Fort Mentality (Part 3)

Since the beginning of the 21st century, with the omnipresent Internet, the virtual world has become much more explored, perhaps to the abandonment of the physical world. So, it’s interesting to see comics today that touch on this theme of a fort, a secret physical place which plays a pivotal role in the psyche of a group of friends. Two examples are Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys and The Bunker written by Joshua Hale Fialkov and illustrated by Joe Infurnari.

20th Century Boys starts in Japan the summer before Expo ’70.  A group of kids, Kenji, Otcho, Yoshitsune and Maruo, build a fort in an abandoned field and call it their secret base. They read manga, ogle porn, and share secrets and aspirations. Otcho draws a logo for their group, and together they create a comic called The Book of Prophecy where in the future Earth is threatened by plagues, bombings and giant robots controlled by an evil mastermind.  Together, with summer ending and high school looming, the kids wonder about the future. This theme is echoed in both their Book of Prophecy, and their thoughts as they visit the World’s Fair Expo '70 and marvel at the exhibits and rides. The future seems to hold so much promise that they agree if the world is ever threatened they will work together to save it.

The story skips forward to 1999, the turn of the new millennium.  Kenji’s dream of becoming a rock musician has died and he works at a convenience store, occasionally playing guitar, but mostly working and taking care of his baby niece Kanna.  The other kids have had various success in life, one is a lawyer, another a scientist, another is missing.  They are brought together when one of the friends ostensibly commits suicide, although Kenji has doubts. The suicide makes them aware of a mysterious cult figure called "Friend" who is using their childhood logo for his organization.  More than that, events that they described in The Book of Prophecy are actually occurring, and the group believes that Friend is one of their former schoolmates.  On New Years Eve, Friend orchestrates an attack on Tokyo spearheaded by a giant robot, and Kenji and his friends are the only ones who can fight him.

The narrative oscillates in time, between 1970, 2000 and 2015. This gives Urasawa an epic canvas to paint his story, exploring Japanese pop culture of the 70's as well as events that formed the now middle-aged men. The 22-volume story is so packed with pop culture references that the publisher includes footnotes at the end of each book. Like Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, the title itself a reference, in this case a T. Rex song. Other mentions include food, wrestling stars, songs, world events, such as the 1969 moon landing, and the kinds of fads that might last for only a couple months, but stick in a kid’s imagination for the rest of his or her life.  I imagine that Urasawa, as a kid, made a fort in a field, much like the kids in his story, and that stuck with him until he could expend it in this epic comic.

The Bunker has a theme similar to 20th Century Boys, but begins on a dark note. Friends Daniel, Natasha, Heidi, Grady and Billy have place that special to them.  On the eve of graduating from college, they return to that spot to bury a time capsule but instead discover an underground bomb shelter, a bunker – something they didn’t know was there. It contains artifacts that appear to be from the future, and letters from their future selves explaining how they will change the world, possibly bringing about the end of civilization.

Unlike Urasawa’s story, The Bunker starts in the present and moves into the future.  Instead of the metaphorical time travel of flashbacks, the story appears to involve actual time travel.  Like 20th Century Boys the story jumps in time, but it’s much more abrupt, sometimes jumping multiple times per page.  Since it’s about the future, there’s not much nostalgia woven into the story. Like Urasawa, Fialkov explores the bonds of friendship, but not by creating a shared past.  Instead he chooses to begin with immediate conflict. The shocking news in the letters begins an argument that results in Natasha, who has been seeing Daniel, to run off and have sex with Grady. Meanwhile Heidi has to confront the reality that she was molested as a child, which puts a damper on her sex life with Daniel.

Since The Bunker is just beginning with volumes 1 and 2, there seem to be many juicy possible routes for Fialkov’s tale. One of the characters says “apparently there’s going to be a zombie apocalypse…” In volume 1 we learn that one of the group of friends becomes the President of the US and another may be the cause of the apocalypse. And anyone who hears the title is probably reminded of Hitler's F├╝hrerbunker.  This is fertile ground, and it seems to be ready to produce a story of power-struggles, world-shaking science fiction, and possibly an allegory for our post-9/11 isolationist country.

Out of the two comics, I prefer 20th Century Boys.  In The BunkerInfurnari's art is deliberately sketchy, as if it’s still in flux.  In 20th Century Boys the fort is the thing that originally brought them together, and the thing that keeps them together.  Their pact, shared history, and their secret origin all orbit around the sun of the fort that the kids built in a grassy field on a hot summer day.  Urusawa seems to use this as both the instigation and the heart of the story. Without the fort, these 20th century boys would be adrift, without a place of their own. Whereas 20th Century mixes anticipation and anxiety of the future, The Bunker seems much more dystopian.  The discovery of the bunker is what starts to drive them apart, and may ultimately lead to an apocalypse.  This fortification built to protect people becomes the path to destruction.  Does this say something about the shift in our culture in only the past decade?  Have events like 9/11 changed the world such that optimism is no longer an option?

As mentioned, the Internet is so pervasive that kids today spend more time in the virtual world than IRL. Now, when kids build forts they are in a virtual world of Minecraft, and their “domain” is literally a server domain address.  In some ways, I envy them.  The creations are much more impressive, and have a structure that works so much better than having to deal with things like boards, nails, saws and drills.  A couple of kids can get together and construct an amazing world, literally a place of their own.  Is this the next generation’s way of inspiring others to build a fort, a domain, a place of one’s own, over which they have complete control?

What gives me the most optimism is that these are shared forts. Rather than the divisive world of The Bunker, the virtual worlds of Minecraft lean toward a shared world, like 20th Century Boys. Hopefully the 21st century boys and girls will learn, in this way, to play and work and live together.  

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of Fort Mentality here.