April 14, 2011

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20th Century Boys Volume 4

Written by Naoki Urasawa
Illustrated by Naoki Urasawa
Viz

As if the Friend movement wasn't powerful enough in Japan, they've got roots elsewhere, as the mysterious Shogun is soon to discover. While he leads an under the radar life, Shogun still has standards which come into conflict with the same entities Kenji is trying to stop in Japan. Will he be any luckier at thwarting their schemes than Kenji, and what is the connection that links Shogun to Kenji and the Friend in the first place? And just what is going on with Kenji anyway? Find out a few answers and meet a giant robot in....20th Century Boys.

This is the first volume where I wasn't drawn right into the story and excited to keep turning the pages. Just about every long-running manga has a slow-down point here and there, so I'm not worried. However, I feel like this particular trade got Shanghaied (pun intended) with the introduction of Shogun, leaving Kenji (the focal character) off doing things behind the scenes that we hear about by being told instead of shown. That's a cardinal sin in writing to begin with, but it makes it all the worse when there was a plodding story getting in the way.

It's not that I don't care about Shogun, but letting him take front and center when Kenji himself was left in quite a dangerous situation at the end of book three is just maddening. We flipped back and forth in the first three trades, why not do so again here, so that readers can both get used to the idea of Shogun's importance and still see how Kenji was surviving against the odds against the ever-more powerful Friend. It's a storytelling choice that strikes me as odd, and I hope that shortcuts like this don't keep cropping up in future volumes, as that could impact on my enjoyment of the series.

That disappointment being said, there's still some great things going on here. Showing the far-reaching power of the Friend is useful information for later, though I wonder if it was done here just to bring another player into the drama. Shogun is a perfect anti-hero, reminding me a bit of the 1990s version of Nomad from Marvel Comics, a reference very few people will get. (Please see the pictures at left for those not "blessed" with a memory of Marvel in the 1990s.)

Given that Kenji is at heart a good man, it's probably not a bad idea that we have Shogun on the scene to do those things which would sully Kenji as a character. Much like how Wolverine was the one who'd do the things the "purer" characters like Spider-Man wouldn't when the situation called for it (oh what a quaint notion capes comics used to have), I have a feeling Shogun might need to kill those who need killing, a task I don't think Kenji is capable of, at least not right now. Better yet, perhaps this is all a feint and Kenji will need to strike the final, killing blow. Either way, it makes perfect sense and adds a good dimension to the story that would have been better if we'd kept to a dual narrative.

Once we do arrive back in Kenji's world, there's a lot to like. Kenji himself trying to be serious in the dumbest outfit possible is a nice touch. The idea that he thinks he's outsmarting the Friend (when we all know better) is a nice touch. As with most stories like this, things work best when the hero thinks they are acting unseen and the villain acts too arrogantly with regard to the hero. This is by no means new, but I love that dynamic when it's done well, and Urasawa is firing on all cylinders with the familiar theme.

Best of all, however is the introduction of the giant robot. This series now gets a large amount of leeway from me, because it's done the most obvious thing possible when dealing with a childhood doomsday scenario: Added a robot to it. And that robot was designed by people acting like adult geeks with world domination in mind would act. I laughed so hard all through those pages, and I can't wait to see how Urasawa uses the thing.

Allow me to repeat that: This story will at some point feature a giant, doomsday robot, trying to wreak havoc.

If that doesn't hook you into reading 20th Century Boys, I don't know what will. Stephen King would be proud. Despite a few hiccups, I'm looking forward to reading more of this Eisner-nominated series, and anyone thinking about giving it a try should do so as soon as possible. Be a part of things before they start stamping Eisner all over the covers!