Aphelion Issue 295, Volume 28
June 2024 --
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20th Century Boys

A manga review

by McCamy Taylor

20th Century Boys cover art

Last month I previewed Pluto the ongoing manga (Japanese graphic novel) being written and drawn by award winning Urasawa Naoki, which is scheduled for release by Viz in the United States for February 1. Another title from Urasawa-sensei being released at the same time is a much greater milestone. This is the critically acclaimed 20th Century Boys, widely considered to be one of the best if not the best manga ever written.

It is almost impossible to provide a plot summary, however, I will try to do it in three sentences. Here goes. The main hero, Kenji, a frustrated musician, is leading a dead end life working in his family’s convenience store and raising his niece. He is drawn into a conspiracy involving his childhood friends and a plot to destroy the world which has its origins in a secret club which the friends maintained as grade school kids. To say the odds are stacked against him is the understatement of the century.

There, that wasn’t so hard. However, do not bother reading the detailed summary of events in wikipedia, because knowing what happens in chronological order will not explain anything. Urasawa makes the connections by juxtaposing past and future, hope with regret, character with character.

The first chapter of the first volume introduces all the important elements of the plot including the three main time frames (past , present and future) the two heroes (Kenji and his niece Kana grown up) rock n’ roll (the title is from the rock song), childhood conflict, giant robos (did I mention that this is a science fiction manga?), heroes who save the world, secret societies and conspiracies, things which are not as they seem. The next twenty-two volumes are spent elaborating upon these elements.

Who will like 20th Century Boys and the follow up 21st Century Boys? If you like Thomas Pynchon, yes. If you like science fiction that explains everything with a nice neat ribbon tied on top, maybe not. Pluto might be a better choice for the second group. In the end, 20th Century Boys is more about the mysteries of the human heart and about how the past never dies.

The artwork is black and white, like almost all manga. Urasawa’s style improved remarkably while he was drawing this work. In the early volumes, his faces have a slightly comical exaggeration which sometimes seems to detract from the seriousness of the story, but in later volumes he has perfected his more subtle, nuanced style that makes Pluto such a joy to read.

Note: The first live action film in a trilogy based upon this work has been released in Japan. If it does an adequate job explaining the plot and its many fascinating side stories and characters, I will eat one of my hats.

© 2008 McCamy Taylor

Bio: C'mon. You know who McCamy Taylor is... Former Aphelion Assistant Short Story Editor, now Serials and Novellas Editor, author of many stories in Aphelion and elsewhere. Use Google to catch up on her more recent work. It's worth the effort.

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