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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Paul Pope, 100%

100%100% by Paul Pope

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Synthesizing romance comics with the sexy global dystopias popular since the early 1980s, this 2005 graphic novel was aptly described by one Goodreads reviewer as “a cyberpunk Love, Actually.” 100% charts three love stories through a future New York City. It began as a set of linked short stories and is more episodic than heavily plotted, though Pope creates tension and emotion by rapidly cross-cutting between the three plots.

The action centers on a strip club where the women dance “gastro”—that is, they not only take off their clothes, but display to the throng a digital projection of their throbbing innards as well. A nomadic sex worker named Daisy gets a job there and ends up in a fraught and doomed relationship with the club’s dishwasher, John, a slumming former grad student in medieval literature. (John supplies the book’s title early on when in his inner monologue he vows to accept experience “come what may, one hundred percent.”)

Meanwhile, Strel, who also works in the club, has to deal with the absence and then the sudden return of her estranged husband, a boxer who “fights gastro” in the masculinist counterpoint to the spectacle the strip club offers. Strel has in the course of things introduced her artist cousin, Eloy, to her friend Kim, and the two begin to fall in love; they particularly bond over Eloy’s quixotic quest to get funding for his conceptual art project, about which more below.

Thematically, 100% celebrates the mysterious core of the individual—the thing that is loved in a love relationship—against all present and future attempts to know fully, much less to coerce, the self. The narrative shows both gastro stripping and gastro fighting to be cruel and inhumane, a mechanical substitution of technological exposure for genuine personal relations, one so brutalizing it leads to the grotesque violence of the fights and even murder:

We want to touch…we just can’t figure out how to do it. We lost the words for it. Then we forgot the question.

The novel begins, perhaps somewhat gratuitously, with the body of a murdered young woman, her upthrust bare leg resting on boxes labelled “whitemeat chick” and “breasts and thighs” in what Pope must have intended as a feminist protest against objectification rather than a somewhat tasteless, heavy-handed gesture (albeit one, admittedly, borrowed from feminist art).

Pope invokes the threat of murderous violence but it never comes to pass in the novel, because all of our main characters are struggling for love and art—struggles that, when pursued as such, make unnecessary and absurd any use of physical force. Daisy falls in love with John when he refuses to read the diary she left behind at the club, despite his temptation to do so; rather than seeking to expose her insides, to inspect ocularly her corpus, inside and out, he gets to know her through conversation and, eventually, lovemaking.

Allowing others their inner life, the space to cultivate their selves, is the essence of the ethic portrayed here. Whatever you think of Pope’s politics as a guide to policy—he is, or anyway was, a libertarian—this is its valuable and utopian ethical core. To recur to a theme running perhaps too insistently through my recent reviews, it may even be a more reliable ethic than the contemporary literati’s equally insistent appeals to empathy, which tend to imply everybody’s right to everybody else’s affectional innards through the medium of feeling—a right easily twisted by the powerful into imperial dominion over others, including the right to bombard or poison them, in the name of alleviating whatever real or imputed suffering the empath presumes to share with them.

As for art, it is the graphic novel’s subtext, while love is its text. Eloy needs to apply to a funding council made up of dire hipsters to finance his rather improbable art project: he proposes to set off 100 tea kettles, all whistling in the same key (“for one hundred percent sound”), to create a multisensory event of unity, a symphony. But the council demands, as a condition of funding, that he set off the kettles in different keys to create discord and disharmony: “A symphony! That’s not how the world is!” Pope here satirizes an art world that has so bureaucratized subversion that the only true subversion left is the bold and independent re-creation of beautiful forms—Pope’s aesthetic is less cyberpunk than a punk classicism.

Signaling awareness of tradition—there is an elaborate retelling of Tristan and Isolde in the middle of the book—as well as a fervid technological and futurological imagination, Pope nevertheless insists through his freehand style of gestural brushwork and his fluid storytelling, along with lyrical monologues and poetically compressed duets, on the right to art as a personal, handmade, and idealizing expression of the present moment. His polemic against an exhausted but dominant avant-garde establishment would amount to little if he could not provide a counterexample with his own work—and he does it beautifully.

The future in 100% is ostensibly dystopian—Pope implies that genetic advancements have gotten out of control, that war and militarization are omnipresent, and that an oppressive global government is in control (the libertarian artist pointedly shows U.N. currency, issued by “le banque du monde,” with Che Guevara’s face on it, while another subplot implicitly decries gun control as an abridgment even of the individual’s moral right to choose not to bear arms). As in much cyberpunk, the seeming dystopia is largely left off-stage so that the spotlight can fall on the vibrant anarchic bohemia growing in its niches: this, and perhaps its genre per se, is a belated modernist urban pastoral.

Like many modernists, Pope pits his own version of order against the chaos of a society run by and for those who care more for money and power than for love and glory. The modernists also tended to lift their vision beyond the nation and the ethnos, to see the possibility of new forms, new beauty, and new love in a cosmopolis on the horizon.

100% ends when one character wishes to flee New York; he hurls a dart at a map, promising to move wherever it lands. It lands on the spot on the map where he is standing, his own neighborhood: wherever you are right now is the beachhead of the new world. In the author bio at the end of this book, Pope’s goal is described as the creation of “world comics, 21st century comics, stories in the comics medium which can reach and speak to people everywhere.” Take out the specified century and the word “comics,” and you find an old dream—one that has never yet been realized.


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!