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20th Century Boys Perfect Edition vol 1

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Naoki Urasawa


Page 45 Review by Stephen


From the creator of PLUTO and MONSTER comes a series so far set in 1997 - with childhood recollections flashing back as far as 1968 - but we have already caught glimpses from the other side of the millennial divide which will make you sit up and think, informing everything which you read within. This is a brand-new review.

It is time to get ominous on your ass.

"You want to know, open your mind!!
"You want to know, surrender your spirit!!
"You want to know, take a leap of faith!!
"You want to know, become a friend."

The wild-eyed man means a very special sort of friend: a friend of their Friend, an enigmatic man who likes to hold court and answer questions, drawing devoted followers so numerous that they fill a darkened arena as large as the Budokan. They meet under a banner whose sign is an eye within an eye, and the inner eye emanates out from a hand pointing upwards.

An acolyte earnestly raises his hand:

"My Friend, what does it mean to find true tranquillity?"
"Good question," replies this Friend, silhouetted in shadow.
"To be with me - that is what it means to find tranquillity."

And who wouldn't want to find tranquillity? But if you're hearing intimations of Kahlil Gibran's 'The Prophet', please think again: Kahlil Gibran's Prophet never made anything about himself, this holy "me".

I once had a friend who joined a karate cult which preached "Happiness is belonging". It was one of many ways intended to dissuade departure and making dependence on one's membership an emotionally addictive crutch. Think Jehovah's Witnesses. It also actively taught outright obedience, transgression punishable by humiliation - like being told to strip in front of fellow friends, as my mate was, and did.

But then I'm an intransigent adversary of all forms of indoctrination and authority which is why I created my own comic shop, beholden to no one, so perhaps I'm a little bit biased...

Nope, I'm pretty sure that physical humiliation is wrong.

It is the discovery of (and investigations into) this Japanese cult - which will prove to have tendrils infiltrating all walks of life, and apocalyptic ambitions reaching far wider than one single nation - which forms the bulk of this opening volume. One of these angles is chased by lawyers alerted by members' parents, another by the police alerted by the disappearance of a local, oddball professor. But that latter investigation is what also alerts lead protagonist Kenji, a local store owner who makes deliveries of produce to that professor, to embark on his own much more personal mission because, daubed like a swastika on that professor's deserted door, he discovers a symbol: an eye within an eye, the inner eye emanating out from a hand pointing upwards.

It's exactly the same emblem which he himself helped create back in 1969 with his pre-teen friends upon forming an innocent childhood, den-based, secret society of their own. One of their ambitions: to save the world!

And suddenly, everywhere Kenji looks, he sees that symbol resurfacing: for example, as a baseball team's t-shirt colours at the university where one of those childhood friends taught until he recently committing suicide. It is at this friend's funeral and his wake that the rest of those early playmates converge. Naturally, they begin swapping stories and gradually, reluctantly, a few among them start to agree that something about their jejune declaration to save the world has gone disastrously wrong...

What I loved about this is not necessarily what you'd expect, for it has such hidden depths.

Urasawa may not be Japan's Jiro Taniguchi (A DISTANT NEIGHBOURHOOD, VENICE, GUARDIANS OF THE LOUVRE, FURARI etc) when it comes to tranquil, spiritual introspection or Taiyo Matsumoto when it comes to the evocation of very real, raw and deprived childhood in the likes of SUNNY. But the creator of PLUTO and MONSTER is not going to let you down when it comes to the fleshing out of characters, their socio-political predicaments, or their present and past.

Kenji, for example, is struggling with a present which makes demands of him as a failing shop owner under threat by the remonstrations, castigations and ultimatums of his chain-store boss, and the twin burdens weighing him down of a prune-faced mother dipping her hand into his produce and his potentially psychic baby-niece whom he carries everywhere upon his back now that his sister has deserted her family. But you will discover that she wasn't once half so flighty (pun and understatement both intended), that she may have had most pressing reasons for this swift departure, and your jaw will be floored when it's revealed what [REDACTED]. No, it really will.

More than any of that, though, the flashbacks you'll experience within will tick so many recognition boxes relating to your own childhood: the bullies, the building of dens, the dependence on bikes, the ostracism of that other kid until they prove their true value which you should always have appreciated much to your immediate, red-faced shame then eternal loyalty, the holiday or after-school routines like visiting that local newsagent for bubblegum packets complete with collectible cards, or simply wondering what a wanton (here misunderstood as won-ton) floozy actually was when pinned up on a poster and advertised as such.

It's also very, very funny in places.

Unlike our Friend who demands to be worshipped (and I like that neither that Friend nor his cult bear a name, only a symbol like The Artist Formerly Known As Prince), there is a so-far minor character (whom I suspect may come to play a much more major role) called Kami who cannot abide his honorific title amongst his fellow vagrants, "Kamisama", indicating that they regard him as a god. An elderly and homeless man, he is at pains to point out that he is not a god with special powers and so does not deserve their adulation. Although...

"Kamisama dreams something, you know it's gonna happen. I mean, right after he told Toku-san this would be the year he hits it big..."
"Toku-san got hit by a truck. We oughta visit him in hospital. I think he's about to die..."

I'm afraid that Kami's intuitive, science- or god-given knowledge will prove painfully more accurate as worldwide attacks build with ever-increasing urgency.


"This tranquil feeling's so beyond people who don't understand it."

This from the wild-eyed zealot with a man-given mission... and a carving kitchen knife in his hand.

With an art style that I can only describe as Japan's John Buscema, Ron Garney or Lee Weeks, without even being able to describe what I mean (more melodramatic than photorealistic, but still some sumptuous figure work), I imagine will be treated to more of the hyper-detailed cityscapes so many of you relished in PLUTO as the series progresses.

Wow, I almost managed to get through this entire review without referencing my childhood hero, Marc Bolan. It's relevant, though.
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