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By Abhay Khosla
1 : Introduction
One of my favorite comic creators right now is manga creator Naoki Urasawa, though I don’t think even a single page of Urasawa’s work has ever been published in this country to date.
I first became aware of Urasawa when I learned of the scanlation phenomena about two years ago. (“Scanlation” refers to a practice of English-speaking manga fans to personally translate volumes of manga series and release them on the internet.) However, I put off a thorough investigation of Urasawa until recently when I found myself consuming his work on a sick junkie tear.
Naoki Urasawa’s works are popular entertainment – they have more in common with grocery store paperback bestsellers than any sort of high-minded piece of “Art.” They are cliffhanger-driven potboilers (oh, the cliffhangers) involving largely one-dimensional characters engaged in semi-ludicrous, if not semi-incoherent plots. Yet, I find his work ruthlessly entertaining, highly addictive, and impressive in their variety.
Basically, here’s the rub: I’m not sure how I feel about Urasawa’s manga, but I’m completely hooked on them. I have got such a damn crush on Naoki Urasawa—junior high, y’all. My hopes, at the outset, of this essay are to (a) briefly discuss the Urasawa work I’ve read to date, (b) present Urasawa to those unaware of his work as a worthwhile creator of note at least as far as entertainment-driven comics are concerned, (c) work out for myself what it is about Urasawa’s manga that I am responding to so much, and (d) have a brief consideration of the scanlation phenomena.
Oh my god, this is going to be boring. Like paint drying.
It occurs to me that this essay might be found by Naoki Urasawa fans at which point I should state the following as a preface: I make frequent reference to the state of the “mainstream” comic industry in the United States, which industry is run by two companies, Marvel Comics and DC Comics, and my intended audience are those like myself raised on their comics (or on the “indie” scene that has sprung up around their comics) and not for dedicated manga enthusiasts. This website tends to focus on the scene in the United States moreso than manga so if there is a tone of occasional bitterness, it is because that scene is occasionally embittering for fans such as myself. I hope you will be patient with me, or find some value in this essay regardless. Thank you.
2 : The Variety and the Volume
The first thing that jumps out about Naoki Urasawa’s work is the variety.
YAWARA is a romantic comedy set in the world of Olympic judo. HAPPY is a tennis manga with a not insignificant sexual-misadventure undercurrent that brings to mind the screenwriting of Roger Ebert. MONSTER is an action-thriller with horror elements set in Europe. TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS is a fractured “science fiction” mystery obsessed with cults, childhood and disappointed adulthoods in equal measure. I’ve yet to see his MASTER KEATON but it concerns a lead character who apparently is “an investigator, an archeologist, a survival instructor, and a Falklands conflict veteran.”
HAPPY is not drawn in quite the same style as MONSTER. TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS does not have nearly the sense of humor of YAWARA. The difference in characterization between TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS, MONSTER and HAPPY is pronounced (if not between HAPPY and YAWARA). Each work has its relative merit, without any working in the exact same way as the other works might have.
Nor does one get the feeling this is a case of a creator doing multiple genres to “prove that he can.” It’s become rare I don’t regard American “New Mainstream” creators with a certain cynicism that they’re only genre-flipping because they can’t find a story to really invest themselves in. Genre-flipping as marketing, as self-indulgence, as half-hearted masquerade to hide that an author doesn’t really have anything to say in ANY genre of any substantive weight.
With Urasawa, I don’t get that feeling. Perhaps because of the foreignness factor. More likely because of the overwhelming length of each work: MONSTER was comprised of 18 volumes, amounting to roughly 161 chapters of about 20-23 pages each chapter. Urasawa did the 20+ volumes of HAPPY during many of the same years as he was creating MONSTER.
Thousands of pages of comics at a time. And then again. And then again.
Yes, their pages aren’t like American pages, I grant you. But Urasawa’s art style is hardly the cliché of manga—the big eyes or the cute stylizations. In fact, what I find myself thinking about the most when looking at Urasawa is not his manga contemporaries so much as Silver Age Marvel Comics artists like John Buscema or Gene Colan. I enjoy Urasawa’s art, though it sometimes might lack the solidity or draftsmanship of other mangaka– his pages are far looser than Ohtomo, say, or less careful than Shirow, more concerned with telling the story than standing out as exceptional style-wise, more pleasurable for the pacing than the rendering.
