Tag Archives: comic books

Akira (1982-1990): Reconciling the Atomic Bomb

There has been much written on the 1988 film version of Akira but very little written in or translated into English that I can find on the ~2200 page comic book version. This is a shame because the comic book is the superior work-wider in scope, more brilliantly realized in the drawing, with dozens of memorable and three dimensional characters. The plot is byzantine and intricate in ways that can’t be stuffed into a 2 hour movie. The manga also reads much more fluently. The film is a collection of exceptional images. The manga is a fully realized and developed piece of art. It doesn’t feel long because you want there to be more. It has the gritty, street level qualities of violent pulp or West Side Story and the operatic scale and reach of Tolstoy or Wagner. It reads as fluidly as any comic ever made. A person with some experience reading comics could finish this in 2-3 days, I’ve finished it in a single day more than once. Don’t let the big page count scare you.

It takes place in 2019. Which we all survived. Well sorta. Thankfully no one that I heard about developed telekinesis, but a lot of other things went poorly. We did a lot better than the people of 2019 in this book is what I’m saying.

What does it all mean?

(as you might imagine, there are spoilers ahead. If you’ve never read Akira, do some googling, get to reading, and come back.)

Akira is a story about the relationship between children and adults, the catastrophic end-times-y quality of the post-nuclear era, the trauma of the bomb, the scarily exciting parts of apocalyptic daydreams.

The comic and movie both begin and end with a single explosion destroying most of Tokyo. In the comic variations on this event happen several times. Neither one makes any direct written references to WWII but we can guess that Hiroshima and Nagasaki also happened in this universe because of the fact so much promotional material used the tagline “30 Years After WWIII” and the Americans are shown as having developed nuclear weapons towards the end of the series. Post-apocalyptic fiction wasn’t new at the time, but nothing before Akira painted the post-apocalyptic world order quite so vividly.

While it would be quite a stretch to call the series realistic, the overarching view of the world shown in the text doesn’t vary that wildly from what we’re seeing politically now. Neo-Tokyo is shown the catastrophic impacts that messing with natural order of things can cause. 30 years later and rebuilt, the society is shown to have learned little to nothing-the telekinetic power of Akira, the power that destroyed Tokyo and later destroys Neo-Tokyo, is treated as a political means to an end or without much concern whether it destroys the world or not. If you substitute “telekinetic power” with “climate change”…

What 15 years ago when I first read this looked like kinetically paced science fiction seems closer and closer to the present. There is a lot of random gun violence in the street. Motorcycles didn’t make quite the comeback that Katsuhiro Otomo imagined, but the sense of warring extremist political factions doing their thing in front of a looming catastrophe resonates pretty hard in the US right now.

The central metaphor of the series is “the power”-the psychic abilities emerging in random individuals, parceled out in wildly varying levels. The power doesn’t seem to have a type except that it doesn’t emerge later than the age of 20. The physical development of the person with the power halts once they manifest the power, but they continue to age and wrinkle. The power is something latent in people that was then magnified/accelerated by government testing. The test subjects that didn’t die or become vegetables became powerful psychics who could do everything from destroying buildings to teleporting to seeing the future. Although it’s played very differently here, it isn’t that different from something like X-Men with the mutant powers. In some ways this could be read as one of the darkest superhero narratives ever done (with the acknowledgement that that probably wasn’t Otomo’s intention.)

There’s no guarantee that person’s gifted with awesome powers will use them for the public good and in practice most don’t. It doesn’t take a lot of bad apples to make for serious problems in this case.

There are some interesting omissions in this book-we never see anyone’s parents or hear about any parents besides a throwaway line Kei says to Kaneda early in the book when he comes onto her-“I could never look my dear mother in the eye again if I did.” The only two people in the book who are actually related are Kay and her aunt Chiyoko. In all 2000+ pages, we get maybe 10 total pages of flashbacks; while the teenagers in the story have no parents, they have inherited the problems created by their elders; they nonetheless always look forwards. They default to praxis. There is very little overt discussion of ideology. The famous motorcycles (which in the manga only show up in 2/6ths of the story) were meant to evoke images of the Japanese youth protest movement that emerged after WWII, the same movement portrayed in Nagisa Oshima’s Night And Fog In Japan. That’s about as close to an explicit political parallel or source in the text beyond the clear evocation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the two page spreads of enormous dome shaped explosions at multiple points in the text.

