Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira

Akira, Vol. 1Akira, Vol. 1 by Katsuhiro Otomo

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The 1980s—the latest, the last golden age. The length and breadth of our politics, our pop culture, even our high culture, was laid down in that decade. Everyone now is either trying to overthrow it or recapture it or some incoherent combination of both, but we are all oriented toward it.

Comics has a privileged relation to the 1980s as well: traditional historicization aside, it is comics’s true golden age. The top Goodreads review of Katsuhiro Otomo’s epochal cyberpunk manga Akira puts the work in precisely that context:

The importance of ‘Akira’ is difficult to express, but it certainly rivals US contemporaries ‘Watchmen’ and ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, and it ran far longer than either title, giving it an epic scope and grandeur that exceeds both of those seminal works. If it was a decision between: Katsuhiro Otomo, ‘Domu’ and ‘Akira’; Frank Miller, ‘Batman: Year One’ and ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns’; or Alan Moore, ‘V for Vendetta’ and ‘Watchmen’; I’d say that Otomo created the best and most influential works of the 1980’s. That ignores some huge titles, like ‘Love and Rockets’ and ‘Maus’ and ‘Raw’ and ‘Weirdo’ and ‘Yummy Fur’ and ‘The Incal’ and ‘Les Cites Obscures’, etc… but I’ll stand by it, with all due respect.

With all due respect, as a matter of literary judgement, I simply can’t rate Akira over Watchmen or Maus or (what I’ve read of) Love and Rockets or Les Cités obscures, nor even over The Dark Knight Returns, though I concede the latter may only be my own nostalgia talking. Over The Incal‘s oppressive metaphysics, though, certainly—and over anything (save the aforementioned Mausterpiece) in the miserable R. Crumb-Chester Brown line. And, while I claim to be no manga maven, I also can’t rate it over the shōjo and josei works only that have only recently been translated, some of which preceded it and all of which are literate in a way it can only dream of being: The Heart of Thomas, Claudine, Helter Skelter.

The two crucial points being made in the quotation above, though, are that 1.) the comic-book 1980s was a decade of miracles, one when, as they used to say, “BAM! POW! comics grew up!”; and that 2.) Akira was perhaps more influential than any other work of the period—not necessarily better but more influential—on how we think and how we see, even if only as a part of the broader cyberpunk movement.

First, what is Akira‘s role in comics’ maturation process, this 2000-some page epic about eternal, evolutionary, revolutionary youth? For one thing, like Frank Miller’s own manga- and BD-inflected work of the same period—the oft-neglected Ronin is the key text here—it signals the breakdown of the international barriers: Otomo brings both a drawing style and a storytelling ethic from the west. Gone is the cuteness and the address to the audience of even some of the mature work of Tezuka; they are replaced by an immersive style of impossibly detailed drawing—a world unto itself. The characters are concerned only with one another and with their conflict rather than with us; as one critic incisively observes, Otomo’s characters look at each other.

Just as Alan Moore and Frank Miller eliminated the Stan Lee editorial voice avuncularly conscripting the reader into the fan club in favor of wordless pages or narrative captions that drop us directly into the characters’ stream of consciousness, Otomo provides only action and dialogue in a self-contained fictional cosmos. If many landmark ’80s comics have a postmodern political attitude—irreverent toward all authority, all metanarratives—many of their formal innovations ought to be classed by contrast as neo-modernist: they raise the fourth wall to seal themselves off as bounded art objects, recursive and complex—incitements to the apophenic insomnia Joyce wished to induce in the critic.

So mighty is Otomo’s storytelling craft that it paradoxically consumes attention even as it commands it, which neither Miller nor Moore, neither Jodorowsky nor Peeters, would be willing to do. In other words, you are never tempted to linger, but only to speed on. It is only a very slight exaggeration to say that one of Akira‘s six 400-page chapters can be read in the same time that it takes to read one of the 32-page chapters of Watchmen: about an hour. This reflects Otomo’s absolute mastery of layout and composition; he never puts an obstacle athwart the onrush of your eye across his collapsing cityscapes. Language does not get much in the way either: vast swaths of pages, all violent action, go by with no more demanding words than onomatopoeiac sound effects, grunts and profanities from the characters, and the heroes and villains crying one another’s names.

