Friday, January 4, 2013

20th Century Boys Vol. 2

by Naoki Urasawa, with Takashi Nagasaki

Partway through this second volume of 20th Century Boys, the very popular manga series by Naoki Urasawa, I was hit with the somewhat unwelcome realization that I would have to get all twenty-five or so volumes of this series, because I think I'm hooked.

This is a strange story, unfolding in a manner that is pretty unconventional, at least for Western comics, and which really adds to the mystique and wonder of the series.  A strange cult has popped up in Japan (I'm not sure when this series was begun in relation to the Aum Shinrikyo attacks) led by a mysterious 'Friend'.  The cult has members throughout society, and many connections to a group of friends who grew up together.

Of that group, one member was killed in the first volume.  Now Kenji, who was the leader of the group as children but currently tries to keep a struggling convenience store afloat while caring for his missing sister's baby, is trying to figure out what happened to his old pal.  The series is arrayed in a bit of a kaleidoscopic fashion, as each chapter frequently features new characters or events that then become connected to the main story, sometimes unexpectedly.  We get to know characters like the only girl from Kenji's group, and a homeless man who seems to be able to predict the future in his dreams.  We also learn a fair deal about Kenji's missing sister, which only adds to the mystery.

Urasawa, in addition to being an excellent artist, is a strong writer of character.  We meet an older detective in this issue, close to retirement, and in the span of two chapters, come to care about him and his life's struggles.  There are hints of bigger problems to come, as we get glimpses of germ warfare using an ebola-like virus, and of course, the threat of giant robots rears its head.  Still, this is a series that is very grounded in the day-to-day life of its characters, and therein lies its greatest strength.

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