3 Formative Works: Akira

August 7th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

I don’t know if I could separate the film and comic versions of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira in my head if I tried. They’re both vastly important, but for different (and sometimes complementary) reasons. Akira was one of the first anime flicks I ever watched, and it made an indelible impression on me. I still have never seen Blade Runner, but I probably feel about Akira like other people do about Blade Runner. I had a tape I dubbed from the video store, the official cassette, the special edition DVD (with the tin), and now I own the Blu-ray, except the dub is different, so I went ahead and bootlegged a 1080p video file with the old school dub, too. I like this movie, man.

I came to the comic later, and like everything I read back then, I read it in fits and spurts. I read maybe four whole issues when I was a kid, all of them set before the big disaster struck Tokyo. They’re long gone now, but they were pretty stunning. They definitely stood alongside Sin City as being comics that were vastly better than the other comics I owned, even if I was too young to articulate why. It was a little more grown-up, a little more edgy, and Steve Oliff’s colors were amazing. I don’t think I even really knew what manga was at this point–I’d heard about Japanese comics, and my comics-reading uncle had lived in Japan so I was up on some stuff, but I didn’t really know about manga as something different from regular comics. I just knew that Akira was something special, different from the movie and possibly better.

In the late ’90s, I picked up two of the hardcovers that Graphitti Designs put out. The covers are almost identical to the Dark Horse versions. The local comic shop guy was your typical comic shop douchebag, unkempt and rude, and he let the two HCs, which were limited editions and behind the glass, go for fifteen each. Today, they’re worth ten times that. I ended up with books 2 and 4, set before and after everything goes wrong. They did little to show me exactly what the series was about, because I had two sets of 400 non-consecutive pages out of a series that ran over 2000 pages, but it did just increase my fascination with the series as a whole.

Everything was interesting. The draftsmanship, the way Tetsuo swallowed pills, the insane sex scene, the flashbacks, the ruined city… it really hit me in a way most sci-fi doesn’t. I’ve only ever had two holy grails in comics, books that I absolutely had to have at any (reasonable) price. Flex Mentallo was one, but I didn’t know that existed until what, 2005? When I got grown and could afford to buy whatever comics I wanted, Akira was the first and most important holy grail there was.

Finding more of the old Graphitti HCs proved to be almost impossible. Websites that listed them didn’t respond to emails, eBay was a joke, and you’d think that these books never existed. In 2004, Barnes & Noble issued a hardcover version of the Dark Horse volume 1, and I picked that up. It sucked that it was in black & white, but hey: 1) hardcover and 2) I had to have it. I held out hope that I would find the Graphitti versions for the rest, but eventually gave up and started buying the Dark Horse editions… right after they went mostly out of print. That’s no big deal now that Kodansha is rereleasing the series, but a few years ago, it was massively frustrating.

Finding and reading Akira in its entirety has been a quest some fifteen years in the making. I only picked up the sixth and final volume in early ’08, and that was after some serious searching. I can’t think of another series I’ve pursued off and on for that long. Scooping up the complete Sin City was easy, except for finding a copy of the old school Family Values printing. Flex Mentallo took a few eBay auctions. Akira took effort, for one reason or another.

It was worth the effort, though. Akira is one of my top three favorite books, and a pitch perfect example of how to do a sprawling, huge story without screwing it all up in the end. The art is off the charts, with consistently great layouts and inventive storytelling. It’s probably akin to Cerebus, except if Cerebus was great from the beginning and if Dave Sim didn’t go insane around the middle. It works, and at some 2000 pages, it really shouldn’t work. It should be bloated and ugly and drag, but it doesn’t.

What’s interesting about the English adaptation of Akira is that it goes against conventional manga translating wisdom in a few ways. It’s both flipped and in color, already a tremendous departure from the original work. Jo Duffy’s translation was meant to be appealing to American audiences first, which allowed her a certain degree of freedom in playing with the dialogue. All of this was done with the permission and approval of Otomo and Kodansha, of course, but if you had to make a list of changes to books that manga fans don’t like, it’d probably go 1) flipped, 2) color, and 3) localization. Not to mention its trim size (or more accurately, trim sizes across the various formats) and the fact that it was a computer-colored, story-driven manga released in the early ’90s, when garishly colored, art-driven superhero comics ruled the roost. Akira, in America, shouldn’t be what it is, and yet… here we are.

