Reviewing this new edition of Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys is a bit of an emotional one for me. The original English publication around 10 years ago was one of the first reviews I did for an outlet ever, and when it was announced that VIZMedia would be releasing Perfect Editions of the series, I knew I had to get my hands on it to see if my thoughts on it have changed since then. They have not.
Manga artist Naoki Urasawa is one of the best living storytellers in the comic book medium — how’s that for hyperbole? The man knows how to weave a compelling and engaging narrative unlike anyone else I’ve read before, and while 20th Century Boys may not be his strongest work (that would be Pluto, in my opinion), it is one of his most ambitious.
But I’m not here to talk about the series as a whole. Let’s start with the volumes contained this edition. This Perfect Edition of 20th Century Boys contains the first two volumes of the 22-volume series (including the two-volume series 21st Century Boys, which is a continuation).
In this first omnibus volume, we are introduced to Kenji, a middle-aged man who runs a convenience store. While his life may be about as normal as normal gets, it’s not the life he’s always wanted. As a kid, he wanted to save the world from an impending apocalypse, and it looks like that specific childhood desire may soon rear its ugly head when he least expects it.
At the turn of the new millennium, a series of illnesses sweep across the country, and at the center of it all is an odd symbol — a symbol he recalls making with his childhood friends decades ago. Somehow, these mysterious illnesses are linked to his past, and it’s up to him and his old friends to recall their long, lost childhoods so they can put a stop to this real-world evil that’s spreading across the globe.
As I’ve mentioned above, this is quite the ambitious yarn to spin, and it’d be easy to get caught up too much in the minutiae of it all, but Urasawa starts where it counts — with character. Following an opaque (but short) prologue, we are introduced to the lead character of the piece and given a reason to care. It’s only once we have a solid idea of his day-to-day that things quickly start expanding outward, and one key component of the narrative are the numerous flashbacks.
If any of you are Stephen King fans, you may really enjoy what these flashbacks have to offer, In the best way, they offer a real Stand By Me vibe, and bring the reader back to a more innocent time in their life, where evil was black-and-white and they were invincible. It’s so lovingly captured here, that it’s hard for it not to resonate with me, personally.
But flashbacks aren’t the only way the story expands. Like many other Urasawa stories, the manga features a growing cast of characters — from Kenji’s childhood friends to a psycho cult follower willing to go to any lengths for his so-called “friend.” Though, if you’re worried about losing track about who’s who, fret not. Every subplot is in service of the main plot, and despite the large number of characters, they all manage to stand out in their own way, both in character in appearance. And speaking of appearance, now’s a good a time as any to discuss the art.
The art of the story is pretty solid, as one would expect from Urasawa. Compared to most manga out there, it skews a bit to the more realistic side of things, but not so much that it’d be off-putting for those who are looking for the smallest bit of caricaturization. Perhaps one of Urasawa’s greatest strengths are his panel layouts. While not very flashy, they are very cinematic in how they convey movement and cuts between shots. Film lovers will dig the way each panel flows into the next, and more often than not, I found myself forgetting I was reading a manga and now watching a movie.
The edition itself is solid in how it’s put together. It has a nice, minimalist cover to it, along with embossed text on it, where if you hold it at the right angle, you can see the title. As someone who collected the entire original series, this is a welcome departure, as its style allows it for a consistent look without relying too much on reusing the same assets (if you’ve collected the original volumes, you’ll know what I mean).
The translation of this is pretty much the same (with minor changes, though the text is noticeably larger than the original version, filling up the word bubbles more than ever before. Honestly, though, unless you’re a collector or a huge fan, I’m not sure this is worth the double-dip — especially since the paper quality and cover quality, in terms of material, are pretty much the same as the previous releases.
However, if you have yet to experience the wonder of 20th Century Boys or Naoki Urasawa, I highly recommend you pick this up. It’s the start of an engaging and epic tale with enough twists and turns to make George R.R. Martin jealous.
20th Century Boys: The Perfect Edition Volume 1 will hit bookshelves on September 18, 2018.