20th Century Boys Vol 1

Written by Naoki Urasawa
Illustrated by Naoki Urasawa

I'd been meaning to pick this one up for awhile, and since Volume 1 was finally in at the library, I picked it up as one of my random grabs. I've not read any Urasawa, but having heard good things about both this series and Monster, I figured it was worth a try. Turns out I was right.

A young man who's settled into a life he's not entirely happy about, running a failing family business and taking care of his niece, ends up meeting with his old friends from school, due to the close proximity of a wedding and a funeral. The latter is particularly strange, as the friend who supposedly committed suicide seemed full of life at the time.

When our protagonist Kenji starts looking deeper, he finds a strange symbol that brings back memories he's forgotten for years. On top of everything else, a menacing figure that may have ties to Kenji and his friends is putting together an army of followers to take over the world. Can this symbol have something to do with his friend's death, and maybe the deaths or disappearances of others? If he can't convince anyone else, it may be up to Kenji to find out.

One thing you will either like or hate about the book is that it does not tell this story in a linear fashion and does not have seamless transitions between chapters. We are getting pieces of a puzzle that the reader has to put together, possibly before the main character does. When done well (and I think it's done well here), I like the challenge of finding my way amongst the little story snippets, going "aha!" here and there as I read. If you aren't the type of person who wants to put a bit of extra work into your reading, then this is not going to work for you at all.

Normally I'd be a bit concerned that we have so many things going on in this first volume, but Urasawa manages to give each piece of the plot just enough time at the center of things to make sure that the reader is interested and intrigued. The primary focus is on Kenji, of course, but we see other things going on that slowly start tying together (maybe) as the first volume progresses. The answers are not immediately obvious, which is great if you like mysteries, not so much if you're just looking for an action story. So far, I've liked having to try and pick my way through the little clues and guess at how everything links together. It will be interesting to see if this structure continues throughout or if we end up getting a more linear storyline as we get closer to the answers.

The only downside to this type of setting is that the book can at times feel a bit maddening in its slowness to move to the crux of the story. I appreciate the need for build-up, but I was a bit disappointed that we didn't get more of what the protagonists will be up against by the end of this volume. Hopefully that will change after I read the second book.

In terms of Urasawa's writing style, I think the person I made a connection to is Stephen King. King doesn't usually hop around in time in a single book, but there are other similarities. For example, the grouping of boys who enjoy their summer reminded me of the short story that inspired the movie Stand By Me. The fact that they have to band together again after so many years echoes It, and Urasawa's often crass dialog by his characters (who use foul language and talk about low-brow things in-between the dramatic moments) is right out of the King playbook. There's a sense of the horror of a world that's not quite right, too, which also reminds me thematically of the master of the modern horror book. This parallel might just be my own outlook, however, given that I've read a lot of Stephen King this year.

Artistically, I was a bit surprised at how western Urasawa's art felt. The panel composition and character designs reminded me more of John Buscema and Dick Giordano than, say, Tezuka or Takahashi. There are a lot of tightly constructed close-up shots, pages cramped by talking heads, and backgrounds that show more detail than I'm used to seeing in most manga that I read. It's an interesting shift that just shows that, regardless of genre, there are many drawing styles available if you know where to look. 20th Century Boys is a good sample against the "anime eyes" argument next time you're dueling with someone about the virtues of manga against western comics.

20th Century Boys intrigued me a lot, and I'm looking forward to reading more. It's got a solid mystery, main characters that you want to follow, and some elements of horror and possibly science fiction as well. This is quite different from other things I'm reading at the same time, and I can't wait to see how things progress. It's another winner from the Viz Signature line, which is quickly becoming an automatic "try this" whenever I see the logo on the shelf.