The characters are accordingly not personalities-in-the-round but archetypes for the conveyance of story energy. The emotion of the book comes not from our devotion, necessarily, to any one figure, but rather our absorption of the affects they convey. When the hero confesses to his antagonist at the climax, “All I wanted to be was your friend,” we are moved less by the particulars of their relation than by our own knowledge of how that feels. The narrative vortex spins around these affects, not the characters who embody them.

Such anti-literacy—very much against the Anglo-American “spirit of 1986,” which saw comics strive for and often attain the density of the 20th-century novel—bears upon Akira‘s theme of energy washing away all hierarchies. I called Akira “cyberpunk” above, as everyone does, but why? There are barely any computers in the book, no hackers, no consensual hallucinations, no sojourns in the data stream. In fact, as with much ’80s pop culture, it recapitulates the fantasies and anxieties of the 1950s: military testing, nuclear explosions. Tokyo is destroyed on no less than four occasions in the course of the narrative—the final time by American bombs.

Far more in evidence is the punk sensibility. Akira is about a group of teenagers in a post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo who are drawn into a top-secret government conspiracy rooted in Japan’s attempt to train psychic children as super-soldiers. This has unleashed forces beyond any one agency’s control. The work as a whole dramatizes our small cast of characters in confrontation with the social and psychological transformations brought about by the vast psychic abilities of the titular Akira and of the novel’s overall anti-hero, Tetsuo.

What allies Akira to cyberpunk is its dominant attitude of political cynicism, a refusal of allegiance to state and society. In the book, the state collapses under the assault of forces it cannot tame or rationalize, and power is whatever can be won by rival gangs in the jungle of the city. While other cyberpunk texts place more stress on the role of the corporation in such a decomposed postmodern polity, Akira nevertheless gives us the basic lineaments of what has perhaps excessively been called neoliberalism.

Otomo’s metaphysics, too, uphold energy against the institutions. At the climax of the final chapter, one of the uncannily aged psychic children who haunt the text explains to one of its protagonists that the most powerful psychics, Akira and Tetsuo, are only channeling and expressing a kind of universal life force:

MIYAKO: Say rather, it is the world of the spirit…freed from the shackles of the flesh.


MIYAKO: Life in all its countless evolutions. Do you not think evolution too vast and grand…to be mere environmental adaptation?


MIYAKO: Akira may have wanted to alter the course of human evolution…

KANEDA: What for?! Isn’t evolution programmed?!

MIYAKO: Cannot the human spirit choose its own currents?

KANEDA: You mean humanity wanted to evolve again?

MIYAKO: The results…are for your children to see.

The line about escaping the prison of the flesh evokes cyberpunk’s gnostic motif as well as its glam-despair over the neoliberal dystopia. The book’s message is that energy, passing through youth, transforms society whether anyone likes it or not. In that case, the appurtenances of literature, or of a more formalist—in the sense of defamiliarizing—approach to comics storytelling à la Alan Moore, could only get in the way, like the old lumbering Cold War nation-state with its secrets and bureaucracies.

From Marvel Comics’s colorized version of Akira, issue #38, via readcomiconline.to

After the world-spirit strips off the flesh of our anti-hero and his nation—and there is much Cronenbergian body horror in Akira too: evolution figured grotesquely as bulbous, venous carcinogenesis—there is a chance to rebuild. As the punkest theorists of the high theory era warned, deterritorialization will be accompanied by reterritorialization. Though our surviving heroes leave the letter “A” for their sign, it stands for Akira—power—not anarchy. They throw the Americans out of Japan, reconstitute the sovereign nation, and ride through a cityscape restoring itself around them in one of the best endings of a graphic novel I can remember, its implicit nationalism aside.

Akira cannot exactly be read—only withstood. A work singularly obsessed with the ruins of modernity is one of the popular monuments of an age we have lost or are losing; it showed us images that allow us to see the present already under the sign of apocalypse. That it is the Futurist manifesto of comics modernism makes it an object all the more fascinating in our fallen present.