Thousands of pages. There’s something to reading a work knowing there’s thousands of pages left to read. If there’s a bad page, a bad stretch of dialogue, a moment that doesn’t quite work, it becomes less offensive – there’ll be a good stretch around the corner. What the writing can’t accomplish works itself out in volume.
It becomes a matter of waiting out a streak, as if the manga were akin to 4 am at a blackjack table at the Excaliber Casino in Las Vegas.
Not paying for any of the pages probably hasn’t hurt my patience, either. Its distressing to me that I can be grouchy about any comic I’ve ever had to pay for in my entire life, but as soon as I get some unknown Japanese guy’s funnybook for free, I’m writing lengthy essays singing his praises. But please keep in mind that its one creator of MANY. The Internet is awash in free comics. I haven’t counted, but I currently believe there might be more than 2,000 manga titles translated and available in some way on the Internet, whether through PDF Conversion or just simply on a page ready to read. Not comic titles—manga only; I’ve never seen a count on the English-language comics. Most are only barely available on something called IRC – a dodgy system I have no idea how to use, some sort of internet chatting system for friendless teenagers; but as peer-to-peer applications like BitTorrent (or whatever this new Exeem system turns out to be) becoming increasingly sophisticated and accessible, I imagine that my IRC headaches are only temporary.
It is simply beyond the scope of this article to discuss to what degree our payment for a comic should affect our critical response to it, so you will forgive me if I leave that question to you.
3: THE GIRL ATHLETE GENRE -- YAWARA AND HAPPY
YAWARA – A FASHIONABLE JUDO GIRL was Naoki Urasawa’s first “official” work. It is a 29 volume manga about a young girl who desires to be a traditional girl, and pursue her interests in fashion, boys, and cooking but is forced by her insane grandfather to instead pursue a life in competitive judo.
I just lost half the people reading this essay.
From what little I’ve seen of it, YAWARA is a silly romantic comedy with the sort of stock characters, self-discovery formula plot, and broad humor that is the hallmark of most of the manga that seems to get translated for North American audiences. It is an unambitious work, if not an unsuccessful one: an animated version of YAWARA debuted at the same time as the animated version of RANMA ½, an anime with a sizable, devoted following in North America. Urasawa’s YAWARA, however, supposedly scored better ratings in Japan. It is difficult to discuss YAWARA intelligently – only one volume of YAWARA has been translated, and it is a hallmark of Urasawa’s work that his comics become increasingly rich as the volumes progress. Based upon that volume, I can only say that beyond its minor pleasures – a well executed gag or a energetic fight scene, there appears to be little exceptional contentwise about YAWARA, except in so far as it exists in the sports genre.
The sports genre is a popular genre in manga (the first hints of which North America is now seeing given the surging popularity of PRINCE OF TENNIS and HIKARU NO GO). Sports are, after all, inherently visual, personality-driven, dramatic, and appealing to young audiences – unfortunately, with the exception of Phil Rizutto, they lack superpowers so sports are therefore of no possible interest to anyone who produces or reads mainstream comics within the continent of North America.
I’ve seen little of YAWARA, but it is a formula piece. Urasawa’s HAPPY, on the other hand, is something else, I think.
HAPPY was the 23-volume follow-up work to YAWARA (5 volumes of which are available in English), and features a strikingly similar premise: a young girl is forced by her brother’s debts to enter into the world of competitive tennis. I would have to guess that fans expecting YAWARA however were surprised by the very different tone of HAPPY. HAPPY was the first Urasawa work I read in any volume and what I was surprised by initially, and throughout the series was this bizarre sexual tone. Not pornography, or anything lewd, not the “I bet this guy likes to wear leather” tone you sometimes find in revisiting the mainstream comics of your youth – the opposite. The main character is virginal; however, if she can’t raise enough money to pay her brother’s debts via competitive tennis, the yakuza intend to make her repay her brother’s debts by tricking her out at a Japanese whorehouse.
