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Fifteen, Four, and Twenty: Jeff on Being A Guest Star, and on 20th Century Boys, Vol. 3

Jeff Lester

First off, if you enjoy the roguish way in which I stammer and hum on my way to making a point, you’ll probably enjoy my first guest appearance over at the Fourcast!, Fourth Letter’s podcast, wherein I chat with the charming and sensible David Brothers and Esther Inglis-Arkell about Mark Waid’s run on The Fantastic Four, the differences between DC and Marvel, and (very, very briefly) about how Jack Kirby might’ve handled The Transformers. I really enjoy listening to the Fourcast!, especially the way David and Esther represent their Marvel and DC fan positions. It’s kinda like sitting down to watch a cartoon dog and a cartoon cat battle it out, and seeing them approach things with humor, intelligence, and respect, instead of very large anvils–and so I was pretty gratified to show up and play the podcast’s version of the always off-guard animal control handler who ends up cranking his head crazily around his neck trying to take it all in. My thanks to David and Esther for having me on.

Now, then. After the jump, a few words about the third (and second) volume(s) of Naoki Urasawa’s 20TH CENTURY BOYS.

20TH CENTURY BOYS VOL. 3: There was a page from volume two–that page where Kenji loses his shit, yelling “Donkey!!!” and lunging at the guy who killed his friend–that literally almost knocked me out of the chair–Urasawa just perfectly paced the sequence leading up to that page, and then used this incredible combination of tricks to make Kenji’s reaction as visceral as possible.

I’m cheating you and Urasawa a fuckton here because the pacing leading up to this page helps give this so much power, but still: look at that. First panel tight close-up, second panel medium shot, third panel another close-up (but not as close as the first panel). And each panel is from a different angle. But thanks to the continuity of the one panel and those fifty kajillion speed lines, it all feels unified: it’s like a movie shot where the handheld camera shakes at just the right moment, giving a feeling of chaotic spontaneity, of all shit busting loose. (And check out how Kenji appears to be battling those speed lines in the first two panels–they’re all but breaking on his body like water–and in the third panel they’re behind him, pushing him forward.) Sweet Jesus.

Although Volume 3 didn’t have a similar single page that knocked me on my ass in the exact same way, it has at least three showstopping suspense setpieces, two of which are stacked right on top of each other: Kenji finds himself face-to-face with the mysterious Friend in a packed stadium; a ticking bomb scenario plays out differently than you would think; and a gathering of people at a mini-mart has disastrous consequences.

(God, there it is again. Keep in mind how the page reads from right to left–see how the action of the last panel breaks out of the grid, showing how the pulling of the baby out of her arms is showing things literally going out of control?)

In each of these, Urasawa benefits not only from his insanely strong storytelling chops, but his ability to make you care about characters and then put them in breathtakingly tense situations. Because of the structural similarities to Stephen King’s IT, the comparison between King and Urasawa comes pretty quickly to mind and I wholeheartedly recommend that anyone who enjoyed King’s books to check this series out: to call Urasawa a world-class storyteller is actually an understatement.

And as a fan of both Urasawa’s PLUTO and MONSTER, I’m fascinated by the way those books and this one is informed by the plot device of memory. Although not as much a keystone of PLUTO (at least as far as I’ve gotten into the story), both 20TH CENTURY BOYS and MONSTER revolve around characters who must remember their own past in order to avoid catastrophe. I’m curious as to what extent Urasawa uses this motif as simply a way to craft a story with maximum amounts of suspense (in such a story, the action of the plot unfolds in two different directions, with events in the present gaining sudden momentousness based on what’s uncoverd in the past, and events of the past gaining poignance knowing what we do about characters in the present) or to what extent he believes such a motif to be a truism. For whatever reason, I’m more than happy (unfortunately) to consider Japanese creators within the context of their country’s history, and I find it interesting to consider how Urasawa’s tales take place in countries rebuilt after World War II in images seemingly markedly different from the images those countries held during the war. Whatever sympathies he might hold for those raised in and under those new images, to forget what occurred before is to invite disaster. I’ll be interested to see how that might play out in later volumes of 20CB. As I said before, it’s EXCELLENT stuff, and I hope you consider checking it out if you haven’t already.

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