There is a moment in volume 3 of Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys in which Kenji, the book’s unlikely hero, goes to confront the mysterious leader of the dangerous “Friends” cult at a concert attended by thousands of the charismatic figure’s followers. The scene is masterfully played and epitomizes the surprising concision of Urasawa’s recent work.
In the 30-odd pages taken up by this episode, the series quickly emerges from the slow burn of the previous two volumes and into the action that will define the rest of the book. Kenji enters the concert confident that once he exposes the cult leader’s crimes, his followers will recognize that they’ve been duped and put an immediate halt to his murderous plans. Of course this confidence is based on the flawed assumption that aside from various cosmetic differences, all people are basically the same and hold essentially the same values. When he finally emerges from the venue after a confrontation with the masked “friend,” Kenji has been stripped of this and several other illusions and given a new awareness of the awesome challenge that he faces.
Naoki Urasawa is kind of a big deal right now. This is unsurprising considering the simultaneous issuing of Pluto, his 21st century update of Tezuka's Astro Boy tale "The Greatest Robot on Earth," and 20th Century Boys, which was originally published in Japan around the turn of the century but withheld in this country at Urasawa’s request until the completion of his mid-nineties series Monster. It helps also that for these new series, Viz has eschewed the wildly inappropriate shock-horror design scheme of Monster for deluxe, signature editions that are more fitting to the books and their ostensible readership.
For a host of reasons, so obvious they hardly seem worth adumbrating here, Pluto is grabbing the lion's share of the attention in this country. Ultimately this is fine; Pluto is a great book--unquestionably one of the two or three great series being published right now. Be that as it may, 20th Century Boys is shaping up to be an incredibly fine, self-assured book and the simultaneous publication of these two series on the heels of Monster gives readers an opportunity to chart the development of one Japan’s true comics masters at the apex of his powers.
Volume 3 feels transitional. The first two volumes of the series were largely concerned with laying out the basic story and character details and it is only as this third volume comes to a close that the plot has begun its first upward development. Urasawa, it seems, has eschewed the typical multi-volume series format in which each volume contains a more or less complete narrative that fits into the larger whole in favor of one story that is structured across the whole of the series. This is an incredibly ambitious strategy that risks putting off readers who have come to expect a certain quota of narrative action in a series from the first volume.
The payoff, of course, is that in the hands of a master capable of pulling it off, a narrative of this scope provides a lot of space in which to tease out all the little details that make reading complex stories rewarding. It’s the same principal that makes Fassbinder’s adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz or even a season of The Wire so much more satisfying than the typical television mini-series or crime show. The question of course is whether Urasawa can pull it off. Monster is structured more traditionally, with each volume drawing a complete narrative arc. 20th Century Boys and Pluto, on the other hand, both seem to be developing more unitary structures.
One way in which Urasawa deals with the threat of reader alienation is by introducing new characters in a volume’s final pages. He did this most famously in the first two volumes of Pluto, introducing Atom and Uran, respectively, in those volumes closing pages. Volume 3 of 20th Century Boys ends with the introduction of the mysterious Shogun.
Aside from being one of those great, generally benevolent but sorta dark characters that populate Urasawa’s books, Shogun epitomizes the incredibly effective subtlety of Urasawa’s art. Like a lot of successful manga artists, Urasawa has developed a drawing style that conveys a lot of energy and subtle detail within its surface simplicity. Consider the episode in volume 1 of Pluto in which Geshicht is charged with informing the robot wife of a police robot of her husband’s destruction. By some artful combination of panel layout and general manga voodoo, Urasawa is able to chart the descent into sadness and despair on an unchanging, obviously robotic face.
Urasawa’s greatest strength, however, is the human face. With a scant few scratchy lines, Urasawa presents characters that are usually either plainly sympathetic or threatening. Occasionally, however, he throws readers a curve, giving us a character whose face is more inscrutable, belying conflicting elements. Grimmer, from Monster, is one such character—the smiling openness of his face betrays hints of the darkness that lies in his past. Shogun is another such example—the delicacy of his features and his kindness toward the Bangkok prostitutes that he counts as his friends are complicated by the aura of brooding violence that surrounds him.
In his recent memoir Too Fat to Fish, Artie Lange asserts that the only unforgivable crimes are those committed against children because childhood is the only opportunity we have for unsullied happiness in our lives. Lange's point here shines light on what might be the major concern of Urasawa’s comics, which is that the events of childhood can have unexpected and devastating consequences. Children play a major role in Urasawa’s books and he uses them to effectively highlight the tragedy of modern life and the threats that we face.
Urasawa complicates this theme in a number of interesting ways in 20th Century Boys. As we learn in volume 3, the leader of the Friends cult is the father of Kenji’s niece Kanna. Thus the tension between this opposed pair becomes personified in this toddling child. Even more interesting is the fact that the struggle at the center of the book comes down to how different people can take the same childhood events, in this case the innocent fantasy play of children, and take them in wildly different directions. Kenji’s childhood imaginings of a band of boys who will save the world from an evil genius’s nefarious plans become the basis for the friendless Sadakiyo’s plot for global destruction.
Indeed, Kenji’s own struggle centers on his failure to live up to the dreams of his childhood, symbolized by the ¥26,000 guitar that is consumed in the King Mart that, for its part, consumed his dreams of rock stardom. The persistence of questions by his former classmates and teachers about his music career confirm this as a central focus of the book.
As Kenji sits dumbfounded at the Friends concert, the lead singer of the performing rock band chanting, “I Rock You!,” one cannot help but think of the opening lyrics to the T Rex song from which the book takes its title: “Friends say it's fine, friends say it's good, everybody says it’s just like rock & roll.” Kenji’s objections to the contrary, there is a disturbing similarity between charismatic religious figures and rock stars. As Kenji allows life to get in the way of his realizing his dreams, the Friend rises to his own perverted version of stardom and threatens the world in the process. It’s hard to say what’s more difficult, saving the world or living up to one’s dreams, but Urusawa’s figured out a way to equate one with the other and it promises to be a satisfying read.