Thursday, September 24, 2009

Review - Akira

by Katsuhiro Otomo
2002 Eisner Winner for Best Archival Project
2002 Eisner Winner for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material

A short while into creating his epic Katsuhiro Otomo had to put it on hold. He was approached about making it into a movie. Instead of being something like the US where an author sells the rights to his book to a movie studio and then has nothing more to do with it Otomo adapted his work and directed the film which is justifiably considered one of the landmarks of Japanese animation. Unfortunately he also was only a third of the way through his story when he did this and consequently had to create an ending for the entire thing based on what he had made that far. The result of that is the movie diverges widely with the comic in the last reel and a lot of poorly informed American nerds blamed evil filmmakers for screwing up the adaptation. It also means that if you have seen the movie Akira that the book will be a fresh experience.

Twenty years after the destruction of Tokyo triggered a third world war a new city called Neo Tokyo has risen around the devastation. A motorcycle gang from the new city has a run in with a strange child with powers in the ruins which triggers a series of events that changes the world. For one member it leads one to becoming entangled with a terrorist organization trying to expose the secrets of a government program for harnessing psychics. Another member begins developing psychic abilities of his own and gets first hand experience in what absolute power does. And drawing both of them together is Akira, the government's greatest secret.

Akira is a wonderful example of what I don't like in science fiction. The ideas presented are huge, terrific things; the actual execution of those concepts on the other hand falls flat. Otomo isn't nearly as bad as many I've read since his writing is simply flawed instead of outright awful. It isn't as simple as a bad translation either. There's fundamental information missing, muddled storytelling in the art, and an awkward pacing that comes from stretching out sections for the serial.

There's also the problem that most of the characters in Akira just aren't interesting. The lead is a doofus who's just along with events for the ride. The terrorists who get the majority of the early focus are given no motivation beyond being dupes in a political struggle; it's never clear why they're doing the things they do or why they choose their extreme methods. They're the designated good guys despite the fact that the reader is never given a reason to root for them. On the other hand the character who is gaining vast power and losing control in every sense of the word is fascinating because while his only goal may be anarchy the reader can understand his purpose. Every time the story went to people discussing vague goals with characters whose motivations weren't explained I wanted to back to the guy who was destroying everything.

There is one thing that Akira has going for it: Otomo's art. He has a sense of environment design that is stunning. There are a lot of images of destruction in Akira and he makes each bit of it look unique. Similarly the machines he populates the book with are in some ways more interesting that the humans. I could examine his incredibly detailed backgrounds all day.

Similarly the way that Otomo draws action is impressive. Each explosion is a ultradetailed work of art. Every panel of an complex action scene examined individually tells it's own story. I can't say that I'm fond of how he lays out pages since it's pretty standard it is on a higher plain than most Japanese comic artists who hold to certain artistic conventions that typically muddy up the panel flow. When he brings his focus in on those kinds of scenes Otomo's artistic storytelling is terrific.

So Akira is an visually interesting but inherently flawed work. On one hand I'm not very fond of the story being told, but on the other it's the only Japanese comic that I own a supplemental art book for. Perhaps it's best to think of it like a movie, one of those summer blockbuster action movies like they used to make where they might not have been terrific films the images presented were exciting and fun. I'd recommend Akira on that level: come for the pictures and fun action. Just don't expect any more than that.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Review - 300

by Frank Miller; Colored by Lynn Varley
Hardcover edition designed by Mark Cox
1999 Eisner Winner for Best Limited Series
1999 Eisner Winner for Best Writer/Artist
1999 Eisner Winner for Best Coloring
2000 Eisner Winner for Best Production Design

I will promise you this right now: I will not type that over used meme in any way, shape, or form in this review.

Thanks to the movie from a few years ago even those people who couldn't name three other city states of ancient Greece are able to give a basic outline of the Battle of Thermopylae. On one side you have a gigantic army of one million Persians who are marching down the Grecian coast and conquering everything. On the other three hundred Spartans who chose to block the Persian army in order to cover the retreat of the rest of the Greek army. The only advantage the Spartans had was that they held a tiny pass and so they fought a battle that would be used until the end of time as a demonstration why massed frontal charges against an entrenched position is a bad idea.

(Okay, the history there is a bit off but everyone going back to the ancient historians felt the need to exaggerate the story and I don't want to be left out.)

Frank Miller takes that bit of history and turns the story of these three hundred Spartans into a glorious ode to machismo. 300 is the story of macho men from the world's most macho society doing macho things and saying the right macho words. There is no room for weak girly-men with the Spartans. Anyone who doesn't live up to their standards of perfect manhood should just go home since real men don't care about being outnumbered three thousand to one.

And Miller does this completely unironically. There is no nudge and wink to indicate that the harsh standards of the Spartans might not be the best thing in the world. While I doubt that Miller would actually advocate throwing imperfect infants off cliffs 300 works because in the context of the story it is the ideal way of making the perfect man. This is a version of story of Thermopylae that the Spartans would have approved of.

The only Spartan who is allowed to show less than absolute confidence that their band of three hundred men can defeat the Persian army is their leader Leonidas. And the reader only knows it because they get his internal monologues.

Miller's artwork is astonishing in 300. He uses silhouettes with an impressive effect throughout the book. It helps that he was clearly inspired by Greek art of that period and some of the posed and figures could have stepped right off an urn. He also designed the page layout to take advantage of a wider profile that gives 300 and huge, open view.

Where Lynn Varley found bronze watercolors I won't be able to figure out. The book is painted in red and bronze (when you're talking about Greeks bronze is only color that matters) with only occasional splashes of other color. It might make things a bit dull but the dappled colors give the artwork an additional texture that looks great.

I enjoyed 300 quite a bit as an over-the-top version of history. Miller's take on the Spartans is an extreme one but it is right for the story he created. The artwork never goes below impressive. That makes the package as a whole a stand out book for me. I can understand the tone of the 300 and the excessive violence putting off some readers but at the same time it's the entire point.