Recently I purchased a copy of Otomo: A Global Tribute to the Mind Behind Akira, the new Kodansha Comics translation (by Kevin Steinbach) of what’s basically the catalog for a 2016 exposition of tribute art arranged in honor of Katsuhiro Otomo’s receipt of the Grand Prix at the Angoulême International Comics Festival. You probably know if you want this already, being a fancy compendium of 79 pinups images of the sort that Epic used to put in the back of the Akira colorized issues, plus Otomo’s own cover illustration. Each of the featured artists also gets a very brief biography, a small bibliography, and, sometimes, a bit of space to write about their “encounter” with Otomo’s work; less than half of the entries, however, provide such thoughts. There are too many well-composed but uninteresting depictions of rubble and motorcycles and Tetsuo’s cape for my liking, but some of the more striking pieces do raise some interesting questions on the deceptively knotty topic of Otomo.
For example, there’s this piece by the Hong Kong manhua artist Li Chi-Tak, who is known in the U.S. exclusively as a name in the credits to a movie: the 1996 Jet Li vehicle Black Mask, which was based on his comics. Otomo’s influence is evident at varied points in Li’s career, and here he presents the only contribution to this project that actually functions ‘as’ a panel from Otomo’s own work, specifically the sequence in Domu where the heroine, a small girl, unfurls the full force of her psychic powers. It’s actually a little too histrionic to fit in with Domu — in a 2008 lecture, the critic and artist Kentaro Takekuma discusses Otomo’s tendency to give background and character lines identical weight, thus affording setting the same prominence as people, which I think encourages a certain reserve to Otomo’s characters, even as they face severe bodily and psychological peril — but at the same time it tidily fits the theory of Otomo’s work espoused by Angoulême art director Stéphan Beaujean in the tribute book’s opening essay: that Otomo defied the “formalism” of manga, in terms of cartoon icons positioned in particular arrangements to suggest manipulations of time, speed, etc., by imbuing “the drawn line itself” with emotion, which I take to mean an emphasis on the qualities of in-panel drawing rather than juxtaposition or page layout. Of all the book’s contributors, Li best suggests this emotion of line as it might function, albeit vivified, in Otomo’s comics.
By contrast, other artists just go their own way. This is also a Domu piece, by Daisuke Igarashi, whose art does not show many outward signs of Otomo’s influence; some of you, though, will recall his series Children of the Sea, released in English by VIZ, and from that you will detect a similar fascination with childhood inquisitiveness and mysterious biological phenomena. This is not an adaptation of any specific image from Otomo’s book, but rather a means of expressing how Otomo’s work coincides with Igarashi’s personal interests. Of course, children in Igarashi’s work can be quite spiky and impulsive, and if you’ve read Domu you know that this quiet scene is soaked with menace – perhaps the girl is only imagining the villain sitting next to her, the whole comic occurring in her head during a slow afternoon at the apartment complex, but the invisible presence is just as likely to persuade some pliable adult to charge her with a box cutter or open fire with a stolen gun. The game is played both ways.
Another innovation with which Takekuma credits Otomo is pressing the issue of ethnicity in Japanese comics. As the translator and education Matt Thorn has suggested, Japanese readers see themselves in the code of icons that form depictions of people in comics: “the stylized characters in manga, with their small jaws, all but nonexistent noses, and famously enormous eyes,” register nonetheless as Japanese. To Takekuma, however, part of Otomo’s project as a young artist was to strip elements of stylization from manga, to accommodate realism by depicting racial characteristics with a “blunt objectivity,” rather than through the prevailing cartoon shorthand. This image by RanXerox creator Tanino Liberatore appears to depict Tetsuo, judging from the mutating arm and blown-back hair, but he does not register to me as Japanese. Liberatore is the only one among the contributors to implicate race in this way, and — while I admit this may not be his intention! — in doing so, he also becomes the only contributor to evoke Otomo’s longstanding theme of power and its abuses; is Tetsuo not exploited, violence done to him under government authority?
It has to be noted that the picture we have of Otomo in the west is very limited, as very little material from his first decade of professional work has been published over here. Noticeably, the Japanese artists involved with the tribute draw from a deeper well of material, with two pieces devoted entirely to a 1976 short story, Highway Star, which can’t even be read illegally in English. One is by Neon Genesis Evangelion character designer and mangaka Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, but above we see the other piece, by Hisashi Eguchi, a very popular illustrator and founder of the now-defunct artistic manga venue Comic Cue, to which Otomo contributed, along with (eventually) the likes of Yuichi Yokoyama. Eguchi is one of few contributors to have actually collaborated with Otomo; he was also character designer on the 1991 anime OVA Roujin Z, which Otomo wrote, and in his accompanying “encounter” text, he describes his relationship to Otomo as that of a kid brother, despite their similarity in age. Eguchi also states his preference for Otomo’s earlier work, declaring it “pure” and likening it to jazz and rakugo comedy – a comparison he may have snatched from Naoki Urasawa, which, if not precisely refuting Takekuma’s theory of Otomo’s realism, does suggest a current of tradition running through his early work.
