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20th CENTURY BOYS Vol. 1 -- Retro Review

Horror taken to a mesmerizing step, far above the usual haunts.

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What a hard story to categorize.

20th CENTURY BOYS is the sort of sublime, genre-bending storytelling that you’d normally only find on the modern lit shelf at the book store. It’s cerebral science fiction at points, it’s goofy coming-of-age comedy at others - - and at all times, it has a very menacing undercurrent of horror. Indeed, despite what the cover seems to advertise, “horror” is really the best label for what lies on the pages inside.

Of course, this isn’t the type of horror that gets written up in Fangoria or Bloody Disgusting; not the kind that calls up the usual handful of classic monsters and gothic locales. Despite the numerous stylistic flourishes it shares with Urasawa’s other recent hit, it doesn’t even look quite like a follow-up to MONSTER’s style of horror - - not even a spiritually one. Rather, as the title evokes, 20th CENTURY BOYS feels like some transcendent step ahead for the genre; one that lets the boogeyman free to drop his usual get-up and creep anywhere, and everywhere, beyond those familiar dark cellars and creepy attics.

Describing the story is maybe even a little harder than categorizing it. That’s not because it’s tough to summarize what happens, per se - - it's because the hook of this manga is to experience that plot diced up into a hypnotizing, non-linear mosaic.

Basically, a put-upon convenience store manager, Kenji Endo, starts noticing a number of startling coincidences which connect the present to a silly time-capsule he and his friends put together in the late 60's. Inside a little thatched clubhouse in an unused land plot, these boys fantasized about becoming heroic, alien-and-robot-fighting ninjas who’d save the world at the end of the century. They even made a sigil for their team - - an odd approximation of the Masons’ All-Seeing Eye.

When that sigil starts reappearing in concert with the deaths and disappearances of random people in Kenji’s life, he does a little snooping and discovers that, somehow, there’s a cult that’s apparently been fashioned off of the boys’ club. Stranger still, the crude drawings and half-sketched ideas that the boys placed in their time capsule now seem to be turning into monstrous realities. And, most terrifyingly, the threat the boys imagined themselves fighting against one day may actually be coming to destroy the world with the impending turn of the millennium.

A comparison can be drawn here to some of Stephen King’s work. The man has his themes he likes to revisit, for sure; and stories about tightknit groups of young boys facing reappearing horrors as grown-ups (usually after a friend’s funeral reunites them) do come up a lot. Still, this is distinctly Urasawa.

As in MONSTER, there’s a malevolent mastermind whose face is mysteriously cloaked in shadow. Hallways are frequently rendered at canted angles and with foreshortened speed lines that convey an exhilarating sense of forward motion. The linework dances from often grotesquely-caricatured figures to meticulously-detailed scenery with a smoothness that it’s quite nearly imperceptible. Even as it rarely ever doles out the sort of flashy eye-candy that makes for cool dorm-room prints and desktop wallpapers, this is, at all times, a phenomenal book to flip through and look at.

While we’re likening this to “Fiction” with a capital F, it feels even less appropriate to evaluate it in piecemeal the way such serialization really forces you to. It’s sort of akin to writing a novel up based on just its first two chapters.

Yes, I come down hard on other series that don’t lead out on their best foot. I won't suffer a series that presumes your willingness to wade through some less-than-stellar early installments in order to “get to the good stuff.”

The difference here is that there’s a very firm sense of being on the tip of something profound. Even as only a frustratingly scant number of details regarding Kenji’s horrific reunion are offered, those details are still enthralling. They still compel you to check out what’s coming next, even as they still feel so evanescent.

Perhaps that's a kinder way of saying that the series is paced a little leisurely. Talking 20th CENTURY BOYS up like this does feel a little akin to groping about blindly in the mist (and having a tinge of fear about the boogeyman most likely lurking in that mist.) I know so little about what's going on - - I'm only getting to see such a small section of the mosaic - - but for once, that's actually welcome. Something indescribable's lurking here, and it's wonderfully terrifying.

Tom Pinchuk’s a writer and personality with a large number of comics, videos and features like this to his credit. Visit his website - - tompinchuk.com - - and follow his Twitter: @tompinchuk

zaldaron July 11, 2012 at 10:58 a.m.

Well....if this stays as good as you describe it here this may have to be only the second manga series I buy all of. THAT was a very interesting right up and seems exactly like the kind of thing I would like. Now I just have to hope my local store caries it.

Petiewon July 11, 2012 at 12:19 p.m.
@zaldar: I've read the entire thing, I feel the plot steadily gets worse and more convoluted as the series goes on. My favourite part is easily the first few volumes.
The series doesn't turn that bad, just doesn't reach the highs of the beginning.
zaldaron July 11, 2012 at 3:27 p.m.

hmm more convoluted doesn't necessarily mean worse to me. Often the opposite though but definitely thank you for the input!

Dig Deeper into 20th Century Boys

The seminal work of mangaka Naoki Urasawa, a multi-generational tale of grand conspiracy, mystery, and friendship.

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