“A young girl plays tennis in order to avoid a life spent as a dirty whore.” You understand why I’m comparatively bored by the premise of EX MACHINA, right? That’s the premise of a teen-friendly, girl-friendly work! And it works!
That initial premise is played as comedy, but as the story progresses, it becomes only the first of a series of horrible threats/degradations/etc. perpetrated upon the main character. Her tennis rivals pursue various revenges both on and off the court, as the main character is gradually vilified by the media, aggressively wooed by a variety of mafia lords, goons and/or lesbians (it is about women’s tennis, after all), suffers physical injuries, is routinely booed by tennis fans, etc. And throughout this cheesy sexual tone underneath—I’d like to be clear that it’s a knowing, intentionally tounge-in-cheek sexual tone. The best comparison I can draw is to Roger Ebert’s screenplay to BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (though the innocent girl immersed in the muck of the world plot is a staple recalling, I don’t know, CANDIDE or CANDY or LITTLE ANNY FANNIE or whatever, the PERILS OF PAULINE). Finding that tone in what otherwise seemed to be a formula series threw me, and is what set off my investigation into Urasawa.
HAPPY, like YAWARA, is a comedy with limited romance subplots. Like most manga, the comedy comes from characters having set “bits” which repeat, based upon exaggerated character features e.g., “that character is always hungry, ha ha.” A style of comedy I find greatly preferable to the non-sequiter, dead-end referential humor North American comics tend towards in so far as the former is at least based upon an observation of human behavior instead of a mere “I remember that sitcom actor” Pavlovian response or clever turn of phrase.
But after five volumes, what addicted me, what kept me reading Urasawa wasn’t the comedy so much as the progressively worsening situation of the main character. At some point, the series becomes little more than watching the main character in HAPPY suffer through a series of escalating humiliations.
It’s a bit silly but it really gets you rooting for the main character to win a goddamn tennis match (a pleasure which Urasawa consistently denies the reader). I have to keep reading this damn thing because… I need to see something go right for this goddamn character. Is it because she’s a 3-dimensional character? No, she has as much depth as Snow White. But… dude: I just really want to see her win. Consider this reader in Spain’s description of the series (thanks to Google translator): "an atmosphere that according to advances the drama becomes ominous and cruel, often clearing the border of the sadistic suffering towards its protagonists. In fact, the title of the work is a ferocious irony: the happiness practically does not exist throughout its 23 recopilatorios volumes, the moments of laughter and games hardly if they exist, and the fight of its personages is not more than a continuous effort to be saved of its cruel destiny, that rare time obtains prize." (The Recopilatoriois were my favorite in JURASSIC PARK).
Ominious, cruel, sadistic? These are not typical adjectives I see associated with a girl-friendly sports manga.
And let me be clear about something: I don’t believe HAPPY is misogynistic, and I am worried I’ve given that impression. But then, I had the misfortune to be reading mainstream comics in 2004, so my radar for misogyny has been permanently damaged. After that miserable godforsaken experience, if a female character isn’t being slam-fucked by Captain Chainsaw-Penis in the latest issue of SUGAR AND SPIKE, I count myself lucky. I’ll stop before I give Ron Marz any ideas. For manga fans who are unaware of the vagaries of the North American industry, let me just say count yourself lucky as 2004 was kind of fucked up over here in North America.
Even at the worst humiliation though, I don’t find myself hating the main character’s rivals. They are unquestionably “bad guys,” but they are so lovingly depicted that its hard not to root for them at least a little too. Their motivations are clear, and their personalities abundant, at least in comparison to the limiting virginal perfection of the lead character. Which I think must be sort of brilliant for the more liminal teenage girl readers in that they have fantasy figures they can connect to for both fantasies of purity and, uh, non-purity.
Keeping in mind that I’ve only read 5 of the 20-some volumes that are currently translated, I think an interesting feature about HAPPY is the loneliness of its characters, and the way that the competitions the book focuses on arise out of that loneliness. Most manga I’ve read celebrates friendship rather than considers its absence; most sports manga would I presume celebrate competition. Its premature to say whether Urasawa’s HAPPY is the exception, but that is my initial guess and the only thing thematically that I can say is of any possible interest (though for me, of some considerable interest if you think of the society producing it as being one somewhat less known for themes of individualism than perhaps we are)(though that might just be a stereotype, so who knows).
