict on that will have to wait. Nevertheless, fans of Urasawa will be happy to hear that so far, at least, the hype seems to be right on the mark.
20th Century Boys is a sprawling, ambitious story set over several decades in the lives of a group of childhood friends. When they were boys, Kenji and his gang had big imaginations and bigger dreams, but as adults they’ve settled into quiet and unexceptional lives. Instead of growing up to be astronauts and rock musicians, they’ve become store owners, salarymen, and high school teachers. Kenji himself just seems to be scraping by, as he struggles to run his family’s convenience store while raising his sister’s kid. But a mysterious cult leader known only as Friend is gathering followers in Tokyo, and somehow his cult has something to do with Kenji and his friends’ childhood games.
This is a complex story, but fortunately we’re in the hands of a master storyteller. Urasawa smoothly takes the narrative back and forth between the present and the past (and, in a couple intriguing scenes, possibly the future) as he begins to lay out the story. What immediately sets this apart from a lot of other manga is the sheer attention to detail, as dozens of images, clues, and allusions work to tie everything together. We, the readers, may not know where this story is going, but it’s clear that Urasawa does.
The art is also a particular pleasure and worth highlighting. I especially love Urasawa’s character designs. No one is fantastically pretty–which is fitting, because this is a story of average Joes who just might be heroes–but all the faces are very expressive and distinctive. It is easy to see which boy grows into which middle-aged man, even before the dialogue identifies them.
Viz is giving 20th Century Boys the deluxe treatment. Their edition comes the larger 5-3/4 x 8-1/4 format and has an embossed cover with French flaps. Two pages of cultural notes can be found at the back of the book, for those of us who don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of Japanese pop culture from the sixties and seventies. The translation and adaptation are also pleasing; the slang and casual speech feel very natural and are not overly Americanized, which is unfortunately not something one can say about all Viz manga.
20th Century Boys is many things: a mystery, a psychological thriller, an epic adventure, a love letter to rock music, a meditation on childhood and growing up. It’s also a manga for people who love manga, just as the protagonists did when they were boys reading Shonen Sunday in their secret base. If that sounds like you, this is definitely not a series to overlook. Run, don’t walk, to the store to get a copy of your own. Highly recommended.
Review originally published at MangaLife.com