(An aside: I was at New People in Japantown when I saw a familiar logo on an unfamiliar spine. It turns out that Kodansha took Marvel/Epic’s Akira volumes, reflopped them, relettered them in Japanese, and re-released them in Japan in some very nice slipcased volumes. Every time I go in that building I am tempted to buy them. They have three or four, I think. I’m far from an expert in Japanese editions, but I’ve never heard of companies doing that before. You can see the covers here, along with some incorrect data [it’s definitely the Epic colorization]. Covers are ill, though, right? Someone talk me out of buying them.)

I haven’t talked at all about what Akira is about, have I? It doesn’t really matter. I could do that at any time, about any scene. The images in this post are from issue fourteen of the Epic run, one of the ones I distinctly remember poring over as a kid. The only thing the pages I’ve excerpted are missing is the crazy ill way Otomo would draw moving headlights, something that made it into the film and imprinted onto my mind as something awesome as a young age. (It only happens twice in this chapter, on Nezu’s front and rear lights.) But look at that atrium on akira-01.jpg, the body language on akira-02.jpg, the comedy on akira-03.jpg, the car on akira-05.jpg, the ridiculous camera shifts in akira-08.jpg (panels 7-9 make me swoon), Kay’s pose in panel three in akira-09.jpg, or the way Otomo keeps showing the windup and the effect, but not the impact, or–


Akira is a triumph, one of those comics I try to reread at least once a year and fall in love with a little more each time. It’s over twenty years old, and while it has definitely aged some, it still beats the pants off a lot of things we consider quality nowadays.

And it has the best last page in comics, hands down.

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Akira: The Future is Neo-Tokyo

June 3rd, 2010 Posted by david brothers

I was sitting here thinking about what I wanted to go up on the site today and drawing a blank. I have several posts in progress, but none I really felt like finishing tonight. A couple need more research, another would require some scanning, and I’ve had a long day. I threw on the Akira blu-ray I picked up the other week and had been putting off watching.

I think it’s safe to say that Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira was the first anime I ever watched, barring translated stuff like Puss-n-Boots and a few other fairy tales. It had to have been ’90, or ’91. I know I was living at my grandparents’ house at the time, and my uncle picked it up from the local video store. It was Akira and Fist of the North Star, and then Ninja Scroll a few years later, that ran my anime world. (FotNS was important to a much lesser extent than the others–my grandmother walked in on a headbusting segment and I didn’t see the end of that movie for a couple years. By the time I got back to it, I’d discovered Ranma and probably Tenchi Muyo. The animation looked stupid by then.)

The opening sequence of Akira got me thinking. Frank Miller’s Sin City burned a love of crime stories into my brain. I think that Akira, a movie I definitely saw before I turned ten, ruined me for science fiction.

I’ve briefly mentioned my problems with a lot of sci-fi stories on here before. I’ve never been into the super sleek Star Trek stuff. It’s too clean, too boring. Star Wars came a little closer, but still tended toward the shiny. Too much sci-fi indulges in utopianism, or at least some kind of frontierism, and I think that’s where the break happens. I’m not enough of an optimist to believe in anything utopian, I guess. It all rings false. The future isn’t going to be shiny.

No, the future is Neo-Tokyo.

The city design in Akira, movie or manga, is fascinating. There are pipes that spiderweb around the city. Dirty alleys lurk around the corner. Glitzy neon signs litter slums. The city is confused, with a ton of brick and stonework next to jury-rigged pipes and metal. It hints at rapid, unchecked expansion. Otomo’s incredibly detailed artwork makes the buildings look real, or at least real enough. There is depth and weight to them, and when they begin falling, it’s like the end of the world. After the rise of the Great Tokyo Empire, you can look and see how the ruins came from a real city. The city makes sense, which is something that is vital in establishing a setting or mood.