What we get instead of the verbose philosophizing of a Ghost In The Shell is an ideology described in the terms of the actions of the characters; they see situations and respond to them according to their loose prerogatives or because it’s a vision they think is their destiny. This collection of motives makes them more fluid-they feel fleshed out because every element of their visual presence from their body language to their clothing to their surroundings are carefully considered and realized. His designs are striking. He lets those do a lot of the heavy lifting-compared to US comics, there are effectively no strictly narrative captions, few captions period, and exposition is kept to a bare minimum in favor of fast paced relentless forward motion.

The world of Akira is what I would call the hyper-Anthropocene. The only nature we see is the water surrounding the island of Tokyo. There are no trees or flowers or really…plants at all in this book. The only food specifically named is “synthetic fish”. We are often shown skyscrapers either lit up or contorted into rubble; people who like photos of liminal spaces should find plenty to love in Akira. This ensures that the technological destruction that riddles this text happens in the face of a man-made and man-destroyed environment. In some sense Tetsuo’s god-like powers to mold and destroy his environment with no real boundaries until his power to do so ultimately consumes him is humanity in the Anthropocene.

Since I put the spoiler warning, let’s go really hard on that and go directly to the end. This is a book that, while it’s rarely discussed, has 2 endings. To explain this, let’s go into the publication history of Akira. Akira first showed up in Young Magazine #24, released in 1983. The very first release of the manga was put out in chapters around 20 pages in length in Young Magazine in another 119 issues, making for 120 episodes total in the original publication. The serial ended in 1990. From 1989-1996 it was flipped, translated, and digitally colored by Steve Oliff for release in the US by Marvel, split over 38 issues instead the 120 of Young or the 6 volume split used in all subsequent releases. It is still being reissued in multiple languages up to the present day.

The ending in most collected forms of Akira is a 20 page epilogue following Akira’s absorbing Tetsuo inside of himself. In the Marvel version, this is issue 38. Foreign governments show up to Neo-Tokyo to render aid and the surviving members of the cast tell them off, and falsely imply Akira is still alive in order to maintain their sovereignty. The last page is a 2 page spread of giant buildings and the survivors riding motorcycles into the distance. It’s not a terrible ending, but in my mind I feel like the original ending is a more effective point to leave off. The 120th and final installment that was published in Young Magazine is usually collected as the 2nd to last chapter, issue 37 in the Marvel version. This ending leaves us on a splash page with no dialogue. Here are the original last two pages that were printed in Young Magazine (not scanned from a Young Magazine because I am not rich):

And here’s the actual last page in the Dark Horse edition:

I much prefer the first image. It leaves the future in the literal foreground; suddenly, finally freed of the threat of the psychokinetic children, Kei and Kaneda survey the ruins. It should also be noted that most of the series takes place at night or in dark indoor spaces-the colorized version’s one weakness is that sometimes the coloring is too dark and it obscures Otomo’s line work. The sun coming out finally and seeing the wreckage we’ve seen so often in darkness in the light of a beautiful day gets the point across succinctly and beautifully-the future is for the youth and theirs, if they should be so lucky as to snatch it from the hands of the mistakes of their elders. The epilogue chapter does a somewhat sloppy job of underlining that point. We don’t need to see the buildings reconstructed, or Tetsuo and Yamagata’s ghost heads above them as they ride off on motorcycles. In the original ending, their destiny is entirely, or at least as much as it ever has been, in their hands, not even influenced by the machinations of the author.

So the surviving Neo Tokyo residents, mostly the younger ones, get to write their own version of their environment, if only in the limited area of Neo-Tokyo, now renamed “The Great Akira Empire”. They reenact the Anthropocene in their own image. We are asked to hope that this society will turn out better.

Of the Force of Economic Identities

Economics texts are stories. A work initially written to describe the world exactly as it is will, because of the seeming exactness of its resemblance, paradoxically reshape the world in its distorted spectral echoes. Karl Marx wrote Capital while buying potatoes on margin and pretty much living in the London public library. Within 80 years of its initial publication, nearly half the world had reshaped itself attempting to live up to a thing supposedly describing itself. Truth is chased and chases ominously in return; felt as much in its implications of the present’s lacking as its seeming descriptive powers.

