The themes of American and Japanese horror tends not to overlap. Both cultures have different sensibilities and fears, and their horror stories play into that. It’s surprising, then, that reading Naoki Urasawa’s apocalyptic manga 20th Century Boys winds up closer to Stephen King’s It than any manga before it, with a distant group of friends reunited when a symbol of their past comes back as something much more sinister.
Readers now have an easy way to see it for themselves — with larger pages and remastered artwork, including some never released in omnibus form before, in a new Signature edition from Viz Media.
Published intermittently between 1999 and 2009 in Japan, 20th Century Boys cuts back and forth between 1969 and 1997. Kenji Endo, a convenience store owner struggling to take care of his abandoned baby niece, is reunited with his childhood friends after one of them, a science teacher affectionately known as “Donkey,” commits suicide.
Before his death, Donkey mails Kenji a letter with a drawing of a mysterious symbol, asking if he remembers it. The symbol, we learn, was drawn by one of Kenji’s other friends, Otcho, and is now used by a mysterious cult led by the enigmatic celebrity known only as “Friend,” who fills up the Budokan with bizarre speeches where he likens himself to Michael Collins (the Apollo 11 astronaut who didn’t walk on the moon) and casually speaks of taking over the world. And it all might have something to do with reports of a biological virus that kills its victims by making them hemorrhage blood.
The flashbacks are meant to connect the dots to the present and also establish character, as when Yukiji, the only girl of the friend group, touchingly contrasts the heroic Kenji, who defended her from horrible bullies as a kid with the bumbling, loser adult Kenji in the present day. It’s in these moments where the It comparison is most apt. The thing that made It’s 1,138 pages worth plowing through was that the Losers’ Club were equally fleshed out in both time periods, earning the readers’ sympathies as both outcast kids and alienated adults.
Urasawa has a more difficult task with Boys. Originally published in the weekly magazine Big Comic Spirits, he also had to make sure each chapter stood out from everything else running alongside it. And he succeeded because he draws like no one else. Each character’s face communicates their emotions just as much, if not better, than the dialogue and is incredibly detailed environments only add to the realism. But it’s his plotting that keeps you coming back.
Urasawa is an award-winning mangaka who is also accomplished musician, radio & TV host. That makes his body of work somewhat daunting, but it makes sense when one sits down and reads his books. Whether it’s the fast-paced action of Master Keaton, the intense psychological horror of Monster, or the grim murder mystery of Pluto, he fills out a unique space in each genre he tackles.
Like the much more famous Death Note, Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys was inspired by the notorious death cult Aum Shinrikyo, whose leader, Shoko Asahara, was executed this past July for masterminding the horrific sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995. “Our Friend,” as his disciples call him, is a clear analogue, and while he’s not the primary villain of this first volume (there really isn’t one, as the first two volumes collected here are all about setup), his presence infuses everything.
The overwhelming feeling of reading this book is “sinister.” A disquieting sort of sinister; more Amnesia: The Dark Descent than Resident Evil. For some readers, given the constantly anxious age we live in, that’s a hard sell. But 20th Century Boys: The Perfect Edition Vol. 1 is still very much worth reading. Not only for the chance to see how Viz has spruced things up this go around, but for the chance to see a master of his craft offer some cathartic feelings about what to do when it seems like the world is ending.
Tom is a freelance writer and editor who’s worked for several websites and on dozens of books, including adapting Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka by Makoto Fukami and Seigo Tokoya for Seven Seas Entertainment, which will air as an anime in January from Liden Films. He lives in the Chicago area and can be found on Twitter @tomtificate, yelling about cartoons.