No, what really excites me about HAPPY is something else: Urasawa’s intent appears to have been to follow-up a hit series with a nearly-identical series in which he instead subverted the very genre in which he had first made his mark. I find that a ballsy move, and I think what I responded to with HAPPY (though something absent in his later work): there’s an adolescent teenage energy to HAPPY. If YAWARA is his children’s work, HAPPY is his teen work—obsessed with sex without actually having any in its pages, seemingly rebelling in a way I don’t quite currently understand.
It bothers me that I’m such a sucker for cliffhangers. I like HAPPY but can’t really strongly recommend it, not it in any real way, because there’s not much to it—characterization is limited. Yet, I’m desperate to find out what happens next. Is it because the quality of cliffhangers in mainstream comics are THAT weak that I’m somehow finding Urasawa’s cliffhangers remarkable? Is it because its manga? When a cliffhanger hits, you get these spectacular large panels of characters gasping, big dramatic reaction shots you can’t help react along with. All I can say is that HAPPY is the first work of Urasawa where this cliffhanger feature is noticeable – as Urasawa progressed, this cliffhanger quality became even more pronounced feature of Urasawa’s work and is, in fact, the first thing I would speak of if asked why I respond to his work, I think.
MONSTER is the only work of Naoki Urasawa which has been translated in its entirety, and so it is the only work in which we can see Urasawa in full. Rumor has it that Viz will be publishing MONSTER in 2005 or 2006, but I do not believe that I’ve seen any confirmation of that fact as yet.
If I may continue my analogy, if HAPPY is Urasawa’s teen work, MONSTER is the young man’s work. Energetic, ambitious…but perhaps lacking all of the tools and experience necessary to accomplish the intended goals.
Concurrently with YAWARA, Urasawa created a 18-volume series entitled MASTER KEATON. To my best knowledge, it has not been translated and is unavailable in English, so I am afraid I can’t discuss it (and it’d ruin that awesome analogy I have going so …). So it would be inaccurate to say that an entirely different Naoki Urasawa arose between HAPPY and MONSTER (in fact, it would be inaccurate to say there was a time period between HAPPY and MONSTER as I believe the two works were created at or about the same time). But in reading Urasawa’s work as it is currently available in scanlations, that is what it feels like: an entirely new ballgame.
Gone are the upbeat female athletes, the sports genre. Gone is the comedy. Gone are the romantic intrigues.
MONSTER is a suspense thriller involving a brilliant Japanese doctor, framed for murders he did not commit, chasing an almost supernatural serial killer through Europe while simultaneously trying to unravel the “mystery” of the killer’s childhood.
I look at MONSTER as a transitional work from the comedies of YAWARA and HAPPY to what I feel is Urasawa’s masterpiece, TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS. “Transitional work” is a polite way of saying mess.
Oh, MONSTER does many, many things right. An American creator would surely be jealous of things that Urasawa succeeds at seemingly effortlessly. The cast is large but each character’s motivation is clearly defined. Many of the secondary characters steal their scenes (none moreso than the icy “computer-brained” police investigator chasing the lead character). Urasawa seamlessly integrates effective single-episode stories into his larger arcs, adding extra depth to the proceedings. While my initial impression was that the characterization was still far too thin, by the end Urasawa had convinced me (at least with the main character) that he’d pulled off a satisfying character arc over the book’s plot. There seem to be themes of self-destruction throughout the work (the story is a sort of journey through hell in order to reaffirm the value of life kind of thing, I think), but it rarely wallows in any self-glorifying “darkness” (or at least rarely gratingly so).