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Anna Kavan, Ice

IceIce by Anna Kavan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jonathan Lethem begins his introduction to the new Penguin Classics edition of this 1967 novel, “Anna Kavan’s Ice is a book like the moon is the moon. There is only one.” Luckily, as he goes on he outgrows this meaningless blurb-babble (blurble?) and suggests Kavan’s antecedents and cognates: Poe and Kafka, Ballard’s Crash and Ishiguro’s Unconsoled, Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad and Godard’s Alphaville, and more. This critical gesture is more important than it would otherwise be because Ice has been advertised as science fiction, whereas its tradition is actually oneiric modernism. Like medieval literature, modernist fiction has a strong tradition of dream-inspired narrative; modern writers from Poe to Ishiguro are not seeking religious wisdom in their dreams, however, but the personae and landscapes of the unconscious, the revelation of the repressed.

Such fiction tends to be more interesting when the unconscious it explores is a collective or social one rather than merely the author’s. Despite that, Kavan is a fascinating figure: born Helen Woods to an upper-class English family, she published realist novels under her married name Helen Ferguson in the 1930s; following a nervous breakdown, she took the name of one of her protagonists, Anna Kavan, and began publishing fiction in a much stranger vein (in this edition’s afterword, Kate Zambreno mentions that the “K” in Kavan “has been read for Kafka”); during World War II, she traveled around the world; she spent time in and out of institutions and moreover became addicted to heroin. Combine such a twentieth-century life with such offbeat fiction, and you will get the work explained in terms of the biography. Accordingly, Ice seems to have been freighted beyond reason with biographical interpretations—particularly focused on Kavan’s heroin addition, presumably the source of the novel’s titular apocalyptic imagery, an all-encroaching white oblivion.

But reading from Kavan’s life is even less satisfying than reading Ice as straight science fiction; the novel’s catastrophic ice age is presented as a public and political matter, a kind of nuclear winter unleashed by irresponsible scientists and superpowers, and when Kavan writes about more ostensibly private issues of obsession and control, they are portrayed through the theme of men’s sadistic sexual domination of women (and women’s masochistic complicity therein—Kavan does not seem to be an orthodox feminist). Kavan is working through issues of much broader relevance than her particular story. When critics tear right through the texture of the text to find the writer’s “real life” as if rummaging through closets and drawers, I am reminded that Nabokov associated psychoanalysis with totalitarianism—the abolition of privacy to control what the public can think and say. Even more so in the case of a writer like Kavan, who takes whatever experience was hers and devises a fable that, because its real-world referents are so unclear (no country is named in this novel, nor is any character, and no time period is specified), is virtually unlimited in its scope. Why should we be so sure this is only Helen Woods’s story? What if it is yours or mine? Scholarship has its place, but it should not become a defense against literature.

The story of Ice: a male narrator returns to his home country in quest of an “old friend” or former lover, a fragile young woman whose psyche was permanently damaged by “a sadistic mother.” The narrator claims that the woman sees herself as a perennial victim and will submit to any cruel fate, but he himself is afflicted with sadism. Ironically, given his own sadistic desires, one of the narrator’s goals is to free the woman from “the warden,” her other husband or lover, who is far more overtly domineering and cruel—and not only of her, as he is depicted variously as a kind of sheriff, general, mafioso, or warlord at various points in the tale. But the narrator frequently experiences visions of the young woman in various tortured and submissive postures, of which this is the first:

An unearthly whiteness began to bloom on the hedges. I passed a gap and glanced through. For a moment, my lights picked out like searchlights the girl’s naked body, slight as a child’s, ivory white against the dead white of the snow, her hair bright as spun glass. She did not look in my direction. Motionless, she kept her eyes fixed on the the walls moving slowly toward her, a glassy, glittering circle of solid ice, of which she was the center. Dazzling flashes came from the ice-cliffs far over her head; below, the outermost fringes of ice had already reached her, immobilized her, set hard as concrete over her feet and ankles. I watched the ice climb higher, covering knees and thighs, saw her mouth open, a black hole in the white face, heard her thin, agonized scream. I felt no pity for her. On the contrary, I derived an indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer. I disapproved of my own callousness, but there it was. Various factors had combined to produce it, although they were not extenuating circumstances.

The surrealism, the stark black-and-white imagery, the blandly descriptive and formal tone, the fetishistic and incantatory repetitions (four whites, four ices in one paragraph), the sadism, the instability of perspective (is the author condemning the narrator or identifying with him?), the unapologetic examination of cruelty without commending it—all are characteristic of the novel’s mode and style.

