by Naoki Urasawa; adapted by Akemi Wegmuller
published by Viz; $12.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Otcho and the Kenji Group have pieced together all the clues, and finally, the moment to reveal the Friend’s true identity has come. However, it turns out that knowing the Friend’s identity doesn’t offer any advantage in stopping the New Book of Prophecy. Now the Kenji Group has to refocus its efforts on stopping a plot that looks to repeat the events of Bloody New Year’s Eve on a global scale.
Volume 12 marks the end to the first half of 20th Century Boys. You could call this story arc “Who Is Our Friend?” The hope was that knowing who the Friend was would give Kenji’s group insight on how to stop him and what he’s planning. But Urasawa loves red herrings and misdirection, so we instead discover that what’s important is not the man, but the plans he has set in motion. The New Book of Prophecy has a life of its own.
Volume 13 begins what I call “Stopping the New Book of Prophecy”. The start of this story arc really began when Kiriko, Kana’s mother, was introduced into the narrative. Of course, as readers, we didn’t know Urasawa was laying the foundation for a new story arc. Kiriko and the New Book of Prophecy just seem like new elements in discovering the Friend’s identity. Naturally, we should be wary of thinking we have the handle on the story. Urasawa is sure to have many more surprises in store for us.
Unlike Johanna, I enjoy reading the series in large chunks. I find the three-month wait between volumes is nerve-wracking. I like being completely lost in the world Urasawa has created and having all the details fresh in my mind as I move from volume to volume. You can see how the various timelines play off each other, how seemingly random events have deeper meaning, and how there are no minor players in this series.
A big appeal of the series is the human dynamics. I’m very fond of Yoshitune and his reluctant leadership. It’s an amazing lesson in the less flamboyant styles of leadership. Yoshitune, like so many of us, confuses charisma with leadership. Yoshitune may not be able to emotionally excite people like Kenji did, but he is doing the same work. The true core of leadership is the hard daily grind of keeping people organized and focused. For the past 14 years, he’s made sure people were cared for while continuing the investigation into the Friends Group. He doesn’t give himself enough credit as a vital member of the Kenji Group.
Kana’s idol worship of Kenji doesn’t help. Kana doesn’t realize that it took people like Yukiji to force Kenji to live up to his potential. Kenji became a great leader because of the support of his friends. It’s easy to believe that great leaders simply rise up from amongst the crowd by their own determination and special abilities. Urasawa reminds us that great leaders are born in and raised up by a network of support. Even the mighty Otcho didn’t simply appear out of thin air but was shaped by the people around him and his experiences with them.
These three-dimensional characters make the plot so exciting. We come to know and care about these people. We can identify with them directly or have friends that are just like them. This sympathy draws us into the story, because there are only a few extra-ordinary people in 20th Century Boys. Kana, the Friend, and even Otcho are the exceptions. This is really a celebration of the everyday hero. People like Yoshitune and Yukiji spend years fighting the good fight, slowly making progress against seemly impossible odds. Watching people just like us make a difference is both encouraging and a call to action.
Urasawa’s art is awe-inspiring. Flipping through the books, you can see the wide range of emotions expressed. His realistic art style blends perfectly with the realistic characters he creates. He’s reached that level of mastery where you don’t think about the art, yet it’s as integral to the story as the plot or characters. He uses page layouts to either speed up your reading and heighten dramatic tension or slow the pace down and really drive home what a character is saying or experiencing. I honesty can’t imagine 20th Century Boys being as compelling a read if it was just straight prose.
I always hate being caught up on 20th Century Boys. Urasawa has created such a rich world with fascinating people that I hate to have to leave it and wait three more months. Every comic book fan should be reading this series. It’s an exemplar of the best in graphic storytelling, a series as densely plotted as the best novels with visuals as stunning as the best movies. At the halfway point, I’m still as excited as when I picked up the first volume. This is a series I can’t wait to re-read like I did once Pluto was finished.