Kids Games Never Finish: Urasawa Naoki’s 20th Century Boys

Children are excellent at creating mythologies. And some of the mythologies that you make with your friends can affect you for the rest of your lives.

That is one of the first thoughts I probably had when I began reading Urasawa Naoki’s manga series 20th Century Boys. Much in the way that its protagonists struggle to remember all the details of their childhood, I find I’m having difficulty recalling how I even found this series.

I found some of the Viz Media-translated books at the Toronto Public Library and read Books One through Fifteen from 2011 to early 2012. They didn’t have all of them yet and I suspect that some of the books themselves weren’t even translated for purchase during that period. I admit: I was attracted to the simple prototypical white, grey and black elegance and faded colouring of the covers and, of course, the premise on the backs of the books themselves.

Yes, it’s not so much that I judge a comic book by its cover, but more specifically its back cover. And I was also intrigued by context.

It didn’t hurt that 20th Century Boys title is was actually taken from the catchy song 20th Century Boy by a music group called T. Rex, that the twentieth century itself covers so much ground with regards to modern history, and footnotes. Yes, a manga series that has footnotes about Japanese culture and–specifically–manga, anime, television, and geek (or otaku) culture. There’s this special magic in starting off a story of any kind with literary and cultural references: hence the reason why I tend to start some of my narratives with epigraphs, or quotes from other works real or imagined that appeal to me.

You can blame Frank Herbert’s Dune for that.

I’m also really hesitant in committing to most series. I admit it. There is this vulnerability in opening yourself up to a story that is bad, becomes bad, or is so good that you get attached to the characters and you just wince at what is about to come: especially when it hit something home for you much in the way of a children’s baseball game.

But as I was saying, it was the story premise that got me. In 1969, the time of the first Moon landing and Uri Geller’s spoon-bending psychic phenomenon, a group of children create a story where they are a society of heroes rising up against a league of evil that has destroyed the world. They create together a Book of Prophecy that outlines all the events that will lead to their battle. This is their symbol: that of friendship.

20th_Century_Boys_symbol

Eventually, when they lose the field with their “secret base” they leave a time-capsule with the book and then, as childhood friendships are want to do, they move and drift apart. However, just as the symbol above represents an image in some manga that tells the reader to turn the page (with an eye drawn over it), this story isn’t over yet.

Years later Endo Kenji, one of the group and the creator of the Book of Prophecy, is an adult and with the suicide of one of his old friends notices the rise of a cult led by a mysterious figure named “Friend:” a man that uses and wears their childhood symbol as a mask. Kenji and his other friends begin to reunite and realize that someone is reenacting the scenarios of their childhood into a very grim adult reality.

What I really liked about this series was how it took the tropes of the superhero, the supervillain, and even Japanese mecha and juxtaposes them over an adult and human world. Even as the protagonists themselves have to suspend their own disbelief and, indeed, try to remember the distant memories of their childhood in order to find out who “Friend” is and to stop him, “Friend” himself subverts the archetypal story and creates something truly horrific. It’s almost as though his actions and their consequences on the world around him not only mock the characters, the genre of adventure hero manga but our own expectations as well.

Friend

[Welcome to the *Real* Friend Zone]

From my perspective, reading 20th Century Boys is like Alan Moore having been born into an alternate universe where he came from Japan and was influenced by Tezuka Osamu, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, anime and manga for most of his formative years and became the person that exists in our world: Urasawa Naoki. However, don’t let my bad analogy deceive you. This is not a comics Revisionist series. While Urasawa did make a grittier and darker version of Tezuka Osamu’s Astro Boy world of robots through his series Pluto, 20th Century Boys is its own world and story that utilizes, parodies, subverts and pays homage to the otaku and twentieth century symbolism of his, and so many others’, childhood and culture.

In fact, now that I think about 20th Century Boys reminds me of the realistic and gritty style of gekiga. I wrote a sloppy Blog post about this a while back with a focus on a lack of superheroes in Japan, but this book is making me reconsider some of my original points. It actually does remind me of Julian Darius’ explanation about Reconstructionism.

20th Century Boys Characters

As children, the main characters are very iconic and essentialized while they are surrounded by a realistic background. In fact, even when they grow older they still maintain traces of that youth–of that neoteny–only matured and “grown up.” And isn’t Reconstruction what creating stories is ultimately about: especially when you consider that children form stories in much the same way that put Lego pieces together. You have your basic building blocks that exist in reality and then you rearrange them to create some other kind of meaning. That’s what Kenji’s Group does. And then imagine the story continuing to build itself after them. Later in the series, a character even flat-out states “But kids games never finish.”

