20th Century Boys Volume 1 Review

I've said it before and I'll say it again; Naoki Urasawa is the greatest living manga creator. In my earlier review of Pluto volume 1 I praised the series for its sense of pace and the way in which it speeds along due in no small part due to its brevity. At three times the length of Pluto, if you include the 2 issue sequel, you'd think that the story would have a lesser sense of urgency. You'd think, but you'd be wrong. Even with a total of 24 volumes at it's disposal, 20th Century Boys moves along at a cracking pace, offering an incredibly immersive and multi-faceted universe in the very first volume.

Mankind would not have made the new age, encountering the crisis at the end of the last century, that almost wiped them out... if it weren't for "them". In 1969, "they" who were still in their youth, created a symbol. In 1997, as the footsteps of the disaster slowly starts to show out, the symbol revives. This is the story about several boys, that save the world. - Madman

This story is both beautifully recognisable and frighteningly surreal all at the same time. Set between 1969 and 1997 Japan, references to Japanese history, locations such as quintessentially Japanese convenience stores and American rock music all assist in setting a foundation which is well known to manga readers. This well known setting also assists in making an impending threat all the more real and imposing. Instead of the setting being a whimsical far off land, this is happening in somewhat modern Japan. When reading this story in 2014, as a 30-something year old, I found myself reminiscing of post-bubble Japan and post-war Japan, the latter of which took place long before I was even a glimmer in my father's eye. Such is the power of Urasawa.

With the passage of time comparisons between the pseudo-religious cult featured in 20th Century Boys and the infamous real-life cult Aum Shinrikyo, responsible for the Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks of 1995, doesn't seem to be quite so prominent. That said, this series premiered in "Big Comic Spirits" in 1999 with Aum Shinrikyo having already plagued Japan since the 1980's. The sarin gas attack was just the final performance in what the group hoped would be a forcible reformation of humankind. Sound familiar? Well, that's kind of the backbone of 20th Century Boys. The enigmatic leader "Friend" could be seen as a representation of Aum leader Asahara with both leading pseudo-religious cults filled with blind faithful, all willing to kill on their masters command. Whether or not you see or even care about the parallels, this series is filled with intrigue, mystery and constant menace.

Of course it goes without saying that Urasawa's art is fantastic. His characters seem to be both lifelike and cartoony at the same time. With such a vast cast of characters, each being shown as a child and an adult, you'd think that you'd start to run out of individual looks but somehow, Urasawa manages to make each character look individual without resorting to just putting a hat on one guy or bucky teeth on another. They're all individual, just like us. Another fantastic design is that of "Friend". This enigmatic, faceless leader sports a nondescript suit and a material mask which covers his entire head. The symbol which adorns this mask is a simple in its design as it is effective. Somewhat of a mix of The eye of Horus from Ancient Egyptian mythology and the Middle Eastern Hamsa hand, its simplicity and seeming innocence belie the sinister undercurrent of this very dangerous group of individuals.

At its core, this story is about one mans journey from youth to adulthood and beyond. After years of forcible responsibility, Kenji finds that he can be more than he ever thought possible. He can be a hero. But how can one man possibly take on an entire doomsday cult? With the power of rock 'n' roll.

While I may not rate this single volume quite as highly as that of Pluto Volume 1, it's still among one of the best single volumes of manga that you're likely to read. 20th Century Boys volume 1 is available now from Madman with subsequent volumes being released on a monthly basis.

- Ryan


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