Action scenes are superb and perfectly paced, and the cliffhangers are as ever relentless and exciting – I am just plain enthralled by Urasawa’s skills as an entertainer. In these days of hearing fans complain about “decompression,” a reading of MONSTER makes it clear how few of them really are aware of what a considerable pleasure it can be in the right hands: in MONSTER, Urasawa can spend chapters allowing an atmosphere of evil to slowly accumulate. Nail-biting cliffhangers can arise from the suggestion of evil instead of evil leaping out frothing onto the page screaming naked. Tension can accumulate. A page can be spent with a character outside of a murder scene, a page spent on nothing more than slowly regarding the doorknob that leads to some horrifying scene or another. I appreciate the “decompression” backlash – MONSTER came out over seven years, probably twice a month (if my math is right), while American comics come out more rarely – once a month if you’re LUCKY—and are far more expensive. American comics do not have either the business model or, perhaps, dedicated enough creators to allow for the pleasures that I feel “decompression” has to offer. And American style pacing of the kind fans long for has its own pleasure which can be considerable. But let’s at least acknowledge the loss.
After those thousands of well-timed pages, I’d like to say MONSTER was a success. But, I’m sorry, no: a mess. The book chases after a bad guy so miraculously evil, so much in the shadows that we hardly ever get to know him on-page. Urasawa’s early attempts at writing for an ensemble are occasionally exciting, as the book zig-zags into unexpected character introductions and disappearances, but the end result is that the lead characters all go missing for significant chunks of time without adequate cause. And ultimately by the end, I wasn’t sure if it all added up to anything worth the pages – the ending is exciting but after the thousands of pages building to it, hopelessly anti-climactic (Urasawa seems to realize this and intercuts a ridiculously sentimental lottery subplot that I can’t imagine any reader could possibly caring about with his grande’ finale).
Page-turners are fun, but after a few thousand pages of comics, its simply too hard not to expect more. And I must admit, after those thousands of pages, I felt lost as to what I had read, in seeing the big picture of what had happened. MONSTER is crazy pleasurable in the moment, action-packed, constantly engaging and bringing all the energy comics can bring into a slick piece of entertainment… but for me, I found it ultimately empty – not an experience I regret, in that I imagine I’d feel that way about any suspense thriller. Suspense thrillers are not really my genre.
No, for me, MONSTER was simply a warm-up for what I feel is Urasawa’s true masterpiece to date.
5: TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS
TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS is yet to be completely translated, but after 17 volumes of scanlations, I feel confidant in describing it as Naoki Urasawa’s masterpiece and an essential slab of manga.
MONSTER had an ensemble cast, but it never seemed that Urasawa knew what to do with the ensemble – most characters ended up standing around at the finale, having never found their place in the plot.
TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS fixes that. TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS has an ensemble where each character has an opportunity to shine.
MONSTER lost me in the labyrinth of its plot. By the end, there were large chunks of plot I found myself struggling to explain to myself as to how they fit in.
TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS fixes that even as it grows more ambitious—there are unexplained mysteries, but the larger sweep of the plot has clarity despite the fact it takes place during no less than three separate points in time. TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS follows its main characters through their childhood (roughly between 1973 to 1977 or so), their “present” of 1997 to 2000, and their “future” (2012 to ?), all nearly simultaneously, never once confusingly so.
In MONSTER, there is a thick atmosphere of death and murder, but by the end, too few members of the cast had truly met any sort of end and I believe the work suffered for it as a result. TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS fixes that—cast members die but each death has meaning long afterwards. While MONSTER merely hinted at tragic childhoods, TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS takes the opposite route, making sure the reader experiences the loss of Urasawa’s beloved childhood summers without ever losing sight of the dark moments, the sad moments childhood can have – mired in nostalgia without becoming too mired in sentiment (well, it’s a little mired in sentiment, but my guard goes down with manga and sentiment, I think because of the foreign-ness factor).
MONSTER is thousands of pages long, but by the end it feels like little was ever truly at stake, an interesting neo-Nazi subplot aside. TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS fixes that—the stakes are global, and eventually the cast is global.
Seventeen volumes of TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS are available currently online; after five of those, I became convinced that AKIRA was happening, LONE WOLF and CUB was happening, just no one had goddamn noticed yet. An overreaction? Probably. But that is ultimately the frustrating thing about mainstream comic fans’s reaction to manga – manga becomes this thing for “Year in Review” specials where various people who apparently don’t read manga feel free to pronounce “Manga means Marvel’s wrong about teenage girls!” But what I still don’t feel is any sense that if a work like AKIRA were being created—not high art, but a real eye-opening slab of entertainment… that we’d be aware of it. That anyone would give a damn.
