Wednesday, September 23, 2009

20th Century Boys: Drugs and hookers always liven up a narrative

Webcomics links: Derek Kirk Kim has a new graphic novel called Tune that he's serializing online here. Looks pretty nice so far.

Here's a new webcomic that seems like it could be pretty good: Ellie Connelly. It seems like a sort of Tintin, Clear Line style story about an impetuous archaeologist and her adventures. It's only just getting started, but it looks like it's on track to be lots of fun.

Scott Morse has a new entry in his series of "Strange Science Fantasies" up, called "The Projectionist". It's as cool as ever, featuring a hero with a projector for a head butting up against other embodiments of Hollywood types. I'm really digging this series.

Catching up...

20th Century Boys, volume 4
By Naoki Urasawa


With this volume, it becomes clear that the first three books in this series were mostly setup for the real story, as Naoki Urasawa takes a jump forward in time by a few years, taking us right up to the edge of the date for the supposed end of the world. It's a startling and audacious move, and it ups the already high feeling of ominous danger, leaving readers as desperate as ever to get their hands on the next installment. But he doesn't just make the move in between chapters; as we saw in the last chapter of volume 3, the scene suddenly shifted to Thailand, following an enigmatic exile from Japan known as Shogun, who was acting as a sort of enforcer for local brothels, cleaning up the trouble that foreign tourists got into and taking care of prostitutes who had been abused. As we see in this volume, his compassion gets him into trouble, as he is targeted by a local gangster for helping one of his girls leave the business and return to her village. But there's more going on, as the devious actions of the Friend cult have reached him, and he's become a target for them, since his actions have disrupted their trade in a drug called Rainbow Kid.

As readers probably expect, there's more to this Shogun guy than first appears; sure enough, he turns out to be somebody important to the main plot, but we get to spend enough time with him that we learn his history and reasons for hiding from his life, including flashbacks to some training with a Shaolin monk and the tragedy that sent him there. It's affecting stuff, emphasizing what's really important in life (friendship, family, etc.) over the accumulation of power and wealth. But that's not necessarily important; there's plenty of action and intrigue to keep the interest, including a great scene in which Shogun decides to destroy a drug factory and has a tense, hallucinatory confrontation with the cultist who burned his friend to death along with Kenji's store at the end of volume 3. This bit emphasizes the the Friend's perverse philosophy, which seeks to degrade its followers into belief in Friend's ideals, not trusting them until they have experienced "true horror". Shogun might not be all the way on the other side of the coin yet, but he relates a fascinating tale of his training, in which he was pushed off a cliff overlooking a waterfall and thought he would drown, but the light on the surface encouraged him to survive:


Whatever that means, it seems to say that trying to manipulate people and events into creating some sort of perfect society or dream; we should appreciate what we have. That sounds kind of banal, but Urasawa has a way of spicing it up, doesn't he?

Following this detour, we return to Japan, finding that several years have elapsed since Kenji went underground (literally), and he hasn't had much success fighting Friend's ever-growing influence, which has spread to envelop the government. We only get a few chapters of this status quo before the volume ends, mostly seeing Kenji hunt down the missing daughter of a robotics professor whose family had been kidnapped, hoping to rescue her from the cult. And there's also the revelation that Kenji is supposed to gather a team of nine people to fight in the coming war (or whatever is going to happen), another weird bit of Friend's psychotic plan. But the best moment is probably a scene in which a bunch of the cult's higher-ups consult with the kidnapped professor about their plans to build the giant robot that the children had envisioned so many years ago. It's completely nuts, with a bunch of grown men acting like children, getting excited about ridiculous, impossible details, arguing over what it should look like, and refusing to listen to reason about the impossibility of making this cartoon construct in reality:


It's another great example of the way Urasawa sells the creepiness of the cult, with people regressing to childlike ideas of the world and refusing to accept the compromises of adulthood. That seems to be a good portion of the point with this series, but Urasawa makes everything around it so compelling, tense, and exciting that we get caught up in the struggle, both hoping for the best for our heroes and champing at the bit to see what happens next. Where's volume 5 already?
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I was going to talk about the fourth volume of Pluto as well, but that didn't happen. There's always tomorrow.