And sometimes reading 20th Century Boys is like watching a child’s game continue imperfectly. It’s true. Between the introduction of ESP into the story which seems to serve little significance to the characters but to hearken back to the spirit of the late twentieth century, people miraculously being able to walk away from explosions that should have killed them, the use of some stock and stereotypical characters, and a lack of visual closure with regards to the narrative build-up of some emotional relationships (which I hear is typical of Urasawa in his other works as well) the story is not exactly perfect.

However, consider this: the plot of 20th Century Boys is that “Friend” made a children’s playground out of the destruction of the world: turning a childhood dream into a dystopian nightmare used against its dreamers and all humankind. It was like Urasawa combined Field of Dreams with The Prisoner and 1984. It is terrifying and fucking beautiful in that the only way the protagonists can beat him is if they play the game that they all made together.

It makes me wonder what would have happened if some of the roleplaying games of my childhood and long-term friendships were ever applied to the real world. A long time ago, some of my friends, influenced by the Dune II computer game, created a whole world of interactions that I had a part in creating to this very day.

I won’t lie: becoming the secret Emperor of the world does intrigue me from time to time. But what 20th Century Boys illustrates is how even a childhood dream can cost the lives of billions. Even so, what a beautiful story that makes in fiction.

I would definitely recommend this series. It was only recently that I finished reading them online. Unfortunately the ones I read were not Viz English translations: which was one of the reasons why I hesitated in looking elsewhere for so long. No translation, from Japanese to English or any language for that matter is the same. So if you can find those Viz English editions, please read them. If not, consider the following:

The Friend cult sometimes has to purge some of its members. While the literal translation of their euphemism is generally translated as “banish,” the Viz version uses the word “reject.”

So tell me, my … friends, doesn’t the phrase, “Reject him,” sound so much more satisfying? And doesn’t it remind you of childhood: where acceptance and rejection can make all the difference in how your perceive your identity if not your very life? Keep that in mind when you read 20th Century Boys and you wonder who the heroes are, who the villain is, what their motivations are, and how some parts of childhood affect you forever. There is never full closure.

The games of children never end.

20th Century Boys True Friend

What If Comics Had Been a Place Without Codes? Would We Live as Air?

I’ve been having some technical issues these past few days and time hasn’t really been my friend but what I’m going to write here past most reasonable people’s sense of sleep is another down and dirty, and therefore ad hoc, article on comics.  So if anyone out there is an expert or has done their homework, by all means, please correct me if need be.

As some of you already know Sequart created and is now in the process of editing, a Kickstarter called She Makes Comics: a documentary on women in the comics industry and the culture surrounding it. One element in particular that it has focused on is the fact that long ago there were more female readers of comics than they were male. Now, I wrote a short article on what will soon be called GeekPron in which I found some of my own assumptions to the question, well, questioned.

I believed that it was the Comics Code Authority, inspired by the fear of McCarthyism “witch-hunting,” blacklisting, the detrimental testimonials by psychological experts such as Frederic Wertham, and a loss of business that had comics publishers eliminate most of their different genres of comics and focus mainly on watered-down stories about superheroes. All the horror, revenge, gore, westerns, romances, and sexuality all went the way of the dodo at the time because of fear. Anything that challenged the rules of the Comics Code, of authority always being right and just for starters, could not exist in mainstream corporations that published for money.

But the comic book editor Janelle Asselin also mentioned that this female readership of 55% over 45% of male readers changed as the superhero genre became more mainstream. Think about that: the idea that after a time the superhero not only reduced a female readership, but also eliminated or greatly marginalized a whole body of stories and genres that made the medium different. I realize now, looking back on what I wrote earlier, that these two statements are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

I mean, if you are afraid of losing your business and your liberty in telling stories for which you want a certain pay cheque and livelihood then eliminating anything that could be construed as an overt challenge to your culture’s status quo or even subversive to it, it unfortunately makes a horrible kind of sense.

The godfather of manga Tezuka Osamu once said that “Now we are living in the age of comics as air.” And while he was most likely referring to the influence of manga in Japan as becoming more widespread, its connotations can be applied to the comics medium in general. According to Paul Gravett, in Sixty Years of Japanese Comics, Tezuka believed that comics without passion or originality can become damaging and even create pollution. It took me a long time to figure out what this meant. When I first encountered the quote and the explanation, I thought that it referred to the potential damage to the morality of the reader but now I realize that the quote can definitely apply to comics as a medium and what occurred during the heyday of the Comics Code Authority.

