Reviewby Carlo Santos, Apr 23rd 2009
20th Century Boys
Kenji Endo's childhood is coming back to haunt him. One of his former friends has died under mysterious circumstances. Meanwhile, other deaths and disapperances have been linked to a cult whose logo is identical to a symbol made up by Kenji's old gang. And the leader of that cult, who goes only by the name of "Friend," might be one of Kenji's acquaintances who went missing years ago. But how does one stop a megalomaniacal cult when even members of the police are involved? Kenji's hazy childhood memories—if only he could remember them—might be the key to unlocking a terrible secret that involves a deadly virus, a killer robot, and possibly the end of the world.
The interwoven North American release schedule of 20th Century Boys and Pluto has created an unusual harmonic effect. In one work, Naoki Urasawa pays tribute to a boyhood hero; in the other, he deconstructs the very concept of boyhood heroes (and villains), twisting it into a tense conspiracy thriller. At least, that's what we'd like to believe about 20th Century Boys, but as it passes the two-volume mark, the thriller element still isn't delivering. Sure, this installment brings in a few more plot points, and the machinations of "Friend" are truly starting to take a sinister shape, but the flashbacks and reflections on childhood are still the most engaging part. So maybe it's time to sit back and think on those boyhood dreams a little more.
Those who choose to approach the series from a cultural angle—seeing it as Urasawa's personal nostalgia trip through the Japanese economic boom—will probably get the most satisfaction out of the story so far. With the overall plot still in fragments, it's much more rewarding to settle into the self-contained vignettes and stories-within-the-story, like how Kenji got his first guitar (and what better time than during the golden age of rock?), or the comical flashbacks about Yukiji, "the strongest girl who ever lived," and even more serious segments like the troubled history of Kenji's older sister. A sprinkling of pop-culture references also adds to the sense of time and place, and it's always done tastefully: maybe a casual mention of some old-school manga or a movie, or a youthful discourse on the super-powered struggle between good and evil.
That struggle, of course, is the whole reason this series exists in the first place—the last few chapters reveal a chilling hint that Kenji's hero-versus-villain fantasies may be coming back to haunt him in a totally new way. But even as the storyline starts to take shape and direction, Urasawa is still holding back far too much: hey, here's a cop who knows more than he ought to, and hey, here's a bunch of homeless guys predicting the future, and hey, here's the scary attack that's going to happen a year from now. Oh, and let's also waste dozens of pages where Kenji putzes around the convenience store where he works. Simply put, the main storyline is intriguing, but not yet gripping, and until these fragments become more coherently connected, the series is going to stay stuck at "pretty good."
Even the artwork seems to have fallen into a rut of "pretty good"—the strong, expressive faces are still there, along with the sure-handed linework that can render just about any scene and any situation, but genuinely stunning moments are hard to find here. The layouts move the story forward in a no-nonsense, businesslike manner—but perhaps too businesslike, as readers are more likely to remember the plot details rather than how the characters actually looked, or how they moved, or where they were standing. And really, that says it all about the story situation right now: what kind of visual narrative is this where the most memorable scene is the flashback of Kenji holding his first guitar? It may be fun drawing those scenes of youthful nostalgia, but the conspiracy-thriller side is clearly lacking, and will have to do a lot more than just throw up a mysterious symbol and let the talking heads do the rest.
There is, however, at least one area where being no-nonsense and businesslike proves to be an advantage: the dialogue, which often has to communicate the greatest amount of information in the least space possible. This is where storytelling talent really comes into play; it takes real skill to build a story as multi-layered as this one and still have it make sense as the characters explain things to each other through conversation or express themselves through internal monologue. A clear, straightforward translation helps as well. However, despite the premium page size and packaging, this edition is noticeably short on extras—even Pluto gets some cultural commentary on the importance of Astro Boy, but this volume just puts the story out there and nothing else.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with getting into 20th Century Boys purely for the story—after all, it's being crafted by one of the best in the business, and few others would be so daring as to write about the end of the world and a cult conspiracy and tie it into the crossing paths of childhood friends who are looking back on the last 40 years. But perhaps even a great talent can get in over his head: Urasawa still hasn't delivered any of the killer twists that are his trademark, choosing instead to reveal the conspiracy bit by bit and let things develop through a series of mini-twists. In the meantime, we can content ourselves with rich, nostalgic flashbacks of Kenji and his friends' youth, but the main storyline needs to hurry up and pick up the momentum too. How much longer until it crosses the line from good to great?
Overall : B-
Story : C+
Art : B+
+ Well-plotted flashbacks and vignettes fill out the characters and add depth to the story.
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