As Montaigne wrote in “Of the Force of Imagination”:

Simon Thomas was a great physician of his time: I remember, that happening one day at Toulouse to meet him at a rich old fellow’s house, who was troubled with weak lungs, and discoursing with the patient about the method of his cure, he told him, that one thing which would be very conducive to it, was to give me such occasion to be pleased with his company, that I might come often to see him, by which means, and by fixing his eyes upon the freshness of my complexion, and his imagination upon the sprightliness and vigour that glowed in my youth, and possessing all his senses with the flourishing age wherein I then was, his habit of body might, peradventure, be amended; but he forgot to say that mine, at the same time, might be made worse. Gallus Vibius so much bent his mind to find out the essence and motions of madness, that, in the end, he himself went out of his wits, and to such a degree, that he could never after recover his judgment, and might brag that he was become a fool by too much wisdom. Some there are who through fear anticipate the hangman; and there was the man, whose eyes being unbound to have his pardon read to him, was found stark dead upon the scaffold, by the stroke of imagination. We start, tremble, turn pale, and blush, as we are variously moved by imagination; and, being a-bed, feel our bodies agitated with its power to that degree, as even sometimes to expiring. And boiling youth, when fast asleep, grows so warm with fancy, as in a dream to satisfy amorous desires…

The US at present is fascinated at the moment with things that, like the great books, don’t seem to be either dead or alive but possessed with supernatural powers for being neither-werewolves, vampires, ghosts, Frankenstein’s monsters…

And at a house party in Seattle where attendees dressed as zombies a shooter came, and for a time the partygoers were unsure what was happening, unsure who was dead and who was exceptionally good with a makeup kit. In the Treblinka death camp the first woman to escape and return to warn the others of their intended fate was only able to do so by pretending to be dead and then sneaking out by cover of night, and when she told them they didn’t believe she was who she was or that what she was saying was true.

The most contentious issue and decisive initial choice made in any economics text is how to gerrymander and prioritize the various archetypal performative roles one sees in an economy. None of these roles are historically a given, a thing that always-already existed on clean lines. So the most convenient starting point for deconstructing any work of political economy usually begins with an analysis of this decision. It’s the single fuse that can be cut to turn off all the lights in the house or modified to make them switch on and off interchangeably in brilliant displays…

So we see the shift in cultural adoption of Smith toward Marx towards Keynes towards the Chicago School and beyond as what they are; a shifting series of parts to be played with varying degrees of revisionism or shrinking senses of disappointment, imaginary men conjured in a seance whose image we’re taught to squirm under in our failure to embody or avenge…

The primary shift from the classical economists toward the neoliberal ideologues of the present was the shift from the self-conception of the…let’s call them the eternal 99%, from the identification as the worker toward the identification as the consumer. The neoliberal text always frames liberation in terms of the drop in price of goods and their continued increase toward providing the imagined perfect consumer with the peak of convenience. They state these imagined narratives mostly in the most simple, calm fashion the new “folksy”-the literature of pats on the back, the literature of free cookies-can provide.

We should be immediately suspicious of any person too eager for us to understand them; underneath the clean simplicity of a prose can lurk the demanding neediness and need for control that it seems to cover up. Emerson gives a helpfully unspecified warning:

Theoretic kidnappers and slave-drivers, they esteem each man the victim of another, who winds him round his finger by knowing the law of his being, and by such cheap signboards as the color of his beard, or the slope of his occiput, reads the inventory of his fortunes and character. The grossest ignorance does not disgust like this impudent knowingness.

And so the new definition of man as consumer wriggles and squirms in and out of various incarnations and social formations within and around these constraints, as have others. It is said “You can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house”. But isn’t the lesson of the dialectic that the master’s tools will dismantle the house of their own accord? So the man of prolific consumption becomes the learned master and vice versa; the roles melt into each other around a violent and awkward dance toward validation or revenge for having not been validated.

