5.17.2011

20th Century Boys: 04 & 05

I read these together, like back to back, so I thought I’d just cram my thoughts together too. Nobody really cares, right? I mean, I’m the one catching up here, presumably anyone interested enough to read reviews of 20CB has already made themselves current and is on like Volume 14 anyway, right? So, Naoki Urasawa moves the plot forward significantly in these volumes. We learn than Shogun is really Otcho, who was thought long lost abroad. I’m really digging his character, clearly he knows more about what’s going on in the world than he seems to be revealing to the group. Yukiji (probably my favorite character) has left her role as a Customs Offcier, Kenji has officially been labeled as a terrorist (the “Kenji Faction”) by the government, people have actually seen the prophesized Giant Robot, and the FDP political party is now in power, with enigmatic Manjome Inshu having infiltrated the government at a very high level.

I love seeing Yukiji begin to exert influence over the group, because as a woman, that really subverts the traditional gender roles in a story like this. With her addition, the group stands at 7, but according to the Book of Prophecy, there are 9 warriors. Because of that, Kenji directs the attempted recruitment of Yanbo and Mabo, their childhood tormentors, who have apparently become shrewd but compassionate businessmen in the tech sector, but appear to be in collaboration with Manjome Inshu! Urasawa balances so many plot threads and characters that it’s nice to have him loop in these quick flashbacks to refresh your understanding of who Yanbo and Mabo are. Kenji and his niece are living an interesting existence, busking on the streets in disguise, sort of hiding in plain sight as they eat steamed pork buns in the sewers, until he decides to leave her with his mom. There’s an interesting pause before the Giant Robot attack, multiple global terrorist events, and panic ensues, in which the group considers quitting just before 12/31/2000 since there haven’t been any incidents for 3 years. One of the things that makes Kenji a compelling character is that he’s so compassionate toward his fellow members, repeatedly giving them chances to opt out of participation, which culminates with the solemn line “please… don’t any of you die tonight.” We learn why “Eyeball Otcho” designed the symbol the way he did, and what role manga, specifically Shonen Sunday played in the design.

In a MAJOR narrative jump, Urasawa flashes us forward 14 years to 2014, and I’m dying to know if this is going to stick, or we’re going to flip back to around the 2000 time frame. We see Kanna grown to age 17, contending with a hilarious head chef boss, and herself quite adept at martial arts, shooting techniques, speaking multiple languages, and resolving neighborhood organized crime disputes prior to a papal visit, all while apparently immune to bullets! Her dedication to ramen is an interesting note about the importance of cuisine to any culture, and this thread culminates in a sad sweet tribute to her Uncle Kenji. Urasawa continues his ear for amazing dialogue, blowing me away in one sequence with his ability to mimic accents. We see Yukiji attempting to live up to Kenji’s wish that she look after Kanna, and these exquisite self-referential touches to manga with her landlords who, rather than focusing on romance comics, should be telling a “gripping drama about men who save the world from annihilation.” There’s a mysterious feeling to this whole thing, but 20th Century Boys also has such incredible heart, and it all makes me think about how it relates to what Urasawa is ultimately saying about his country and its future destiny.

Artistically, there’s so many little touches that I appreciate so deeply. One small example is that when Otcho mentions he was able to buy a couple of Tokarevs, a Colt Trooper, and a Beretta off the street, the illustrations of the guns are dead ringers for the actual objects. I was able to identify the Tokarevs as such before I even read the line of dialogue. Maybe it’s because I worked in law enforcement or whatever, but one of the most annoying little things is when artists can’t draw guns realistically, much less as identical examples of their real world counterparts. Urasawa’s cityscapes and backgrounds continue to impress me, packed with so much realistic detail that I find myself wondering if this is photo-referencing, and to what degree. One of the most telling ways you can tell the creator has such a masterful handle on his craft is the way panels are arranged on the page. For example, in the horrific action sequences with the global terror attacks, the panel gutters are all skewed and the panels themselves are sharp parallelograms that emphasize the movement and sense of energy to the action. I also have been noticing that the panel gutters are thin when traversing horizontally from right to left, but then they get wider as you skid down the page vertically. This is a subtle thing, but it keeps your eye on track and tells you where to go next almost at a subconscious level. It’s actually quite brilliant and is something that most American comics just don’t do.

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