Akira is seen by the manga/anime community as the “beginner’s manga/anime.” That is to say, if you like this series, you’ll probably like manga/anime, and vice versa. While this is may seem derogative of Katsuhiro Otomo’s greatest work, I and several over thousand people can confirm that it isn’t. Akira was also the first major manga/anime product to really have an impact in America, thus opening the door for manga/anime and the rest of the world (although this is debatable). So, no Akira would have meant no Robotech, Neon Genesis Evangelion, or Perfect Blue in America. Then again, it would have meant no Fist of the North Star, Vampire Wars, and Overfiend, so maybe not a completely good thing.
This is intended as a brief guide to the series, trying to be more in-depth than all of the mini-biographies Marvel and Dark Horse put out when they published it.
After the huge success of Domu, which was the first manga to win Japan’s Science Fiction Grand Prix Award in 1980, Otomo realized he had to do something pretty damn spectacular to follow this. But few would have thought it would last ten years. Akira was first printed in Young Magazine on 6 Dec 1982. (Every manga was serialized in compendium magazines in the eighties, and still is today.) Young Magazine was a new magazine that was one of the first publications to realize that teenagers were a separate entity to kids and adults. Because of this, the sales for Young were huge, as teenagers flocked to having something specific for them to read.
For a period, parts of Akira were published every week (just like all the other manga titles), until Otomo stopped and decided to release the rest of it in five separate books. Presumably he had the fan power at this time to get away with doing something like this, as specific manga titles were rarely published as single-titled publications, and those that did generally didn’t sell well, if at all. It was a risky move for Otomo, but he lucked out. It could have easily backfired, but Akira was a huge success. Well, a huge success in as much an annual title could be. It didn’t bankrupt him or make him a laughing stock, and that’s the important thing. Because of the new way it was being published, the art, already great in the weekly, was breath taking. Huge buildings dwarfed only by explosions that destroy Japan, spot-on anatomy and vile disgusting mutations: no wonder it went down so well with teenagers.
Towards the end of the books (around the fifth volume) Otomo took time out to direct the animated feature film based on the series. Again, Otomo decided to go against tradition. He created all the storyboards for the 783 scenes in the film, prerecorded the voices before the animation (so the animation had to be in sync with the sound, not the other way around. This looks stunning when watching it subtitled, but crap for dubbed versions.), and had 99 different variations of the color red. In short, Akira was as hard to create as it was enjoyable to watch.
The animated film, released in 1987, was as big a success as the manga had been, if not more so, as Westerners could now enjoy Otomo’s apocalyptic vision of the future. After this, Otomo finished the final book (with a different ending to the film) and moved away from manga nearly completely; with just a few mixed-results titles being made after Akira was finished.
In the early ’90s, Marvel’s side-label Epic procured the rights to reprint Akira in the US as a monthly comic and to use new technology to add color to the black-and-white series. They also added an introduction to the first few text-less pages (which really wasn’t necessary). Some felt this change spoiled it, and in the first couple of issues the new inking technology really wasn’t that impressive.
Despite this, sales were good so naturally Marvel did what Marvel does best and produced TPBs of the series, but to some dismay (and not much surprise) Marvel decided to not reprint them as Otomo had intended, but in Marvel’s typical four-issue style. This meant that the TPBs would end mid-conversation, which would have been reasonable in the monthly, but wasn’t “on” in a TPB. Also, Otomo’s specially produced painted artwork (intended for the beginning of each volume) was now inserted halfway though, which looked pretty random. Marvel would keep its not-exactly-the-best-way-to-do-this methods by apparently being very late in releasing the TPBs later on in the series. But despite the criticisms, the Marvel reprints are worth a look, if only to be shown a textbook example of another country mishandling a product.
Dark Horse’s Reprints
Dark Horse secured the rights to re-re-reprint Akira, but in the way Otomo wanted, in six big volumes. Despite the costly sum of the books, Dark Horse sold loads of the first book, and probably did the same for the other volumes as well — although perhaps not as many, since the company upped the price further for the last two volumes.
Dark Horse had previously reprinted Otomo’s Domu (in three Prestige Format issues, which didn’t really work) and three mini-series of Legend of Mother Sarah. Maybe because of Dark Horse having reprinted Akira, Otomo wrote Hipiria (but didn’t illustrate it) and was supposed to be involved with BMW Film’s The Hire, but God only knows what happened with that. These titles and his contribution to Batman: Black and White mark Otomo’s only works in manga/comics, as he continues to focus primarily on anime and film.
Marvel on the left, Dark Horse on the right:
To show how big the entire Akira saga is, here are Dark Horse’s reprints compared to thirteen various other TPBs (and one of them is the mammoth From Hell):
To show how opportunity-grabbing Marvel are, here are their attempts at TPBing compared to Dark Horse’s:
For people who want to know what the color TPBs look like, go here. (The ones at the top are the B & W, the ones below are the color.)
The Dark Horse TPBs are relatively easy to get hold of, but you will have to look around for the color Marvel / Epicones. Try searching Akira or Otomo on Amazon.com, and then select it to list them alphabetically. Whenever you come across a book without an image, try looking there, and if it says it is published by Epic or Marvel, then e-mail the marketplace seller (the only ones that will have it, trust me) and ask which volume it is. Other than that, there’s eBay. Expect to pay lots for the later volumes.
Something else I somehow forgot to mention was the fact that some short stories were inserted into some of the later Marvel / Epic issues, with Otomo’s approval. I couldn’t find which issues feature them and which don’t, but I was able to find one of them in its entirety, written by no less than Warren Ellis himself. It’s since been taken down, but it’s worth looking around for these.
For more information about Otomo’s other works which are near impossible to get hold of, this (somewhat badly) translated webpage is good.
Hope this helps the curious some more.