by Naoki Urasawa; adapted by Akemi Wegmuller
published by Viz; $12.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
The Kana storyline from volume 5 continues. Britney, one of the regulars at the restaurant where Kana works, has witnessed a murder and is being sought by the police and hunted down by the killer. Kana makes arrangements for Britney to get out of town and to stay with her grandmother. However, things get complicated fast as it turns out that Britney has stumbled upon something much bigger.
This volume also introduces us to Kakuta, a manga artist who is given life in prison for publishing a work deemed dangerous by the government. He is sent to Umihotaru Prison on a manmade island in Tokyo Bay. He ends up in solitary confinement his first day at the prison and meets The Monster, the only person to survive in solitary since the prison was opened 14 years ago.
20the Century Boys continues to be as suspenseful and well-written as the first volume. Urasawa is a master of keeping us off balance as we read the series. He does this by moving between multiple storylines that take place not only in different locations, but even in different years. Just as we settle into one narrative track and think the pieces are coming together, Urasawa shifts the series’ focus and reveals new information that scrambles up the puzzle once again.
In the hands of a less skilled writer, this would be a frustrating experience; however, Urasawa is able to keep us engaged with each new story shift and revelation. He does this by firmly grounding the series in the daily realities of the central characters. We see Kana having to attend school and not fitting in because of her beliefs about the government. We watch as she works in a restaurant struggling to get by in the shady part of town. We follow Kakuta as he goes through the embarrassingly invasive check-in and indoctrination at the prison. While this may be an epic story about saving the world, it’s not done in the “high adventure and exotic locale” style of James Bond. Our heroes have to make a living and pay rent.
As I mentioned in my review of volume four, Urasawa pulls his cast from the outskirts of society. Our unlikely heroes in this volume are a transvestite entertainer and an imprisoned manga artist. Society would write off Britney as a weird man in a dress. Kakuta would be another inmate claiming he didn’t do anything wrong. Urasawa doesn’t give us the luxury to be dismissive of these men. We spend time getting to know and care about both of them. By the end of the book, we can no longer reduce either to a simple stereotype. Urasawa demonstrates the humanity and dignity of all people regardless of their social circumstances.
Urasawa’s decompressed storytelling style gives the art room to be an equal narrative partner. To convey how dark and depressing Umihotaru Prison is, Urasawa chooses a two-page layout that takes us from outside the prison to the dungeon of solitary confinement. Also, Urasawa knows how to play to his strengths. Flipping through the book, you’ll notice there are lots of facial close-ups; this is because Urasawa knows he can portray any emotion. In a dialogue-intensive volume like this one, he uses that skill to make character emotions and personalities leap off the page and impact the reader. I can’t imagine how many paragraphs of description would be needed to convey all the interpersonal complexity of a scene that Urasawa aptly communicates in one panel.
20th Century Boys is a thoroughly satisfying read, and I anxiously look forward to each new volume. Urasawa never fails to come up with surprising new twists. I love how he always keeps me on the edge of my seat. Urasawa is one of the comic masters, making us rethink the vocabulary of novels. Where once we talked about how great novelists had command of the written language, now we have to talk about great novelists who have command of sequential art. He takes us closer to the day when graphic novels will be seen on par with their text-only brethren. Until then, he will be the secret treasure of those that don’t discriminate based on use of art.