February 6, 2011

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20th Century Boys Vol 3

Written by Naoki Urasawa
Illustrated by Naoki Urasawa
Viz

Life only keeps getting worse for Kenji. Not only is he slowly tumbling to the idea that someone is using his wild childhood fantasies to bring death and devastation to the world, but that same person is starting to make it an extremely personal battle. As Kenji tries harder to get to the bottom of the mystery, his entire personal life is about to crumble around him. Can he handle the pressure of being the key to saving the world? Or will it all be too much, as he's linked ever-closer to the mysterious Friend? Watch with growing horror as things get worse in...20th Century Boys.

This series continues to be absolutely amazing, blowing me away with almost every turn of the page. I can see why Urasawa is so highly regarded, because I'm hard-pressed to think of a manga--or any other recent comic--that has such a long story and still manages to keep the energy level ramped up, chapter by chapter. I realize I'm saying this before I'm completely caught up with the storyline, but I see no reason why this would change, now that the pattern is three volumes strong. There's hardly a dull moment to be found here, as Urasawa keeps Kenji (and the reader) off balance, rocking from one revelation or big event to the other.

Not afraid to go for a home run early on, we see what starts as a major confrontation for Kenji and the Friend (maybe--I'm still a bit doubtful that Urasawa is going to make it that easy on the reader or his characters) is merely more toying. Using Kenji's own ideas, the Friend has the upper hand and isn't afraid to taunt him. There's such a powerful energy as Kenji, completely frustrated, curses at the Friend and his allies, knowing that his cries have all the impact of a pebble dropping into the ocean. The emotion of the moment explodes out of the page and into the reader's head in a way that stays with you after you finish reading. That's how good Urasawa is with his pacing and panel structure.

Keep in mind that's only the first four chapters! From there, Kenji races against time, trying to find a way to stop the genocide that the Friend wishes to bring to the earth. Unfortunately, he's thwarted at every turn, with the tension ramping up as he realizes that now those close to him are in the sights of this madman, not just citizens of the world. It's a great game of misdirection, and I for one was fooled a few times. By the time everything is said and done, Kenji looks like he is on the verge of losing everything. How can he save the world when he can't even keep a roof over his head?

The general concepts Urawsawa uses in 20th Century Boys are certainly not unique to him. I can think of a half dozen stories that have a giant conspiracy that seems to have overwhelming odds in its favor that they use to beat the hero down to the point of desperation, as we see here. It's the way in which Urasawa uses these familiar themes that impresses me. They don't feel recycled because of the clever pacing and excellent characterization of the major characters. Urasawa's already let us in on the fact that Kenji eventually wins, so there's no need to pretend that he won't, a pitfall many writers end up in when they use this concept. The fun is in seeing what happens to Kenji along the way. His battle of wits with the Friend is going to be an epic one, and we as readers get to sit back and enjoy the ride.

20th Century Boys has it all--great storytelling, great characters, and great art. Urasawa is at the top of his game here, and my only regret is not reading his mangas sooner. Don't make that mistake. If you aren't reading 20th Century Boys yet, you definitely should be. It's everything that an epic comic should be, and maybe just a bit more. This series continues to get my highest possible recommendation, and I see no reason for that to change anytime soon. Be a Friend and start reading it today!