I’ve been reading and enjoying comics for most of my life, but one area I’ve never explored as much as I should has been Asian comics. Part of that is because when I was growing up, comic book stores did not stock much— or more frequently, any— Asian comics. True, they didn’t stock much in the way of European comics either, but I wouldn’t have been able to buy those as a kid anyway because of their typically more mature subject matter. And by the time I was in middle school and manga had become omnipresent amongst the geeks I knew, I was way behind. My family moved around constantly when I was younger, so while these kids had slowly shared interests and had connected the dots from JRPGs to anime to manga, I was forced to explore pop culture almost entirely on my own. Which means that when I discovered JRPGs through Final Fantasy Legends II for Game Boy, it was because it had a cool sword on the cover and it was cheap at Toys ‘r’ Us and I had no idea what a JRPG even was, let alone what else was available in the genre. The internet was vaguely around then, but not like it is now, and FF Legends II remained a stupidly hard game I would play instead of a gateway game to a whole realm of pop culture I knew nothing about.
Like a lot of kids of my generation, it was Pokemon that opened my eyes. This was mostly because Pokemon was a quasi-JRPG that was built for socializing, unlike every other JRPG I had experienced before. Pokemon also had an anime equivalent that got syndicated in the states and it was absurdly popular for some time. I watched it in the mornings before school with a friend of mine who lived near us and while we both enjoyed it, certain other geeks at school who had been onto anime and manga already looked down on it and the people who enjoyed it. I knew it wasn’t exactly art, but I thought Pokemon was fun and the immediate condescension I experienced for enjoying it made me less inclined to explore other manga and anime. At the time, I was also shedding my interest in comics and games in favor of a steadily evolving interest in music, a subject I was by then versed in enough that I could handle any elitism thrown my way. This is probably where my dislike of fanboyism came from, now that I think about it— it would be years before I would run into the cliquishness of the punk community, and by that point I had studied up so much and was so active in the community that the dismissiveness I received from other punks because I didn’t look like a punk felt relatively minor compared to the knee jerk reactionism I faced when I was trying to learn more about geek culture.
What I’m getting at is that it’s long past time for me to dive into manga— and yes, for convenience’s sake I’m going to use that term going forward, because Asian comics is clunky even if it’s more accurate, and just saying “comics” doesn’t really get my point across. I got back into comics in general while at university and took the plunge into writing about them after meeting Danny Djeljosevic while we were both writing for the all purpose pop culture site, Spectrum Culture. Danny is basically the reason I’m involved in comics writing at all these days, so you can blame him, and he’s also a big part of why I’m even doing this project.
The gist of this series is that I’m going to publicly broadcast my exploration of manga, which means I will be writing about things I’ve picked up from my LCS or from used bookstores, most of which will be selected at random, some of which will be from recommendations (speaking of which, if you have recommendations, let me know!). I’m hoping this will be useful to other comics fans who haven’t explored manga much, and for manga readers who are curious to hear what it’s like for someone diving into these waters for the first time. I’ve chosen Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys for the first entry, which is a bit of a cheat because I’ve already read it and didn’t pick it up recently. But I wanted to start with it because it’s the first manga I’ve picked up where the interest didn’t stem from an adaptation— I read FLCL, for instance, because I loved the show and was intrigued by how different the manga is. It’s also what prompted my idea for this series, because it did a lot to convince me to finally dig into manga, and I owe Danny because he’s the one who turned me onto it.
So without further ado…
Title: 20th Century Boys Vol. 1 (there are 22 volumes, and then a follow-up series, 21st Century Boys)
Creator: Naoki Urasawa
Purchased at: Austin Books and Comics
First serialized in the Japanese manga mag Big City Comics (which once hilariously “characterized the typical reader as a twenty-eight-year-old systems engineer who works at a finance company, eats at ramen noodle shops and is seriously considering using a matchmaking service.”), 20th Century Boys surfaced in 1999, smack dab at the end of the century its title references. The story moves between decades, split between 1969 and the childhoods of the titular boys, as well as their ’70s adolescence, and the end of the millennium, as apocalyptic fears are at their highest and a string of odd deaths have left the authorities and the boys themselves confused and unsettled. Though it has an ensemble cast, for all practical purposes the protagonist is Kenji Ondo, a slacker who isn’t too dissimilar from the likes of Shaun of the Dead’s own eponymous lead. Kenji once had plans to be a hero, to be someone who really mattered, but nearing his thirties, he’s settled into a kind of domestic complacency, running his family’s convenience store and assuming both parenting roles for his niece Kanna. But he is shaken out of that complacency when he receives word that his childhood friend, nicknamed Donkey, has died, seemingly as a result of suicide.