2004 wasn’t so much a bad year for comics—great comics came out same as every year—as it was an awful year for the discussion and context of comics. What I mean: the Big Two seemed especially effective in capturing the discussion and defining the context in 2004 through massive hype, a series of increasingly awful, creatively bankrupt works, and staggeringly idiotic publishing decisions (variant covers? Seriously?). Its frustrating in a year like that to think the following: “AKIRA could be coming out regularly in Japan and we’d have no idea, and instead all I’m hearing about is whether or not the Green Goblin hired a French hooker to sleep with Gwen Stacy while he watched in the closet” (or whatever J. Michael Stracynski innovation is the Hot Topic du Jour). It is even more frustrating to think that it could be available, a mouse-click away, and still no one would notice, no one would care except maybe, possibly come December when its time to say “Well, at least there’s manga.”
Naoki Urasawa saved 2004 for me, and that’s why I’m writing this essay – his work was a big reminder that pictures in boxes next to each other could be really fucking fun, arena-rock fun goddammit, during a time in comics when “fun” seems increasingly defined (again, in the conversation and context moreso than the reality) by either awful pap from the mainstream or really tiny, insubstantial, “please don’t sneeze or we’ll turn to dust” indie comics with no real ambitions. So for that I am thankful to Urasawa.
Anyway, back to TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS:
Look: I don’t think it is AKIRA or LONE WOLF. But the thing about TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS is its momentum is so propulsive, the cliffhangers so relentless, and Urasawa so skilled at pacing, leaping between three different time periods in Greatest Hits fashion, that within its current, even moreso than MONSTER, the reader can’t help but be swept up in it. But in taking a step back from it… its actually a little silly, in its own ways (and all entertainment is a little silly in its own way, so take that as you will).
I’ve never read a LEFT BEHIND novel, but TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS is likely similar to one of those (without the overt religious content). Its concerns are nothing less than flat-out batshit apocalyptic – the end of the world is always around the corner in the series, and 17 volumes in, I believe I have read about 3 separate apocalypses so far. There’s something inherently ridiculous about the apocalypse to me, something inherently corny, I think — the apocalypse is for spastics and people going door to door. TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS earns some points with me over LEFT BEHIND in that the apocalypse it envisions takes as a starting point the Japanese cult obsession, the Sarin attacks, etc., material from current events, rather than religious hysteria. But the connotation lingers.
I think TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS triumphs when it defines the apocalypse not as the end of the world, but as the end of childhood.
Seeing how much I’ve written, I should probably mention the premise? Yeah, that’s not a bad idea: in 1973-1977, a group of childhood friends plays various games in which they imagine they’re saving the world, having the kind of mystery-laden childhood that calls to mind Stephen King. In 1997, one of them calling himself “Friend” has started a doomsday cult and set into motion nefarious plans involving biological warfare, etc. which are identical to those imagined in 1973-1977. The other friends unite and struggle to remember their childhoods in order to defeat “Friend” in a struggle to take place on the New Years of 2000. And in 2012, the survivors and others deal with the repercussions of that struggle. And all three of those time periods are presented nearly simultaneously.
There are supernatural elements, science fiction elements, horror elements, even a damn giant robot-- but they all connect back to the main characters’ lost childhood. To ruin one of the book’s greatest pleasures, the giant robot is imagined in the 1970s by the children as the sort of VOLTRON-ish design common to manga. The adults in 2000 find instead nothing more than a sorry approximation of what those children thought a giant robot should be like—the book even acknowledges that giant robots could never work, that the robot’s legs could never be built in a way to support the weight. So when the robot appears, it slowly becomes more sad than scary, all compromises and no wonder—a 20-story metaphor perhaps for the adulthoods the main characters have been forced to awaken to over the course of the series.