Eguchi, incidentally, is renowned for his drawings of women, which we might contrast with this piece by Fumiko Takano. Entirely unknown in English publishing — though some of her work has been translated to French — she is very well-regarded by her Japanese peers, and, perhaps relatedly, dives even deeper into personal reference. Her piece isn’t even related to an Otomo work; as she explains in her “encounter” text, it relates instead to a personal encounter between her and Otomo in the 1980s, where Otomo showed her the correct way to draw a bicycle. Motorcycles, as it happens, are popular images throughout Akira and the included tributes, so there is nonetheless a certain commonality between this rarest of references and the more popular swathe of Otomo’s work. Also rare is Takano’s status as one of 5 women included among the 79 contributors; at the same time as Otomo’s celebration at Angoulême, the festival found itself swamped with controversy over its initial 30-artist list of candidates to receive the next Grand Prix, literally all of which were men.
This, finally, leads us to the question of legacy. After Akira wrapped in 1990, Otomo’s output as a comics artist became very limited; as a result, very few of the tribute pieces acknowledge anything he has done in the past quarter-century. Olivier Coipel, an artist who specializes in American superhero comics, presents a simple joke: after all the action of Akira, Kaneda now has very little going on. Revolutions do not often make satisfactory administrators, so he drinks his days away on a park bench wearing a man bun. Elsewhere in the book, Akira enjoys an eternal youth, though not a lot of these depictions are very inspiring. In analyzing Otomo’s influence for Naoki Urasawa, the aforementioned Hisashi Eguchi (I’ll link it again) asserted that what Otomo accomplished, while impressive, was also imitable. You could learn his tricks, use them, and end up with something that looked like his work; this was partially why he was popular among artists. “He always really wanted to do movies anyway,” Eguchi mused, and Urasawa replied that Otomo once told him that he stopped drawing comics because “he’d already drawn from every angle there is, so he lost interest.” Otomo is still popular among some young cartoonists today, but it’s a popularity born of a receding time. Manga does not look like him anymore, though Akira itself is a strong brand. Is it like those spent beer cans, consumed out of habit and forgotten in a haze of nostalgia? I don’t have the answers, but maybe I’ll find them in the 35th anniversary hardcover boxed set, due in Autumn.
PLEASE NOTE: What follows is not a series of capsule reviews but an annotated selection of items listed by Diamond Comic Distributors for release to comic book retailers in North America on the particular Wednesday identified in the column title above. Be aware that some of these comics may be published by Fantagraphics Books, the entity which also administers the posting of this column, and that I also run a podcast with an employee of Nobrow Press. Not every listed item will necessarily arrive at every comic book retailer, in that some items may be delayed and ordered quantities will vary. I have in all likelihood not read any of the comics listed below, in that they are not yet released as of the writing of this column, nor will I necessarily read or purchase every item identified; THIS WEEK IN COMICS! reflects only what I find to be potentially interesting. You could always just buy nothing.
Ganges #6: Not one, but two continuing alternative comic books up the spotlight this week! Ganges is the signature series by Kevin Huizenga, a magazine-sized serial-of-sorts begun via the Fantagraphics/Coconino Press “Ignatz” line of comics in 2006, but now self-published with distribution by Fantagraphics. Supposedly this 32-page issue marks “The End” of the story of Glenn Ganges, distracted man, attempting but failing to sleep — an effort which comes to encompass an extraordinary span of marital, video gaming, literary and geologic history — but the reality is that sleep cannot often be ascertained until one is awake again. Unmoored by fading consciousness, the story fragments into one-, two-page bits, times and settings shifting abruptly between panels. Plus: deleted scenes, more of “Rumbling”, teasers, letters, and comics-making tips; $8.00.
Berlin #20: Now that Seth’s Clyde Fans is set to wrap in July, this Jason Lutes historical fiction opus has to be the longest-running incomplete Drawn and Quarterly project, right? Black Eye Productions, of course, was the original publisher back in ’96 – I think it’s fair to associate it with D&Q in general, though. Fascism continues to spread its toxin in Germany for these 24 pages, “but some can see it better than others.” Two more issues remain to be finished; $5.95.
The Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop the Reign? #1 (of 4): This is also a longstanding concern, though a notably mischievous one. I remember when the first issue of the first Shaolin Cowboy series debuted from Burlyman Entertainment in 2004; almost the entire first issue was spent on an extremely long ‘pan’ across an absurd lineup of combatants raring to face the title character. The most recent series (Dark Horse, 2013-14, collected under the subtitle “Shemp Buffet”) consisted almost exclusively of a prolonged fight scene against a horde of zombies told in rhythmic panel arrangements, just zombies, chainsaws, zombies, chainsaws, over and over and over – I vividly recall picking up issue #3 of 4 from the stands and thinking “he’s still fucking doing it!” He, of course, is writer/artist Geof Darrow, and preview images suggest that this particular comic (again from Dark Horse) will feature at least a few pages of traditional explication, including the solution to the puzzle of why the Cowboy is not dead after getting himself killed at the end of the last series. I think the plot somehow involves a large pig, and possibly the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, but it’s hard to say right now. I am pretty stoked for this! Preview; $3.99.