Even though I was directed towards 20th Century Boys by Danny, whose opinion I trust without question unless we’re talking about Noah Baumbach, I would have been curious based on the title alone. A nod to glam rock icon T. Rex, 20th Century Boys is one of those rare series titles that both sounds cool and is reflective of the creator’s taste and is perfectly indicative of the series. Kenji and his friends fit the description to a t, as they’ve grown up in the time when the 20th century settled into its final fitful half and proved itself to be the most incredible era mankind had seen up to that point. Not coincidentally, the segments featuring Kenji and co. as kids are set around the moon landing, which is used by Urasawa as a way of illustrating how Kenji’s generation grew up with a real life symbol of what mankind was capable of, while also being constrained to their more placid surroundings, which wore down their belief in the impossible as time wore on.
Urasawa starts the series, though, with a bit of a fake out, dropping us briefly into 1973 as rock, in the form of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” of course, shakes the halls of No. 4 Junior High for the first time, where a young rock rebel has tied up a more responsible DJ in an effort to make “something change.” We then flash forward to the 21st century, as some unidentified heroes are gathered by the UN and thanked for saving humanity from certain extinction before we’re then swiftly carried off once more to a different scene, where a gigantic robot appears to stalk a young woman and then just as quickly we settle into the narrative’s present time, 1997, which in turn leads back to 1969. 20th Century Boys wastes no time making you unsettled, flitting between eras with no concern for easing the reader in, and that’s by design. Like memory itself, the narrative of 20th Century Boys comes in bursts, with certain songs, sights and phrases bringing on unconscious recollections. Urasawa’s expressive art is perfectly suited to this kind of structure, as he has a masterful handle on the reader’s focus, drawing the eye towards symbols and items in order to guide them down each character’s specific memory lane. But the story is specifically centered on a particularly iconic image, one that Kenji’s friend Otcho put together for their little group:
It’s a simple design, which makes it that much easier to believe a kid could make it without much thought. But it’s also a beautiful design, one that lends itself well to copying and which is easily spread around, even by people who might not understand its meaning. Urasawa, like many manga artists, gets that simplicity is often the key to truly reaching a reader. 20th Century Boys on the whole is full of close-ups on characters’ expressions and traits; we learn the meaning of their nicknames through visual context, we discover their stations in life through their clothing and behavior, we get a feel for their loyalties by their mannerisms and non-verbal cues. 20th Century Boys doesn’t lack action, but it’s unafraid to give entire pages devoted to lively conversation that stands in contrast to mainstream American superhero comics and their focus on fixed expressions. There are no cloned panels here, Urasawa makes every piece of conversation count and gives it its own unique visual representation.
Urasawa also perfectly executes the universal feeling of being a kid and thinking that the future is something you can twist to fit your desires. It may initially seem depressing to witness a bunch of adults juxtaposed with their idealistic young selves, but Urasawa’s story has an intriguing central hook, which is that in the case of these kids, their youthful ambitions and belief that a Book of Prophecy they put together around their fantasies and diversions would one day save the world is actually true.
Of course, in the process, they seem to have also enabled a friend of theirs to form a doomsday cult of untold power, essentially creating their own worst enemy. But this is a story about the realities of growing up and realizing that the world can be a fucked up, crazy, disappointing place and it fits right in with other classics that explore similar themes, like Stephen King’s It or that chestnut of my generation, The Goonies. That makes it an easy recommendation for anyone else looking to explore manga and it’s not too surprising that it helped convince me to not only pick up the rest of the series, but to also see what else I had been missing out on.
Next: Lone Wolf and Cub Omnibus Vol. 1
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with Dylan Garsee on twitter: @Nick_Hanover