Yeah, I know I said that this would be coming on the weekend, but after last night’s post I figured some distance was in order before I write up the “Marvel Previews Picks” for December.
With that out of the way, this volume of the compulsively readable title is its last regular volume. It is, however, not by any means “The End.”
Had this been the actual end of the series, and I remember seeing a few posts around the time these chapters were serialized noting the “abruptness” of things, it would’ve been a disaster. The end of this volume represents a vaguely end-shaped bit of closure that has the protagonists foiling the Friend’s plan, UFOs, a giant rock concert and a deservedly tearful reunion. It is, if nothing else, a functional ending. It also lacks any kind of emotional resonance and smacks as if the author went, “We gotta wrap this thing up NOW!” Those of you expecting any revelations regarding the identity of the Friend will also be sorely disappointed as well.
Fortunately, this isn’t the actual ending. That will take place in the two-volume follow-up appropriately titled “21st Century Boys.” They’ll be arriving in November and January, respectively, so I may be fudging my “Best of 2012” podcast long enough to allow for consideration of this. We shall see. Be advised though that whatever year I decide to include it in, it will be on there barring some epic “Gunsmith Cats: Burst”-level shenanigans. I haven’t written about it that much because each successive volume is so consistent in the way it effortlessly draws you into the story and doles out the surprises at the same time. It’s the kind of consistency you tend to take for granted until it’s gone. Which is why I’m writing about it now.
That being said, at this juncture the series’ achilles heel is clearly visible. The Friend has always been an unknowable enigma whose success in every endeavor he undertakes tends to come off as divine providence. Though his followers would certainly argue that this is the case, a lot of the time it comes dangerously close to actually being “because the plot dictates it.” Much as the assassin Roberto had an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time throughout “Monster,” the Friend’s ability to be one step ahead of everyone without any actual explanation for it is of the same frustration. Mangaka Naoki Urasawa’s level of skill has kept this issue relegated to the background for most of the title’s run, but it has come strikingly to the fore in the last couple. That’s because he has effectively written himself into a corner with the matter of the character’s identity.
While my gut feeling about who the Friend was turned out to be correct, this revelation turned out to be relatively minor in the scope of the series once he showed up again alive and well. Now, the only certain thing we know about the character is that he was one of Kenji’s childhood friends. Problem is that we’ve been made aware of all of their fates over the course of these twenty-two volumes so unless Donkey is going to make a surprise return to the land of the living the only option left to Urasawa in making the character’s identity work in this context is: the retcon.
Yes, that time-honored tool of American comic book storytelling is rearing its head here as Urasawa has had to invent another childhood friend of Kenji’s in order for the identity of the Friend to remain a surprise. He was first seen at the end of vol. 20 when Kenji’s sister Kiriko remembered that there was another kid in the neighborhood who went around with the same sentai mask as Sadakiyo. Since then we’ve come to know almost nothing about the character that would make the revelation of his identity noteworthy in any way. This would be a problem for a lesser storyteller, but Urasawa is smart enough to start laying the groundwork for the final revelation here. Those of you familiar with the “Oldboy” manga will be interested to know that this whole conflict appears to be born out of a childhood slight.
I’m fairly certain that while the final two volumes will be a thoroughly entertaining capper to this series, they won’t make it a transcendent one. There are worse fates, to be sure, but even if “21st Century Boys” provides a satisfying answer to this kid’s identity it’ll be marred by the fact that it had to be shoehorned into the narrative in order to work. Why am I giving this series such a hard time about it when “Blade of the Immortal” has had more than its fair share of retcons over the years? Mainly because everything about the narrative of “20th Century Boys” has felt impeccably planned out. Just about every element felt like it was in its proper place as if Urasawa knew exactly what he was doing right from the beginning. With this business, we find out that’s not true.
Nobody’s perfect, but at this point it’s going to be really, REALLY hard for Urasawa to convince anyone that this has been part of his plan from the very beginning. It could be that “21st Century Boys” will show us his struggle and the exact means by which he managed to stay one step ahead of Kenji and his friends all through this series. I doubt we’re going to see that. In fact, I don’t know what we’re going to get with these two volumes, though the last two pages of vol. 22 indicate we might be seeing some “Back to the Future”-style time traveling! Or not. In spite of my misgivings, the fact that I don’t know what to expect has me anticipating these volumes even more. Go figure.