We find the imagined self of many people most easily in what it is they take offense at. I recently was embroiled in an argument on Twitter regarding my essay on superheroes. The person tweeting back at me claimed that Alison Bechdel was “redefining the superhero” and spoke of seeing the Broadway production of Fun Home. I claimed that, for what wonderful things Bechdel is doing, they don’t have much of anything to do with superheroes besides a shared form in the comic book. She grew angry and inquisition-like demanded to know if I’d read any of Bechdel’s work. I’ve read most of it; this is why I feel confident in my assertion as such. We go into conversations wanting something. She wanted her self as a consumer validated. I’m not especially sure what I wanted out of the exchange. But then, it’s easier to observe a thing from the outside.

This need for validation as consumer defines much of the internet discourse surrounding media, most of which is a flimsy runaround for the act of gatekeeping by means of shaming or validating the person for their exploring whatever regions of the world of words and pictures are considered off-limits. The consumer can never be satisfied lest they stop consuming, and if they are disturbed in their dream of this self this may well happen. Think of the “DVD extra”, which usually just consists of more “legitimate” persons than the viewer patting the viewer on the back for having viewed. The advertisement for a thing the person already bought; an advertisement for the continued legitimacy of the self as consumer. On the internet, people seek out something resembling the DVD extra and exhort the producers of discourse to provide this and scream bloody murder when they don’t. The invisible fence words build around themselves to keep other words out as though they were the Cliven Bundy of things we tell ourselves.

Guest post by Daniel Levine. Check out his first book here. His comedy album wants you to listen to it; he could honestly care less at this point. Anyway, whatever, it’s here.

The Superhero and American Exceptionalism

The archetype of the superhero has gone through numerous shifts since its inception in Action Comics #1 in 1938. Like much of the early history of comics, the appeal, genesis and audience was largely within the immigrant population. Earlier comic strips appealing to immigrants were largely vaudevillian hijinks organized around the family-think the Katzenjammer Kids. Their appeal was in the lighthearted way they poked fun at the accents and cultural mores of the people who had little hope of assimilating.

Superman is different. Superman could not have existed before 1938. Superman is of course a subverted aryan power fantasy; that the main distinction between the seemingly powerless Clark Kent and the godlike Superman comes mostly from letting a slight kink in his dark hair loose points toward the subtext of Judaism. That he’s able to be all powerful only when he tucks the kink away shows that the fantasy is one of assimilation. Superman is an isolated immigrant. Superman as a fantasy, at least initially, isn’t much different than Walter Lippmann’s arc when he consciously de-ethnicized and deterritorialized himself as a Jew to support and prop up the cynical anxieties of the ruling elite.

Superman must endlessly battle Lex Luthor to legitimize inherent “goodness” of his authoritarian employment of bottomless power the same way people will fight corporate “corruption” in order to legitimize the current failing system. Superman is the Democrats.

The next major superhero, Batman, represents the opposite pole of the ruling class-vigilanteism, the slaveholder’s revolt. His enemies represent ethnic stereotypes codified in physiognomy as much as those of Dick Tracy. He comes from money and doesn’t need superpowers because money is enough of a superpower in and of itself. He is purposely sexless; he has an ancient butler instead of a love interest, he adopts a child instead of going through the disgusting physicality of sexual intercourse. Of course Batman did have periodic love interests but none of them ever stuck in the public imagination in the manner of a Lois Lane. The sensuality of the body has always been the cultural property of the poor and oppressed.

Batman fights small time criminals but rarely ever systemic injustice. He’s barely a vigilante; he steps outside the law to enforce the social place of the police in a way the police can’t. He can be more effectively normative than the state. He can enforce the surveillance state without the annoyance of process. His beating up a criminal is what defines them as a criminal; their “evil” is usually barely fleshed out by the writers. The Joker’s seeming “anarchistic” “meaningless” evil springs from the same mechanisms that allow a large portion of the population to claim Dylann Roof wasn’t a white supremacist but just “pure evil”. It is no accident the defining Batman comics came from Frank Miller, an outright fascist. Batman is the Republican.

The sheer volume of production in the comics industry means there are of course hundreds, possibly thousands of forgotten or secondary characters. Some might wonder “why aren’t you discussing female superheroes at all?” I don’t discuss this because there haven’t really been any; female superheroes largely exist as copies of male characters drawn up as psychologically safe sex objects.