Imagine Wanting Only This: Your lit comics pick of the week arrives from Pantheon with the debut graphic novel by Kristen Radtke, a 288-page hardcover account of journeys through architectural ruins across the globe “and the delicate passageways of the human heart.” Definitely more ambitious than the average bookstore autobio, this comes highly recommended by Tom Hart, author of Rosalie Lighting, the best comic of 2016. Radtke has been active for a while in literary and media magazine editing; her art style is a bit reminiscent of Laurenn McCubbin, if more overtly photo-referenced from my quick glace. Give it a flip; $29.95.
Roughneck (&) Soupy Leaves Home: Here’s two more serious-minded comics, both coming from talents probably best known for work with genre comic publishers. Roughneck is the new solo book from Jeff Lemire, a 272-page Simon & Schuster release about a former hockey player dealing with family trouble and trying to avoid encroaching violence. Lemire first came to prominence writing and drawing the similarly provincial Essex County trilogy of graphic novels, so this grittier spot nonetheless may provide secure footing. Soupy Leaves Home is a 208-page Dark Horse softcover, a seemingly YA-targeted story of Depression Era rail-riding with a girl runaway disguised as a boy. The writer, Cecil Castellucci, is experienced in young adult prose, though her comics work has been most prominent in various DC imprints, including the current Young Animal, where she writes Shade, the Changing Girl, a variant on the Steve Ditko concept. The artist is Jose Pimienta; $29.99 (Roughneck), $10.99 (Soupy).
The Filth (&) Wonder Woman: Earth One: For reasons unknown, DC has two new softcover editions of comics written by Grant Morrison this week. The Filth is the really notable one, despite being 15 years old; I think it’s the best comic he’s ever done, refining the scattershot evolutionary SF posturing of The Invisibles into what I’ll call ‘lamentable escapism’ – an escape from the hopelessness of depressive real life into a succession of grotesque action comic escapades that peel back only more layers of ichor-sticky societal flesh. Also, the formidable art is consistent — and consistently gruesome — coming from UK comics veterans Chris Weston & Gary Erskine. I’ve not read Wonder Woman: Earth One, a 2016 collaboration with artist Yanick Paquette, but I understand it to be an attempt to retell the title character’s origin in a manner unencumbered with current superhero continuity – I think this is the first time it’s been in softcover; $19.99 (Filth), $16.99 (Wonder Woman).
Savage Highway: Your Eurocomics pick is a Humanoids release, pairing a European writer with an Asian artist in a manner that’s become familiar in BD of late. Did you know Li Chi-Tak from way up at the top of this post did an album with veteran Belgian comics writer Jean Dufaux last year? It’s titled The Beast, and I hope its translated on Europe Comics or something soon. Anyway, this 168-page hardcover collects a 2015-17 series from writer Mathieu Masmondet and artist Zhang Xiaoyu concerning travelers who seek society in a ruined future world. Note that Humanoids is also re-releasing the original Jodorowsky/Giménez Metabarons series as four softcover books, starting this week; $24.95.
Hellboy: Into the Silent Sea: Every so often we get a Hellboy comic in the very trim 7″ x 10″ hardcover album format, I think as a means of showing off the artist. Gary Gianni is at the center of this one, both drawing and co-writing with creator Mike Mignola. I remember Gianni’s solo MonsterMen stuff as having a simpatico tone with Mignola’s stuff, so they should blend well for 56 pages; $19.99.
Hogan’s Alley #21: Finally, your magazine-on-comics of the week is the newest edition of editor Tom Heintjes’ annual-or-so collection of articles and interviews relating to popular comics, with a special emphasis on newspaper features and works from the past. Issue #20 won an Eisner last year. This issue promises a never-before-seen interview with George Herriman, rare art from Jack Davis and Wally Wood, and coverage of cartoonist/novelist William Overgard and editorial cartoon depictions of Barack Obama. You can probably even find it at the Barnes and Noble magazine rack, which is not something I can say for a lot of these publications. Official site; $6.95.
Today’s front page image is by Masamune Shirow, a detail from his contribution to Otomo: A Global Tribute to the Mind Behind Akira. I was kind of wondering if anyone would try to do anything saucy with the assignment, and, as recent history indicates, the smart money for that would definitely be on Shirow. As it turns out, the Ghost in the Shell creator contributes an extremely odd conglomeration of references to all manner of Otomo works, with characters and objects from manga, anime — even an adaptation of Otomo’s comics with which he had no direct involvement! — strewn around a street in the aftermath of some disaster which has obliterated depth perspective from the world. Directly below the image is a (roughly) 250-word supplementary text in teeny-tiny type in which the artist attempts to explain what he is doing. It is absolutely fucking nuts, and proof yet again that Shirow does whatever he wants, however he wants it done. The smut quota, meanwhile, is fulfilled by Requiem Vampire Knight artist Olivier Ledroit, who draws a katana-weilding cyborg woman wearing nothing from the knees up but Kaneda’s jacket and a choker with a butterfly charm. The jacket is unzipped.