January 10, 2011

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20th Century Boys Vol 2

Written by Naoki Urasawa
Illustrated by Naoki Urasawa
Viz

Things are slowly getting more and more dire as Kenji's past starts to have deadly consequences for the the present. While he and those he grew up with battle their personal problems and the fog of memory, others are on the trail of the mysterious sign that has ties to a possibly lethal cult. It looks like there's a connection, but will Kenji figure it out in time or face the fate of others who have crossed someone who may be a former friend? Things continue to simmer towards what is surely a deadly threat for the 20th Century Boys!

Like the first chapter, there's still a lot of story building going on here in this early going of a long-running manga series. We need to meet more members of Kenji's former friends circle, set up some dramatic personal life tension, and establish just how vast a conspiracy the cult of Friend really is. All of this is established quite nicely, I think, without dragging too much and leaving the reader waiting for the action to start. This is accomplished by strategic use of flashbacks with current events and ensuring that these past stories relate strongly to what is going on in the present-day narrative. Urasawa also does a good job of keeping dramatic tension going by giving just enough surprise events or plot elements to make sure we're engaged in the proceedings. There's nothing quite like a dramatic reveal or sudden death to jolt the reader in an active stance, and this trade has a nice blend of them.

In fact, I admit to being a bit surprised given the length of the series that we got so many apparent facts in this volume, given this is only two books in. I'm sure it's possible that they were a plethora of red herrings, but it hardly seems likely given all of them tie strongly into Kenji and he's clearly the focus of the manga. I love the way Urasawa has blending things together that appear at first to have no relation at all. It's yet another way to keep the reader going through sections that might not seem important at the time, a trick that worked well in Plastic Farm from Rafer Roberts. I like when an author has thought things through clearly enough to ensure that the links are all there, if only the reader is adept enough to connect the dots. It's the mystery lover in me, I think.

I hesitate to talk too much about the story itself, because I don't want to spoil it, but I appreciate the fact that Urasawa adds some positive female characters into the mix. Kenji's sister gets a good fleshing out, for instance, and there's definite potential for her to be an integral player. Kenji gets a strong female friend who's at the edges now, but can also be included to diversify things. Given that Kenji's mom is kind of a jerk, I thought the balance was a good touch. I also thought the idea that childhood fantasies could become terrible reality is done incredibly well here. I know other writers have done this (it's certainly a theme with Stephen King), but Urasawa's approach is unique enough that I feel like I'm encountering this idea for the first time. He definitely shares themes with King, but it's not derivative at all.

If I had to pick a genre to place this manga in, it would definitely be mystery. There are elements of science fiction and horror, but the twists and turns and conspiracies all point to stories that would make any mystery writer proud. I can't wait to try and get ahead of the curve. Right now, I think I'm a bit behind the writer, and that intrigues me. Can I catch up, or will Urasawa maintain the authorial upper hand? Only continued reading will give me the answer, and I couldn't be happier about that. It's nice to know there's a lot of story for me to keep reading over the next few months. This is definitely one of the best manga I've read, and I encourage others to give it a try. You won't be disappointed.