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AKIRA Vol. 1 -- Retro Review

They don't get much more seminal than this. Is the experience just as thrilling, though?

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When you’re finally getting around to checking out some seminal works in this particular circle, you quickly realize that few, if any, of them are more seminal than AKIRA. The live-action Hollywood remake may never actually get off the runway, but AKIRA's popularity is so enduring that even the slightest details of its casting sheets are consistently guaranteed to invite volatile talkbacks and high hit counts on this site. That’s impressive, sustained interest for a story that ran its course twenty years ago with no subsequent follow-ups.

We’re not talking about an title that's captured the popular imagination here so much as locked it up and chained it down in some concrete underground vault.

So, yeah… of course I’ve seen the movie! I watched it early enough that I wasn't actually old enough to get what the big deal was on the first go-round. Surely, there had to be more to this rather straightforward story of biker gangs and wrinkly kids? Not until I was older did I see the brilliance of that simplicity; the directness that grabs straight for the throat like a primal rock song.

You all know the score. Teen bikers in post-cataclysmic “Neo Tokyo,” led by red jump-suited Kaneda, run into some mysterious runaway with fearsome psychokinetic abilities on the highway. The encounter leaves Kaneda’s put-upon toadie, Tetsuo, in intensive care and he subsequently develops powers that are greater - - and far more destructive - - than the prematurely-aged mutant child he collided with. The government gets involved in these kids’ business, as is its wont, and Kaneda falls in with Kei, a dissident who might know enough about the conspiracy behind all this to help put the increasingly megalomaniacal and powerful Tetsuo down.

Whiskey’s video virtuoso, Joey Fameli, has consistently asserted that AKIRA the anime’s a messy oversimplification of the vastly superior and complex AKIRA the manga. I didn’t want to believe him, at first, but after reading this book, I’m starting to see things his way. Perhaps I’m breaking through yet another level of enlightenment, here.

Let’s not get bogged down in some point-for-point comparison. We’ll keep it to the broad strokes.

As should be expected, the Capsules are realer juvenile delinquents in the book. These aren’t rebels without a cause who get into rumbles sometimes; these are rude, pill-popping kids with nearly no filter between what they want and what they do. Kaneda’s now exactly the smartass punk he'd actually be like - - five counts irritating for every count of charm - - and the fact that his furtive partnership with Kei consists mostly of him trying to feel her up is right on the money. It also tickles my black heart that young demigod Tetsuo’s master plan after seizing control of the Clowns is simply to force them to fetch him an endless supply of downers. That's how big he can think.

It’s a little more complicated to break down the differences in pacing and plotting, though. This volume’s a hefty 360 pages, but it only takes us into maybe the first 20 minutes of the flick. Interestingly, it's not a question of details so much as focuses. This uses time/space that's taken up with scenes "humanizing" Tetsuo and Kaneda in the movie and puts it on more frenetic chases, more gangland politics and more conspiratorial intrigue. I put "humanizing" in quotations because the kids are actually better defined as characters through inferences in bold and succinct choices of dialog and behavior here than they are by the handful of humanizing, sympathy-point-grabbing scenes in the movie.

Kaneda's more of a dick and Tetsuo's more of a weirdo - - and they're both more interesting for it.

BLADE RUNNER was AKIRA’s go-to pop culture comparator for a long time but, aside from the general notion of nasty violence in an urban megalopolis, there aren’t many links in this to that flick; nor the trippy, counter-cultural novel it’s based on. Instead, the vibes feel more like those radiating off of Frank Miller’s comics like RONIN, GIVE ME LIBERTY and portions of ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN and DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. I’d imagine that Miller and Katsuhiro Otomo’s mutual appreciation for LONE WOLF & CUB probably has a lot to do with that.

Say all that’s already been said about “decompression” - - it’s the leanness of narrative that’s really more to the point in this discussion. AKIRA thrusts the reader into a dystopia where few signposts are left standing and pieces of answers come up only when the situation requires.

For all the hot air you hear about “entry level characters” and the various pleasantries leads must to perform for the audience to care about them, material like this is so much more arresting for how it blows that bullshit off. It makes the reader a tag-along, essentially, who must take the characters and plot in on a rawer, more instinctual level - - fight or flight. Draw your own conclusions. Scenarios come at you like the throngs of villainous foot soldiers who appear throughout without introduction and give you just a couple, breathless seconds to size them up and figure out how to deal. In these respects, HALF-LIFE 2 is another worthwhile point of comparison.

Alright, I've got plenty more to say about this, but I'll save it for next week. Suffice it to say, the experience so far has been lush and thrilling. Will Vol. 2 keep on the incline? Will AKIRA the manga eclipse AKIRA the anime? Keep alert and come back next Friday.

Tom Pinchuk’s the writer of HYBRID BASTARDS! & UNIMAGINABLE. Order them on Amazon here & here. Follow him on Twitter: @tompinchuk

Darokion Feb. 24, 2012 at 5:45 p.m.

I've always meant to pick up the omnibus volumes of Akira, as my only reading was from the monthly books that were released by Epic while I was in high school. From that point forward, it was Grey Digital Target and a bunch of the Viz comics, back before we were worried about flopped vs. unflopped books.

AURON570on Feb. 24, 2012 at 6:06 p.m.

Damn, it took me atleast one and a half hours to get through the first volume of Akira... Maybe some day I'll get used to reading comics/manga.

Aetheldodon Feb. 24, 2012 at 9:14 p.m.

Oh Tom it get a whole lot weirder (and cool) .... just wait and see , but I like the anime as much as the manga , its just 2 different mediums with different ways of being none is the less nor the better

Little_Socrateson Feb. 25, 2012 at 12:27 a.m.

I have the pretty-massive first volume next to me, and I will probably read it over the next week. I saw the movie for the first time a couple months ago and I adore it.

damswedonon Feb. 25, 2012 at 8:01 a.m.

I've been meaning to grab the Manga for Akira for a while now. I've always thought that the film version was a rushed piece of garbage that threw in a heavy-handed Jesus parallel to seem deep.

Maybe the Decompressed nature of the Manga will sit with me better.

Hailinelon Feb. 25, 2012 at 6:02 p.m.

The Akira manga has long been on my "to read" list. Probably too long. It's about time I hunted it down and get it on my "have read" list. Good review, Tom.

Chris2KLeeon Feb. 26, 2012 at 5:20 a.m.

I consider this and "Lone Wolf and Cub" as genuine literary classics. Akira the movie is great, but it feels like a light snack compared to the epic feast that is the Manga.

RobKennoon Feb. 26, 2012 at 4:50 p.m.

I own all 6 Vol's of Akira and even though some might think its a bit costly I can't recommend them enough.

Would say its a modern day classic which is sadly missed by so many people.

Dig Deeper into Akira

A secret military project threatens the destruction of Neo-Tokyo when it turns a biker gang member into a rampaging psionic psychopath, who can only be stopped by his best friend, a young woman, and a group of psionic children.

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