Posted on 2010-07-16. By anonymous.
When Kenji was nine years old, he dreamed of saving Japan from alien invaders and nuclear holocaust, but as a 37-year-old man, he runs the family convenience store. His days are now filled with stocking shelves, dealing with his cranky mother, and raising the baby his sister dropped off at his doorstep. Suddenly, strange things begin to happen around him. A loyal customer and his wife disappear. Next, a childhood friend dies under mysterious circumstances. Stranger still is that a symbol from his childhood seems to be tied to all these events. Kenji wants to solve these mysteries and find out how theyæŠ®e connected to his youth.
20th Century Boys is a true graphic novel in the deepest sense of the term. It has all the characteristics of the best novels combined with excellent art. Perhaps itæŠ¯ a sad comment on comics, both American and Japanese, but the literary excellence of this book completely caught me off guard. Here is a manga that is meticulously plotted with carefully crafted characters that come to life before your eyes. What makes these characters so real is their rich tapestry of emotions. You donæŠ° just have the standard emotions of happiness, anger, and sadness. ThereæŠ¯ also nostalgia, wistfulness, resignation, and regret. IæŠ³e never read a manga with so much emotional complexity and subtlety. Urasawa brilliantly conveys these feelings powerfully, but indirectly.
Take, for example, KenjiæŠ¯ unspoken regret about never getting to be a rock star. WeæŠ³e seen in flashbacks his love for the Rolling Stones, his learning guitar, and his skipping classes in college to hang out and play the instrument. An old friend comes by and asks if he still plays. He replies, æŸhat old thing? I donæŠ° even know where it is anymore. Look at these fingers. All soft and flabby!?His wistfulness can be seen in his posture, his facial expression, and heard in his words. These four panels are a perfect example of the power of comics. Each picture is worth a thousand words. ItæŠ¯ great to read a comic where the author has enough faith in this audience to understand what is going on without having to be spoon-fed.
UrasawaæŠ¯ master storytelling is seen in the way he connects the flashbacks and the present. We arenæŠ° shown idle remembrances from KenjiæŠ¯ childhood; each episode from the past has some connection to the present. Sometimes you have to wait a couple of chapters for the full implications of how what weæŠ³e seen fits. The interaction between the past and the present communicate poignantly that sense of nostalgia, even when Kenji himself isnæŠ° aware of it. I like the way Urasawa strings the memories together. He really captures that stream-of-consciousness feel. KenjiæŠ¯ memory about hearing the Stones leads to a memory of playing air guitar that leads to a memory of him buying his first guitar. Each episode tells us something further about Kenji and how the events are intertwined give a glimpse deep into his psyche. Urasawa has fashioned a tight narrative that rewards second and third readings.
I donæŠ° want to paint this as a somber, humorless manga; it isnæŠ°. The first chapter starts out with great broad humor as we see Kenji and his mother together in the store bickering the way families do. Initially, Kenji comes off as a bit of a bumpkin, obsessed with running the convenience store. ItæŠ¯ a time-tested way to hook an audience, start with a joke. Slowly the manga settles into a more serious tone, but there is always a strand of humor running through the book. Urasawa doesnæŠ° just use one style of humor either. Some of the jokes are very subtle, and if youæŠ®e not paying attention or reading too quickly, youæŠ£l miss them.
ItæŠ¯ obvious by now that I like Kenji and find him a very sympathetic character. His most impressive characteristic is the ability to roll with the punches and disappointments in life most admirably. He didnæŠ° get to save Japan from eminent danger or become a rock star, and he doesnæŠ° wallow in bitterness over this. He runs the convenience store like thatæŠ¯ what heæŠ¯ always wanted to do. His sister shows up, drops off her baby, and then disappears. He raises the child like sheæŠ¯ his own. He gives her all the love and care she needs without complaining about her being a burden. HeæŠ¯ a genuinely nice guy, and Urasawa doesnæŠ° make fun of Kenji for being that.
Part of this probably comes from the fact that Kenji and his friends are only seven years older than I am. I was too young to remember the moon landing, but I lived in a world profoundly shaped by that event. My friends and I also grew up listening to the radio and getting excited by music we were hearing. KenjiæŠ¯ thirty-seven in this manga, IæŠ¦ forty-one, so I can relate to whereæŠ¯ he at in life.
This manga is drawn in a much more realistic style than usual for the medium. In the beginning, it reminded me a little of the house style of Mad magazine, especially because of the exaggerated expressions Kenji and his mother use when fighting. Of course, this added to the æ…‰merican?feel of the book. After the second chapter, the artwork seemed to slightly move away from this style. All the artwork is excellent, but UrasawaæŠ¯ real gift is facial expressions. HeæŠ¯ able to communicate any emotion. ItæŠ¯ a pleasure just to flip through the book and look at the all the facial closeups. He also lays out the pages well. He does wonderful things with panel sizes and arrangement to capture the right mood or quicken the pace.
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