The age-old notion of the superhero ghetto that we are so used to hearing about with regards to the comics medium: the notion of an immature all-boys club with shallow depictions of sexuality and simplistic violence with no consequences is damaging not only society’s concept of the medium but also that of its readers and future creators.

I’m not, by any means, saying that the comics that existed before the Code and its predecessors were the fonts of enlightenment for gender or, really, humankind. But there was a lot more experimentation before the Code and it just makes you wonder: what would have happened if these vigilantes and superhuman beings in tights had just remained one of many genres and there had been no Code?

I mean, there is always the scenario that Alan Moore presented in Watchmen: that if masked heroes and one a superhero had been in existence then no one would have paid attention to Wertham and the horror comics of Bill Gaines and friends would have dominated the medium from the fifties all the way into the eighties: becoming darker and more grotesque with time while also innovating itself much like our comics have done.

But that is just one creative interpretation. Who knows? Maybe a flat period of unoriginal and recycled stories would have followed regardless. Perhaps female readership demographics would have changed or something else would have challenged the “morals of comics:” for or against the status quo. Or we could have had another Golden Age: where comics became, earlier on, a widely accepted form of beautiful art and every great artist might have tried their hand at one. Maybe comics could have become widely accepted and mainstream coffee table or instructional as manga has in Japanese society to an almost ubiquitous degree. Instructional comics even had their place in North American society and to some extent they still do.

Of course, those latter thoughts are just me playing at utopia and I’ve never been really good at that. Maybe if there had been no Code comics would have, earlier, been just another form that challenged conventional morality much like any work of great art or literature should. Of course, again, this also happened in the Western world through the advent of what we understand as Underground Comix defying the establishment during about the late 60s: about that same time frame that Asselin gave when she talked about the female comics readership majority existed from the 1950s to the 1960s. Or perhaps the comics medium would have burned itself out as a fad and amateurs such as myself would be wondering, even then, what if: what if it had been different.

As for me, if you really want my honest opinion I will say this. I think that if there had been no Comics Code or anything like it children would have still been influenced by Tales from the Crypt, and Archie, and The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet and all of those others. And some girls and women would have had Wonder Woman and Black Fury. Many things would have continued on, but sometimes I think about that idea of all people–young, old, straight, LGBTQ, male, and female, different ethnicities, different classes–making their own comics and showing them to their friends and the world. They would realize how different they and everyone else are but also how many things they have in common.

And when you wipe away my pseudo-utopia of a whole loss of potential for a readership of intensely intelligent men, women, and sentient beings, when it comes down to it I do like the idea that without the Code and the forces behind its development, the medium of comics would have been considered more than just silly laughter and transparently hidden BDSM parodies. Those things would have been a part of the kaleidoscope. I think that many more people might have seen comics as a medium that tells all kinds of stories: a space inside and outside of us that is pictures and words. I think many more people may have been more accepting that the medium of comics as that place of sheer variety, like film, between both art and literature.

There is another way to look at Tezuka’s quote about “comics as air.” If you take the pollution of censorship and unoriginality away, what you might ideally have is a fluid art-form that anyone can learn and use. And if you consider that we all live in the continuing Age of Information and in societies that utilize wireless Internet and you include webcomics into the medium … perhaps we can all fly where only superheroes used to tread: up, up, out of the ghetto and away.

Miracleman Balloons

In a Different Place, a Different Time: Revision and Reconstruction in Comics Without Superheroes?

This is going to be more of a sloppy Blog post because it’s more out of sheer enthusiasm than it is actual research. For a while now I’ve been somewhat obsessing over an idea that I got from Julian Darius at Sequart: which is the distinction between Revisionism and Reconstructionism in comics. Whereas Revisionism takes superhero characters and adds a dark and gritty sort of realism to them and their stories, Reconstructionism brings them back to their more idealistic roots but arguably keeps much of Revisionism’s character development and mature themes. Sometimes it can be all the difference between dystopian and utopian ideals with regards to fictional characters in tights.

However, that is a very limited way of looking at it. After finishing an article that I’ve recently sent into Sequart and thinking about another one that I’ve been rereading and reworking, I wondered how these concepts of Revisionism and Reconstructionism would apply to something that is neither North American nor primarily focused on the superhero genre. I’ve actually been thinking about how, if at all, both ideas could apply to Japanese manga.