Again and again, the characters are forced to reexamine their memories, travel back literally or figuratively to 1970’s Japan and try to understand who they were then and who they are in their adulthood. In the present and the future, apocalypses mount and mount and mount until they slowly begin to start to lose their power, but that link to the character’s childhood charges the book’s atmosphere enough to overcome those problems, even as the plot spirals out of control and the book begins to randomly follow post-apocalyptic bikers (well post-one of the books’ apocalypses, anyway).
Again, each character’s motivation is thoroughly defined, their past carefully splayed out and examined. Again, Urasawa drops perfectly paced action sequences, but now an added flavor: pop culture references. A series named specifically after a T-Rex song is only the start of a slew of references: a Robert Crumb homage even appears for a single page (when was the last time you saw an American creator bother to do that for a Japanese creator, let alone Crumb?), the Japanese 1970s bowling fad is a major plot point, old manga series that the main characters would have read in 1977 like the very cool Ashita No Joe, old toys, etc. Not so many as to overwhelm the series, but absolutely a background noise to the proceedings. I won’t spoil the origin of Friend’s symbol, but that alone is a source of no small joy.
TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS takes a 20th century boyhood as omens, and ends up feeling millennial in a way almost no English-speaking creator was capable of (well, the INVISIBLES, aside, but I’m trying to be hyperbolic). Only Warren Ellis’s PLANETARY maybe looks at the stuff of childhood in a similar way, but from a distance, detached, untouched and clean from it; in TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS, the characters are more infected by it, they lived through it—they’re not coroners; they’re survivors. But look: that pleasure is more on the edges and less the point than it is in PLANETARY, say.
The point of TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS is the page-turner feel of it. As I said, the grocery-store blockbuster paperback feel. For many of you, that is not something you would likely be interested in. As much as I’d like to expound on how it looks at childhood, TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS is more about the vulgarity of its plot, and that stuff is just the stuff on the sides that gets me excited. More time is spent trying to save the Pope from Assassin #13 or on a riveting jailbreak sequence, say, than on, you know, “Characters infected by childhood apocalypses” or whatever the shit I was going on about a paragraph ago. But its that emotion underneath the plot, the fact that its there at all, that to me makes TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS so much more thrilling than it already is in entertainment terms.
In purely entertainment terms, its what I imagine watching microscopic organism societies in a petri dish is like. TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS mutates constantly over the life of the series from cult horror to crime thriller to science fiction piece to religious epic to post-apocalyptic action nonsense to…on and on and on, always at 200 mph, daring you to keep up. Again, it is the cliffhanger to cliffhanger excitement of Urasawa that I would define as the hallmark of his work.
But I think there are themes underneath TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS and its surface pleasure is so considerable that I can strongly recommend it (I just hope he ends this one better than he did MONSTER).
For the hardcore fans, there is also PLUTO. PLUTO is a “collaboration” with the late Osama Tezuka, creator of ASTRO BOY. PLUTO is Urasawa’s interpretation of an arc from ASTRO BOY (from volume #3, I believe), slightly updated with references to the war in Iraq. It seems like fun for giant robot fans, and certainly represents yet another surprising avenue for Urasawa—none of his earlier works (that have been translated anyway) were in a over-the-top fantasy genre (one has to look to the fringes of the North American industry to find creators with thousands of pages behind them who can say likewise), so I look forward to seeing him explore that visually, at least. But I don’t know that it is a worthy follow-up TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS (though I’m not even sure it is a follow-up as I want to say that he is creating TWENTIETH CENTURY BOYS concurrently with PLUTO).
So, how do you conclude this sort of thing?
Urasawa offers a sort of entertainment that is missing from American comics: yes, its well-paced, gorgeous entertainment that stays a step ahead of me as a reader, and willing to subvert formula. But you can find that if you want, I think, in American comics, even if its in short supply at the moment—I don’t despair of never seeing that. But the noticeable difference is this: it's BIG entertainment, big in a way the “Anglophile” creators just aren’t capable of. These are not comics about slackers in a small town, these are not about characters living minor lives in which nothing happens, solving mysteries no one cares about. The comparison I keep drawing is to best-selling paperback novels, the kind I know I never read. And I draw that comparison because I can’t compare it to “New Mainstream” comics work where so often, nothing is at stake.