The thing about Otomo’s future is that it isn’t the far-flung future. There is technology beyond our capabilities, and it is clearly not the present day. It’s tomorrow. And the thing about tomorrow is that it looks a lot like today. Today? It looks a lot like yesterday. We wear our clothes a little different, we talk a little funnier, but society doesn’t change that much. The visions of the future from the World’s Fair or science-fiction didn’t come true. Our cities don’t walk on wheels, our cars don’t fly, and we don’t eat pills for breakfast. Well, most of us don’t. Our buildings are taller. Our roads are the same. There’s just a different layer of dirt on everything.

That’s Akira. Neo-Tokyo isn’t ugly. It looks normal, but just a little different. There’s a certain beauty in its crowded, cluttered landscapes. There’s something to it that reminds me of Moebius’s work on Silver Surfer: Parable or Geof Darrow’s Hard Boiled. They all show history through a weathered building or clusters of trash in the street.

What I like about it is that there’s been a clear progression from now to then. It looks like what the future might actually look like one day. It looks like Tomorrow Plus. A little dirty, a little dingy, but clearly the future. No utopia, no grand sense of exploration, and no sleek, sex toy-esque cars. The lasers are bulky and unwieldy. The backgrounds are dirty and old.

I think I like the future, but only when it looks like an older version of tomorrow. Akira works for me. Star Trek doesn’t. Maybe that’s Otomo’s fault.

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Sick Day Linkblogging

October 22nd, 2009 Posted by david brothers

I’ve been sick for the past two days, but I’m almost back in fighting action now. While I recuperate, you get to enjoy these links to a couple of good posts.

-Tim O’Neill on the X-Men and longevity:

The weird part is that Marvel as a company aren’t ready to acknowledge that the franchise has peaked – or even that, if it hasn’t peaked, it needs some time off before it can perform again. When the X-Men were the number one franchise in comics they built an incredibly powerful editorial apparatus around the books to guide and control the direction. The books were so important that nothing could be allowed to pass unexamined: every creative decision was micromanaged and second guessed, characters and creators were treated as interchangeable and at the same time jealously guarded. This worked to a point – in the early-to-mid-90s when the books were at their inarguable peak, the machine ran smoothly.

-The Eastern Edge has a great translation of Naoki Urasawa talking abotu making comics.

The trouble is, will I be able to produce a drawing of the ideal acting that I have in my head. It’s a matter of whether I’ve got the skill in my drawing hand or not. For example if I’m drawing Kanna, whether she’s crying, laughing, or just standing there, I’ve got her face in my head but sometimes when I try to draw that it turns out completely differently. I feel like, “Ah, stupid right hand!”

-Kate Dacey talks about one of my all-time favorite comics, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. I love the sprawling and crazily detailed comic, and the movie even holds a special place for me, since it was almost definitely the first anime I saw.

The story itself has held up well. Its paranoid, don’t-trust-the-military vibe seems as resonant in 2009 as it did when the manga was first released in 1982, as does its message about the devastating consequences of WMDs. Watching China prepare for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 — leveling shanty towns, silencing protests — suggested parallels with AKIRA’s own Olympic subplot, both in the secrecy surrounding the facilities’ construction and in the Chinese government’s adamant denial of citizen opposition to the projects. Even Tetsuo and Kaneda’s brotherly drama, which was never one of AKIRA’s stronger points, seems better developed in the manga.

I kinda wish that Kodansha used Marvel’s color for the first few volumes, but c’est la vie!

Business as usual next week, hopefully including a post that’s four weeks in the making (four weeks late).

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On Katsuhiro Otomo

May 28th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

Early this week, Matthew Brady linked to a great lecture on Katsuhiro Otomo by Kentaro Takekuma. Click through, give it a read.

I’m a big Otomo fan, in part because Akira was one of the first anime I ever watched. The anime led me to the manga, which led me to the (awesome) colorized Marvel/Epic versions, which in turn led me to the (slightly less awesome) Dark Horse reprints. I’ve got three of the hardbacks Marvel and Dynamite Forces put out in the ’90s, even. I’d love to get the ones I’m missing in hardback form, but finding those seems to be pretty tough.

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