So here is where I begin to get messy and not get dates right or accurate or, really, try to be nice at all. I believe that in order to really look at considerations of Revisionism and Reconstructionism in North American comics and Japanese manga, you have to look at some quick and dirty historical contexts. North American comics, aside from perhaps Mayan and other Central American friezes came from European comics that date more or less from the nineteenth century: Egyptian and Sumerian sequential glyphs notwithstanding.

File:Yellow Kid 1898-01-09.jpg

The earliest comics were satirical cartoons and depictions of folklore. Then they were Sunday morning slapstick cartoons. In North America, however, around the thirties the figure of the Victorian strong-man was adopted as an aesthetic for masked and super-powered heroes: beings depicted as fighting a whole lot of crime.

Falk, Benjamin J. (1853-1925) - Eugen Sandow (1867-1925).jpg

At the same time there were a lot of other genres of comics out there in North America: Romances, Westerns, War stories, and–of course–Horror. These different genres danced around our superhero friends: who were still in their terrible twos of “might is right.” I’m not even sure why they came about to begin with. Most likely–and in my opinion–they were made to symbolize hope for the future in a relatively new nation against the darkness of the past World War, the upcoming Great Depression, and the resulting Second World War that everyone could sense coming on some level. A disturbing sense of moral ambiguity and uncertainty, which you can argue really started to crop up in literature and culture after WWI, needed something clear cut and decisive to counter it: even if it was interpreted as being tied into adolescent power-fantasies which is a hilarious concept when you think about the fact that superhero comics were actually just in their infancy then.

But in the 1950s, and slightly before, the fear of Communism and nuclear war created a society of paranoia. All of the darker, gory, amorally violent aspects of comics were self-censored by the creation of the Comics Code Authority in order for comics businesses to continue during the censorship “witch-hunts” going on during this time. The irony of course is that the dark elements of horror and sexuality did not go away as a result but, rather, they literally went Underground: into the developing Underground Comix movements.

But the Comics Code-endorsed superhero genre was one of the few that actually remained and the audience became very specialized as a result and in contrast to the wider age and gender range that it had earlier. Many have said that superhero comics became “watered down and puerile” for a time until about wherever you can distinguish the Silver Age of comics coming into play: where Marvel and eventually DC as well started to make flawed superhero characters that nevertheless tried to do the right thing.

In about the 1980s, writers such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman took the superhero genre and started add some gritty, bloodier and more “graphic” elements back into it. I compare it a lot to how the Victorian Age and onward attempted to sanitize folktales into fairy-stories only for the old tales to come back and essentially eat their bastardized children: both those derived from them and those that were entirely new. Perhaps during this period of both heightened counter-insurgencies happening between the United States and the USSR and then the latter’s decline influenced this Revisionism: which tended to criticize and look at the real-world politics and attitudes of the era. Certainly the 80s was a time when authority was at its height and, at the same time, was also being heavily questioned along with the implicit idea that “all authority is good” and should be obeyed by even superheroes that defend the status quo.

In about 1995, the time Julian Darius defines as the beginnings of Reconstructionism through the publication date of DC’s Underworld Unleashed, America was the sole superpower of the world in the midst of an idea of globalization. At the same time, it was embroiled in a lot of various different wars and clean-up from its Cold War missions into other countries. The way I figure it, and I am pretty sure there are other elements you can identify here as well, the art and culture of this time was influenced by a need and a sense of morality or certainty: of heroic figures needing to be depicted as having such. At the same time, they could not really go back to being ignorant or having bad storytelling. So, in the end, people such as Grant Morrison tackled these issues in their works: neither shying away from brutality nor letting cynicism completely win out in the superhero genre. It seems such a paltry explanation for this idea, but that is the best I can think of at the moment.

And then we have Japan. Manga has arguably been around in Japan–and the other Far East Asian countries–but in particular Japan for a thousand years or more: from their different kingdoms, to their Empires, the Shogunate, the Meiji Restoration of the Emperor and onward. Early scroll work illustrated humourous, sexual, and mythological stories. The term manga itself or something similar to it was apparently coined in the 18th century: meaning something along the lines of “whimsical drawings.” However, it can be argued that comics creation in Japan has been a very long and ancient tradition.

File:Japan-woodblock.jpg

Of course, you have World War II and then the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the American Occupation of Japan to consider. Unlike North America, or indeed any part of the world, Japan didn’t have to fear the possibility of a nuclear attack: it had already experienced it. At the time, the State-sponsored wartime version of Shintoism–that Japan was an invincible island blessed by the ancestral gods ruled by an Emperor of that divine bloodline–was pretty much destroyed by fire-bombing, nuclear-bombing, war trials and the U.S. Occupation. It is also during this period that many American soldiers brought over Disney comics and animated films.

