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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Graphic Novel Review: 20th Century Boys Volume 1


Title: 20th Century Boys
Volume #: 1
Series Length: 22 volumes (complete)
Manga-ka: Naoki Urasawa
English Publisher/Year: Viz/2009
Genre: Seinen, mystery, life, science fiction

Synopsis
:
--of series: Kenji and his friends start to notice a series of odd occurrences related to their childhood. A mysterious cult-leader named "friend" is out to destroy the world, and it has something to do with Kenji's childhood memories.
--of volume: Failed rock musician Kenji's memories of his past come rushing back when one of his childhood friends mysteriously commits suicide. Could this new death be related to the rise of a bizarre new cult that's been implicated in several other murders and disappearances?

Determined to dig deeper, Kenji reunites with some of his old buddies in the hope of learning the truth behind it all. Humanity, having faced extinction at the end of the 20th century, would not have entered the new millennium if it weren't for them. In 1969, during their youth, they created a symbol. In 1997, as the coming disaster slowly starts to unfold, that symbol returns. This is the story of a gang of boys who try to save the world.

Review: I'll be up-front, 20th Century Boys is not my normal manga reading taste. I've read it before, in scanlations (I stress I read it before I knew it was licensed in America), well most of it anyhow, and enjoyed it thoroughly then. The art style is reminiscent of simpler manga. Its not in way shape or form 'simple', but the heavy detail work is reserved for background scenery, while everything else relies very little on shading and tone. Urasawa draws very expressive people, their faces and their bodies are always in use to convey their words.

The first volume sets the stage so to speak. The story begins at the beginning of the 21st Century as a very important man introduces the group of people who 'saved' humanity from a terrible incident. Well I should say the story begins with someone, in 1973, hijacking the school's PA System to play rock and roll over the airwaves, then goes to the important and his speech. The volume itself jumps between 1997 (the 'present' so to speak) and the years of 1968-1979 as Kenji, our protagonist, moves through his daily life.

Often Kenji will remember a certain event, or string of events, from his childhood that he will fondly recall. The formation of his friends' secret club. Hanging out with 'Donkey'. Getting his first guitar. Those sorts of things. As the story progresses from one friend's wedding to the news of another's friend's apparent suicide, things begin to look darker. How is their friend's suicide tied to the missing Professor and his family? Why did he send Kenji a letter days before his death, saying he'd explain everything? Why is a symbol from their childhood appearing all over again?

Interspersed with the lives of Kenji and Co are short digressions into what can only be called cult gatherings. Hundreds (if not more) of people are gathered to witness 'The Friend' 's instructive speeches about how they can all be more tranquil when one with him and how the world will burn, but they will be safe as his 'friends'. The group's symbol is the same symbol from Kenji's childhood as are the 'teachings' of the mysterious 'Friend'.

While I'm interested in finding out more about this 'Friend' I was drawn more to the lives of Kenji and his friends and how they've changed since they were children. The end of the volume, when Kenji thinks about what their child selves would think of their adult selves rings very true I think. If you were to go back and ask your ten year old self how they think of your 30 year old self--do you think they'd be happy? Sad? Laugh at you?

Viz does a splendid job presenting the book. Its larger then many of their current series (closer in size to the old GN's from the 90's), but it works well for the formatting. The print is clear, with minimal amounts of translator notes (in fact there were only four in the entire volume) placed safely to the side to explain topical references (such as a reference to an old radio program, an old manga series, etc). The end of the volume has a couple pages more of explanatory notes--about the honorifics used as well as more detailed information about a few cultural things. I like the fact the book has jacket flaps in the back and front (the book reads right to left, standard manga format) it made the few times I had to hold a place for some reason easier then folding down a corner or just leaving it open. The binding is tight, but flexible enough so that you don't have to crack the spine to open the book enough to read the edges.

As I mention above the series is complete at 22 volumes in Japan, but there is a shorter 2 volume 'sequel' series called '21st Century Boys', also licensed by Viz. Additionally there is a trio of live action adaptation movies--the first two are already out in Japan with the third due out in the fall 2009 and recently the first part of the triology was made available in the UK on DVD.

Incidentally the manga takes its name from the classic rock song '20th Century Boy' by a band called T. Rex (I have no other knowledge beyond this, being not a rock fan, sorry!).