At this year's San Diego Comic-Con, Naoki Urasawa's manga 20th Century Boys took the prize for Best U.S. Edition of International Material-Asia. It was a well deserved win for a manga that everyone should be reading.
20th Century Boys is a sci-fi tale that blends suspense, humor and nostalgia seamlessly. It starts in the late 1990s, when Kenji Endō, a former musician who has now taken over the family convenience store and is helping to raise his niece, and his former school chums learn about a cult whose logo and actions mirror those that appeared in a comic book he wrote as a child. It's up to Kenji and his friends, now well into adulthood, to become heroes.
Though originally launched in Japan in 1999, 20th Century Boys didn't make its way to the U.S. until a decade later. Since its Stateside release, it's become a favorite amongst many manga readers, myself included.
“I feel like Urasawa kind of pushes the bounds of the medium of manga,” says Andy Nakatani, Editorial Director at Viz Media, the company that is currently releasing the series. “He has complex and winding plots, but he takes you along this ride and, each step along the way, I feel like it's so skillfully done, you can follow along with the complexity.”
Urasawa is beloved amongst manga readers, a prolific creator whose works include such series as Master Keaton and Monster.
“In Japan, Urasawa is a household name,” says Nakatani. “He's one of the top tier of manga artists. Here, he's less well known.”
In his home country, 20th Century Boys was a huge hit that was later adapted as a film trilogy.
What makes 20th Century Boys most interesting is the way Urasawa incorporates flashbacks to the late-1960s and early-1970s into a story that speeds towards the future, with the plot taking a series of dramatic twists as it develops. His use of music and manga references isn't without purpose. He evokes moments of warm, childhood nostalgia before thrusting readers into disturbing future.
Though some of the references are familiar to the U.S. audience (e.g. the title, which is derived from the title of T. Rex's song “20th Century Boy”), others weren't.
“20th Century Boys is kind of so filled with cultural references, both specific to Japan and specific to manga and specific to the late '60s and early '70s, so a lot of research had to go into the series,” says Nakatani.
Nakatani mentions a scene in Volume 7 of the series that stands out as a favorite for him. In it, students must announce their term paper subjects in class. The editor points out that each student's name corresponds with that of a manga creator, and their subject is one that the famed artists had tackled.
Deciphering the numerous references was by no means an easy task for Nakatani and the series translator, Akemi Wegmuller, but it's integral to the work.
“I think that's part of the appeal of this series,” says Nakatani. “There are so many layers of information like that.”
Volume 17 of 20th Century Boys will be released on October 11. You now have just about one month to catch up on it.