20th Century Boys is about a group of men (and one woman) who, when they had been children, had been best friends, sharing a "secret base" in an overgrown field: a sanctuary where they could read manga, listen to music, and hide from the most evil twins in history, Yanbo and Mabo. One day, their "creative genius," Kenji suggested they bury a time capsule, fill it with their treasured possessions, and agree to unearth it only when the earth was in grave danger, for they would then save it.
Years later, they find themselves leading ordinary, unglamorous lives, their dreams of greatness long-buried under the dust of adult pragmatism. But then strange deaths caused by a mysterious virus begin occurring, and murders and disappearances occur one after another. Then one of their number becomes one of the dead, and all the clues point Kenji to a mysterious man who calls himself "Tomodachi (Friend)," who uses as his sign a symbol known only to Kenji's circle of friends.
As the scale of damage and the number of deaths rapidly increase, Kenji realizes that all the terrors are occurring as he had once set down on paper, in a story he and his friends had written, and buried in the time capsule they had sworn over.
20th Century Boys is difficult for me to summarize without giving too much away, but even if I were to divulge half of its secrets, we would still not be anywhere near solving the mystery of "Friend" and of his motives.
At first glance, 20thCB seems to be a crude shounen manga that would probably not appeal to everyone, judging by the artwork alone. But it is not. True, there are no pretty boys or girls to easily fangirl (or boy) over in this series, but this kind of story does not need exaggerated, surreal beauty in its artwork to survive. This truly is a graphic novel, where the plot moves with speed, certainty, and intelligence rather than rely on hundreds of feathers and cherry blossoms to depict angst and drama. The art is actually pretty polished as well, the inking clean and deliberate, and the panels arranged simply but effectively. Like movies these days, many manga artists tend to rely on "special effects" or glamorous art rather than plot to attract readers, but 20thCB has enough plot that any eye candy would just be a bonus.
Character development in 20thCB is also something I liked. Kenji grows and changes as the series progresses, and so do the other characters. The dynamics between the friends are believable, and their heroism so simple and understated.
I can't really find much to say about this manga, simply because it's so good and interesting and I probably wouldn't be able to do it much justice. But if you're looking for a fast-paced intelligent plot, masterfully created characters, and a mystery that can have you at the edge of your seat, then give this series a chance.