This may be changing but as the superhero exists as the deep structure impulses undergirding the overarching hierarchies of power in a misogynistic society, their existence can hardly address the actual experiences and challenges of women any more than Rosie the Riveter could. The superhero is normative. The norm of the society is the repression of women unless they assimilate as aspirational carrots.

The superhero, being based always in the fantasy of assimilation imagined either from the bottom up (Superman) or the top down (Batman) in various configurations changes as the specifics of the politics of assimilation and aspirational ideologies shift. Because American capitalism requires the feeling of never being satisfied with one’s position, these fantasies have immense power and broad reach. They can be transposed in various keys all the way from outright neoconservative fantasies of genocide (The Punisher) to parables of the confused and blind “well meaning” authoritarianism of the classic liberal (Spider-Man.)

Superheroes predominate in the United States because their “goodness” is circumscribed within the boundaries of American exceptionalism and the justification of authoritarian ideology. This is why the Marvel Civil War comics seemed so utterly ridiculous. This is why the attempts to satirize these values in something like Watchmen failed to register as anything more than “superheroes growing up.” The only part that could register consciously is “hey, they curse and smoke and have sex now.”

“Foreign” superheroes like Colossus or Captain Britain exist merely as puppets miming the cultural values of America garbed in a usually laughable accent or literally their country’s flag. So the obvious question then becomes: How does the recent trend of major budget superhero films with reach beyond what their floppy paper predecessors could’ve dreamed of fit into the overall question of assimilation?

There are several manners in which they do this that only seem novel the way Jeff Koons sculptures do in relation to the commonplace objects they imitate-they’re bigger and more money is swirling around them. The most critically respected superhero film of the current wave, The Dark Knight is an obvious conservative parable of the Bush years, or rather the whitewashed narrative of the Bush years. The privileged child, acting on the expectations of his parents, faces “pure evil” (“Some people just want to watch the world burn”/”The terrorists hate us for our freedom”) by ramping up use of paramilitary equipment and absurdly expensive surveillance systems to take on this depoliticized evil and leaves having done the “right thing” despite a plummeting approval rating (“The hero we deserve”, ironically becoming this after the fall of Harvey Dent, the former DA and therefore as close as the film comes to an embodiment of the values of due process.) The Marvel movies are rarely this explicit but even there the US military actively did huge favors for the production of the Iron Man films. They saw their propaganda potential-the larger public did not.

Part of why the present is the time of the superhero the empty inertia of the flow of money. Part of it is dialectic pushback. Popular cinema has always been closely hewed to how Freud considered dreams-wish fulfillments. In the face of the emptiness of the authoritarianism of the present, the superhero represents the unfulfilled wish of the comfortable feeling that the authoritarian impulse and machinery is benign and wants to protect us from, as Malcolm X put it, “the chickens coming home to roost.”

Slightly more interesting is the aggressive resistance to interpreting these texts as political objects. But like sporting events, television or videogames, superhero movies exist as “apolitical” spectacles. Because political implications are inescapable, “apolitical” just means “basking in the inertia of the present”. They are therefore reactionary and useful to the existing power structure as firewalls to involvement and consciousness.

This firewall exists in two directions. Let’s draw a relationship to the politics of the workplace. Consumption of “entertainment” under capitalism has, since the advent of television, mirrored the scheduling of work as Adorno pointed out. Further, it works in direct relation to work as “relief”, or as I said earlier “wish fulfillment”. Of course, wish fulfillment only exists as a mirror of the unfulfilled wish and so the relation between entertainment and the dynamics workplace is more direct than is generally assumed.

The workplace tries at times ludicrously to protect itself in its own internal “apolitical” firewalls though rarely with the success of “entertainments.” “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is a perfectly logical outgrowth of the society as a whole. Most workplaces and social outings work on the implicit agreement: “Don’t ask me anything, in exchange I won’t tell you anything.”

And so it is with the public’s relation to the superhero film. There is a great cultural demand for, to borrow a phrase used by Richard Poirier in describing early literary attempts to create American identity “a world elsewhere.”

Guest post by Daniel Levine. Check out his first book here. He also just released a comedy album yesterday which you can hear selections from for free here.