When Urasawa does a comic about a girl playing Judo, it is about her preparing for the Barcelona Olympics. When Urasawa does a comic about a man hunting a serial killer, its not an episodic mess about someone who hunts serial killers for a living like tv-deal-hungry Anglophile creators would have done — it's about a genius doctor trying to find a genius Ur-serial-killer. Urasawa’s epic about the end of the world actually has events take place all over the world and over three separate decades – it does not keep its ambitions in check.
Urasawa is ambitious and daring in a way that English-speaking creators just don’t bother to be. I’m not talking about artfulness here — I’m talking about ambition. The defining comic of 2004 in the mainstream comic industry was about who murdered the goddamn Elongated Man’s wife, and it turned out an even more obscure character did it! And let’s not just castigate the mainstream – the so-called “New Mainstream” has largely produced minor works itself. That baseline “Who the hell possibly fucking cares” question is absent from Urasawa’s work. There is no navel gazing or self-indulgence; there is only rock. The panels on Urasawa’s pages can be so perfectly timed sometimes, and I see comics racing away from that, afraid of the dreaded “decompression” label – I understand it but am I crazy to think it feels like devolution?
And it’s left me wondering why bother. Why bother when material this good—perhaps not great, but certainly good—is available online in abundant quantities, or slowly being translated into affordable bookstore editions? I can understand a hardcore fans’s love for a certain set of characters keeping them enconsced in the mainstream, but what possibly would motivate a “New Mainstream” audience member to bother anymore? Urasawa’s work is the kind that the “New Mainstream” has been incapable of producing – those creators are largely self-indulgent, slow to produce pages, largely disinterested in the world around them, angling only for movie deals I hope they never make. Why bother giving them another chance to fail?
Urasawa’s work—problematic as it is, occasionally crap as it is—offers big sprawling epics with dozens of characters engaged in the fight of their damn lives, whether on a tennis court or in German torture chambers. By comparison, Craig Thompson’s work is about whether or not Craig Thompson’s going to get laid. And I don’t mean that in a pejorative—I love Craig Thompson’s work, I think he’s amazing and I actually think the BLANKETS backlash is mostly silly. I want Craig Thompson to get laid! I like Thompson more than I like Urasawa, and I use Thompson only as an example that there is an absence that perhaps I am using Urasawa to fill – and Urasawa mght not fill this for you—but an absence of quality comics that have a bigness to them, that there are comics that excel in the personal, to be sure, but an absence of…well, arena-rock for lack of a better term. I can’t think of how else to describe it.
A momentary fit of pique, probably quickly passing. My summary of the “New Mainstream” is more bluster than reality, sure, admittedly, admittedly. But…Urasawa for me raises that question. And I’ll even admit this: you might look at Urasawa and not see what I’m seeing. I fully expect many of you will look at his work and think to youself, “I don’t see the difference between this and Brian Vaughn, and I think Brian Vaughn is overrated as hell – that nonsensical crap about the painting of Abraham Lincoln in EX MACHINA? Seriously? And Y the Book So Crappy? Huh? Good day, sir! I said good day!” And let me just apologize ahead of time for wasting your time.
Maybe there’s nothing there. Maybe this whole essay’s been a bit silly.
But even if you accept that, here’s what bothers me about that: we’ve seen such little manga of this sort translated – an awful lot of work for teen boys and teen girls, but not much like Urasawa except some mediocre books in that PULP magazine—that maybe Urasawa is a dime-a-dozen, a nobody, that I’m more delighted by the novelty than the quality. But I’m forced to write this essay because there’s no one else talking about the fucking guy, there’s no one to check with, because there is no conversation, because after 2004, Captain Chainsaw-Penis has captured our context and limited our conversation.
You might not see what I see when or if you look at Naoki Urasawa’s comics, but I hope you see it in something this year and I know I hope to see it again in 2005 somewhere, anywhere.
Ooooh, dramatic? I don’t know. I never know how to conclude, dude.
-- Abhay Khosla
Abhay Khosla is the creator of Title Bout; he would like to thank everyone involved in creating and distributing the scanlations for their hard work. It is very much appreciated.