20th Century Boys (vols 1-12)

My rating (so far): 5 out of 5 stars

20th Century Boys is a 22 volume series which is being brought out under the Viz Signature line.  Unfortunately its not all out in English yet so I can’t talk about the series in its entirety, however I’m finding it interesting to write about it in chunks as I read up to certain volumes.  Speaking of which, I wrote the first section of these notes after only having read volumes 1 & 2, and the second section after having read up to volume 12.  I’ll probably update this post with a review up to volume 22 in 2013 or so when the entire series has been translated and published ^_~

Its difficult to give a good idea of the plot of 20th Century Boys without spoiling one thing or another, so suffice it to say there’s more to the series than I can write about here, but here goes:

In the 60s a group of Japanese boys are close friends: they build a secret base in a field of high grass and spend a summer having a great time playing together.  Flash forward to the present day: the boys are now adults and have put most of their childhood memories to the backs of their minds.  However, strange occurrences start to bring the group together again.  A symbol keeps turning up frequently, linked to what seems to be a cult…how is this connected to the group of men, is the world on the edge of disaster, and will they have to somehow save the world?

The author of 20th Century Boys, Naoki Urasawa, is a veteran manga creator and has produced a large body of critically acclaimed work in a variety of genres. Two of the most famous of these are ‘Monster’, a medical thriller, and ‘Pluto’, a sci-fi series inspired by one of Osamu Tezuka’s ‘Astro Boy’ stories. Reading ’20th Century Boys’ you can see why Urasawa’s work is so acclaimed: the series is tightly plotted with many mysteries, twists and turns, and well developed characters.

The artwork is similarly masterful: drawn in pen and ink, each character has a unique look coupled with varied body-language that brings him/her to life. Backgrounds are meticulously drawn to a high level of detail and the pacing of the panels is fantastic, with the build up and execution of the most dramatic moments coming across especially well.

I have now read up to volume 12, so its time for an update!

All in all the storyline and characterisation remain just as strong in volumes 3-12 as they were in the first two volumes. The plotline, which has now expanded to take place over three distinct time periods in the characters’ lives, is handled deftly by Urasawa.  Along with many well-timed melodramatic moments as befitting a mystery/thriller series, he weaves in some subtle foreshadowing of future events, and paralleling of things that have happened in the past.

The art remains just as masterful too: many more characters are introduced and they still each have their own unique look and feel, plus background work and panel pacing are still some of the best I have seen in manga.

20th Century Boys is not the perfect comic though. I seem to recall reading on the net somewhere that the author was working on another series (Pluto?) at the same time as this, and the story here does devolve into having a meandering and distracted feel about it. Some events are drawn out over over many more chapters than they needed to be, and some scenes seem to stretch to a whole chapter when really they might have worked better if they were shorter and more snappy.

What’s so annoying about this is that the basic plot is still very gripping! The characters are also incredibly compelling as their lives are covered from a time when they are children until at least late middle age, so you understand their personalities and motivations over practically their entire lives.

In conclusion (for now), I will certainly still be collecting 20th Century Boys, however I would caution anyone who doesn’t feel they have the patience for reading a long manga series to perhaps think twice, as similarly to many series that go longer than 10 or so books, the pace gets rather muddy in the middle :S


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