Tezuka Osamu, Hikari (June - December 1959).

Artists like Tezuka Osamu were very influenced by Disney aesthetics and adopted them to make strange artistic hybrids of “whimsical” cartoons. However, these cartoons became challenged by the genre of what is called gekiga: of “dramatic pictures” with realistic, gritty aesthetics that delved into the more graphic aspects of life and even politics. The foremost of the gekiga artists that comes to mind for me is the person who coined the term to begin with Tatsumi Yoshihiro: who started drawing such work–which he did not like to call manga–in 1957.

The aesthetics of gekiga would inform many more works after him such as Otomo Katsuhiro’s Akira.

What’s interesting to note about all of this is the contrast with North America. Aside from already experiencing a taste of what nuclear war could bring, Japan never really had something that was the equivalent to a Comics Code Authority: at least from my understanding. It’s true that, for the most, they seemed to have a very conservative and even authoritarian governmental structure even after the War and censorship did and does exist. However, the development of gekiga–as a genre or an alternative movement of comics–seems to display either dissent against such conservative elements or a method of purging the demons of war and nuclear atrocity from the psyche of an entire culture.

It is really interesting to note that Scott McCloud, in his Understanding Comics,  argues that while “cartoons” function as essential images or ideas which are easy to follow in an unfamiliar or realistic world, realistic drawings seem to have a more alienating affect on the reader: making it harder to follow them. In addition, “cartoons” seem to provide a buffer or buttress against some very potential distressing elements of a story. Realistic drawings in comics would, arguably, not function as a safe point for the reader to view that depicted world and would force them to face its grittiness all on their own: unfettered and unsettling. So perhaps some decisions in gekiga literally make the reader face the collective demons of, arguably, Japanese culture after the Bombings and the American Occupation.

On another note, I also really find it fascinating that Japanese manga never really embraced the idea of a superhero until after World War II and, from what I understand, aside from a few changes in trends manga continued to cover a wide range of subject matter and retained a large variety of different readers.

I am so tempted to say that gekiga is Revisionism in comics that did not originally have superheroes: a concept which, if true, greatly fascinates me. And perhaps through Tezuka Osamu’s own very public manga-experiments with his COM Magazine, his continued Phoenix epic, and even his Buddha series he not only managed to adapt to the gekiga style from his original Disney and traditional Japanese art-derived aesthetics, but he adapted gekiga to his sensibilities as well. Perhaps one could argue that Tezuka was a Reconstructionist: bringing back manga to his more whimsical aesthetics but also developing a more mature and nuanced approach at character development and story line.

It is intriguing to think about the fact that he and others “discovered” Revisionism and Reconstructionism at times before even North America had due to different cultural experiences: North America seemingly delving into both in the 80s and mid-90s, and Japan looking into it from the late-50s to early 70s onward–and crossing over each other–respectively.

I’ve also been made aware that the realistic aesthetics of the gekiga element is not as mainstream in Japanese comics art now as it was before and now there is a trend in going back to the more “whimsical” and elemental cartoon aesthetics of the past: though not quite the partially-Disney inspired aesthetics of Tezuka himself. Perhaps Miyazaki Hayao himself is a better example of this in terms of his ecological and cautionary themes: though mostly his more modern animated films such as Mononoke Hime come to mind at that. I think another thing I find really interesting about Reconstructionism is that return to a mythos or even the rebuilding of a shattered or forgotten one that is made relevant to another time. Certainly, the fact that Tezuka and Miyazaki combine “the cartoon” with very realistic backgrounds could be indicative of what Reconstructionism may mean in Japanese manga and the media inspired from it: a return to a character aesthetic that the reader may feel safe in following–deceptively or otherwise if the artist chooses to subvert that image–while exploring a real or realistically detailed world.

I am only scratching the surface here and I am definitely not an expert in Japanese manga or culture or, well, anything. Applying one culture’s concepts to another’s is a problematic venture at best. Also bear in mind: you are not dealing with an otaku here, my friends: just a North American geek that likes to throw shit out there and is fascinated with interesting things. I just can’t get over the idea that maybe there was a place where superheroes did not form in comics naturally, or in the way that we understand them and yet Revisionism and Reconstructionism–a realistic depiction and an alternative return to an idealized element–happened in any case in a different place and at different times from North America.

It is definitely something worth thinking about.