by Naoki Urasawa
published by Viz; $12.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
When Kenji was nine years old, he dreamed of saving Japan from alien invaders and nuclear holocaust, but as a 37-year-old man, he runs the family convenience store. His days are now filled with stocking shelves, dealing with his cranky mother, and raising the baby his sister dropped off at his doorstep. Suddenly, strange things begin to happen around him. A loyal customer and his wife disappear. Next, a childhood friend dies under mysterious circumstances. Stranger still is that a symbol from his childhood seems to be tied to all these events. Kenji wants to solve these mysteries and find out how they’re connected to his youth.
My first reaction after reading this book was, “This feels so American.” This is not a complaint, just an observation. It’s because the cultural references and Kenji’s experiences are typical of Americans his age. He talks about hearing the Rolling Stones for the first time and how obsessed he became with the song “Jumping Jack Flash”. How that song inspired him to learn guitar and fueled his desire to be in a rock band. Kenji remembers staying up all night hoping to see the moon landing on TV. The flashbacks to his youth reminded me of the film Stand by Me. As an adult, he visits the university campus, where two competing departments are playing a baseball game for bragging rights. So many details are similar to what you’d find in America that it just didn’t feel like the typical manga to me.
20th Century Boys is a true graphic novel in the deepest sense of the term. It has all the characteristics of the best novels combined with excellent art. Perhaps it’s a sad comment on comics, both American and Japanese, but the literary excellence of this book completely caught me off guard. Here is a manga that is meticulously plotted with carefully crafted characters that come to life before your eyes. What makes these characters so real is their rich tapestry of emotions. You don’t just have the standard emotions of happiness, anger, and sadness. There’s also nostalgia, wistfulness, resignation, and regret. I’ve never read a manga with so much emotional complexity and subtlety. Urasawa brilliantly conveys these feelings powerfully, but indirectly.
Take, for example, Kenji’s unspoken regret about never getting to be a rock star. We’ve seen in flashbacks his love for the Rolling Stones, his learning guitar, and his skipping classes in college to hang out and play the instrument. An old friend comes by and asks if he still plays. He replies, “That old thing? I don’t even know where it is anymore. Look at these fingers. All soft and flabby!” His wistfulness can be seen in his posture, his facial expression, and heard in his words. These four panels are a perfect example of the power of comics. Each picture is worth a thousand words. It’s great to read a comic where the author has enough faith in this audience to understand what is going on without having to be spoon-fed.
Urasawa’s master storytelling is seen in the way he connects the flashbacks and the present. We aren’t shown idle remembrances from Kenji’s childhood; each episode from the past has some connection to the present. Sometimes you have to wait a couple of chapters for the full implications of how what we’ve seen fits. The interaction between the past and the present communicate poignantly that sense of nostalgia, even when Kenji himself isn’t aware of it. I like the way Urasawa strings the memories together. He really captures that stream-of-consciousness feel. Kenji’s memory about hearing the Stones leads to a memory of playing air guitar that leads to a memory of him buying his first guitar. Each episode tells us something further about Kenji and how the events are intertwined give a glimpse deep into his psyche. Urasawa has fashioned a tight narrative that rewards second and third readings.
I don’t want to paint this as a somber, humorless manga; it isn’t. The first chapter starts out with great broad humor as we see Kenji and his mother together in the store bickering the way families do. Initially, Kenji comes off as a bit of a bumpkin, obsessed with running the convenience store. It’s a time-tested way to hook an audience, start with a joke. Slowly the manga settles into a more serious tone, but there is always a strand of humor running through the book. Urasawa doesn’t just use one style of humor either. Some of the jokes are very subtle, and if you’re not paying attention or reading too quickly, you’ll miss them.
It’s obvious by now that I like Kenji and find him a very sympathetic character. His most impressive characteristic is the ability to roll with the punches and disappointments in life most admirably. He didn’t get to save Japan from eminent danger or become a rock star, and he doesn’t wallow in bitterness over this. He runs the convenience store like that’s what he’s always wanted to do. His sister shows up, drops off her baby, and then disappears. He raises the child like she’s his own. He gives her all the love and care she needs without complaining about her being a burden. He’s a genuinely nice guy, and Urasawa doesn’t make fun of Kenji for being that.
Part of this probably comes from the fact that Kenji and his friends are only seven years older than I am. I was too young to remember the moon landing, but I lived in a world profoundly shaped by that event. My friends and I also grew up listening to the radio and getting excited by music we were hearing. Kenji’s thirty-seven in this manga, I’m forty-one, so I can relate to where’s he at in life.
This manga is drawn in a much more realistic style than usual for the medium. In the beginning, it reminded me a little of the house style of Mad magazine, especially because of the exaggerated expressions Kenji and his mother use when fighting. Of course, this added to the ‘American’ feel of the book. After the second chapter, the artwork seemed to slightly move away from this style. All the artwork is excellent, but Urasawa’s real gift is facial expressions. He’s able to communicate any emotion. It’s a pleasure just to flip through the book and look at the all the facial closeups. He also lays out the pages well. He does wonderful things with panel sizes and arrangement to capture the right mood or quicken the pace.
20th Century Boys had me hooked before I even finished the first chapter. This book is written for adults, and really only adults can fully appreciate it. To truly get inside the characters and the narrative you need to be past thirty and settling in what you’re most likely going to be doing for the rest of your life. It’s a masterpiece. It’s so rare to read a comic, or even a novel, with so many layers put together so adeptly. I’m already jittery with anticipation for the next volume. (This review was based on a galley provided by the publisher.)