Ice‘s narrative has the feel of a dream or compulsive sequence of dreams, stopping and restarting as the characters re-negotiate their relationship to each other—at times, the warden allows the narrator to see the young woman; at times, she accepts him and at others rebuffs him; at times he pursues her obsessively and at other times strives to put her out of his mind. Because the narrator is constantly in motion, traveling by ship from one country to another, the narrative is never stable. Each chapter when completed, in my experience, evanesces from the mind, and the narrator himself remarks on reaching a safe port at the beginning of a late chapter:

Nothing but the nightmare had seemed real while it was going on, as if the other lost world had been dreamed or imagined. Now that world, no longer lost, was here the one solid reality.

The novel’s vagueness, then, should not be regarded as a fault or flaw but as a deliberately sought technique of disorientation. The narrator, by the way, remarks frequently that “[r]eality has always been something of an unknown quantity to me,” and also that “the unreality of the outer world appeared to be an extension of my own disturbed state of mind,” so how much of this is to be taken as real and how much a hallucination is persistently in question. As Lethem remarks, Kavan introduces visions and dream-sequences into a narrative whose grounding tone is already hallucinatory and oneiric, layering unreality upon unreality.

The unreality, however, has real meaning. Kavan is investigating the instinct for destruction—both self-destruction and the destruction of others—which is the only thing that can explain humanity’s potentially world-ending violence. Both nature and civilization are collapsing around our trio of narrator, woman, and warden: walls of ice are closing in on the world from north and south poles, cities are destroyed, refugees massacred, nuclear weapons deployed, and in the few temperate zones hysteria reigns. Their menage—and folieà trois is the microcosm of a more general catastrophe, one that could only have been written in the middle of the twentieth century, the world’s first epoch in which a secular and man-made apocalypse is possible. Hence the novel’s seeming villain, the warden, is presented as a charismatic and attractive figure with his piercing blue eyes (“his arrogant, ice-blue gaze,” clearly meant to evoke the ice), even as the young woman is doom-eager and submits to her degradation—

Something in her demanded victimization and terror, so she corrupted my dreams, led me into dark places I had no wish to explore. It was no longer clear to me which of us was the victim. Perhaps we were victims of one another.

—and as the narrator remarks again and again on his kinship to or identity with the cruel warden—”we were like brothers, like identical twin brothers.” The point is not to “blame the victim” but to understand the capacities of the human psyche that make us all victims and victimizers, sometimes of ourselves. We are all entangled in the potential catastrophe, just as this book’s presiding consciousness is dispersed among the three characters who keep flowing into one another and losing their discrete identities—with all of them, perhaps, echoes of the “sadistic mother” named at the beginning of the story and of the author composing it.

As with even the most dreamy of dystopias, there is a moralistic streak in Ice. The narrator is some kind of naturalist who desultorily intends to research the Indris, a species of singing lemur who seem to figure as the opposite of the ice, nature as a redemptive or utopian force. When the narrator finds them in the equatorial jungle after attempting to put his obsession with the young woman behind him, he is given a vision of bliss and peace:

It seemed more as if I received a message of hope from another world; a world without violence or cruelty, in which despair was unknown. I had often dreamed of this place, where life was a thousand times more exciting and splendid than on earth.

He quickly decides that this is not for him, not for humanity at large in their present state: “But I knew that my place was here, in our world under sentence of death…I was committed to violence and must keep to my pattern.” Humanity seems to deserve its destruction at the hands of sadistic mother nature, in the narrator’s (and author’s?) opinion:

Instead of my world, there would soon be only ice, snow, stillness, death; no more violence, no war, no victims; nothing but frozen silence, absence of life. […] A frightful crime had been committed, against nature, against the universe, against life. By rejecting life, man had destroyed the immemorial order, destroyed the world; now everything was about to crash down in ruins.

Earlier, the narrator observes of the ice spreading over the world that “the sight…did not seem intended for human eyes,” suggesting with the modernist writer’s characteristic religious diffidence the vague potential of another, higher intelligence that can make sense of the mess we have made. In the meantime, we have the mysteries of fiction, our public dreaming, to ponder, and Kavan dreams them up brilliantly.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!