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Back to the Future
By Oliver Chin
Reprinted with permission by the author
Now that anime has a firm foothold in America, we can revisit the groundbreaking manga that created the first modern generation of American fans. This entertainment has come full circle with Dark Horse's impressive reprints of Lone Wolf and Cub (LW&C) and Akira. Scoring a major coup, Dark Horse has resurrected seminal works that defined how Japanese comics offered much more than superheroes. As reviewed recently by Viz's monthly anthology PULP, these titles are timeless touchstones that continue to whet Western fans' appetite for more.
Both out of print and hard to find since their initial publication in the 1980s, LW&C and Akira have become legendary for two major reasons. The first was their infectious cult status with the audience. As for the second, Shawna Ervin-Gore, Dark Horse's publicity coordinator, comments, "The real revelation came when American artists and writers began reading this work and realizing that comics can be told in very different narrative styles and at different 'speeds' than they'd been done here in the states. Aside from Lone Wolf and Cub and Akira each being jaw-droppingly great works of sequential art, they've both influenced a great deal of innovation and evolution in the way Western comics creators work." Now re-released in toto, they can assume their rightful place in the canon of manga for the next generation of readers and creators.
Lone Wolf and Cub by Koike & Kojima
This epic saga follows the exploits of an enigmatic mercenary in feudal Japan. Formerly the Shogun's personal executioner, Ogami Itto is now a widowed ronin ("masterless samurai"), who roams the countryside with his small son Diagoro. Selling his services to the highest bidder, he assassinates his targets with laser-guided intensity. His wrath is like a force of nature, unpredictable yet seemingly unstoppable. His skill and cunning fells scores of foes, male and female indiscriminately, and in doing so, reveals the irony, tragedy and frailty of human nature. Throughout, the author generously leavens the narrative with deft cultural and historical references.
Dark Horse's publisher Mike Richardson recaps the history (PULP, 4.09):
I've followed Lone Wolf and Cub since its original publication in Action Comics from Japan. In fact, when Dark Horse first got off the ground, we pursued the rights to the property and found that First Comics had beaten us to it. Years later, we were looking for new Japanese properties to import, and it occurred to me that Lone Wolf and Cub had been out of print in America for years. So in January I flew to Japan to meet with Koike's company, and we worked out a deal with them and with Mega House that gives Dark Horse the ability to bring the original Lone Wolf and Cub (The Baby Cart Assassin) to American audiences for the first time in its entirety.
At 300 pages every month, LW&C's new edition is significant for a few more reasons, notes Ervin-Gore. "LW&C ran about 43 issues at First, but their entire run was less than a third of the complete material. We're publishing the whole series in 28 volumes that have much more substantial page counts than First's editions. We're also releasing them in the exact order of the original Japanese editions, whereas First omitted a lot of stories and in doing so, left some gaps in the storytelling."
Chris Warner, Dark Horse's editor for Akira, justifies the unusually small size of their LW&C edition (PULP, 5.01), "Some fans have been upset about Dark Horse's choice of formats for Lone Wolf, but this is in fact the very same size format preferred by series creator Kazuo Koike that became a huge bestseller in Japan. And I think that it is an appropriate size for the art of Goseki Kojima-a rough-textured, naturalistic, impressionistic approach-as opposed to the dense, technically rich detail of Akira. The pocketbook style would be a mistake for Akira; the detail just wouldn't hold up."
Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo
Speak of the devil. For those who saw the movie first (a la Ghost in the Shell), the comic is all the more dense, expressive, and nuanced. The definitive post-apocalyptic dystopia is set in Neo Tokyo, where a teenage bike gang stumbles upon a scientific experiment of the military industrial complex. A secret agency targets, coaxes, and harnesses the emerging psychic powers of unique individuals. However one of their new test subjects, Testuo, defies their control. His former pal Kaneda, and the underground resistance, chip away at the conspiracy, but not before the metropolis becomes a battleground as the power of "Akira" is unleashed again.
Warren Ellis described its impact on the creative community (PULP, 5.01), "Akira was a headlong, superadrenalised SF adventure story that reinvented the term 'property damage.' It contained within itself all the things that traditional American comics readers loved...but unraveled into a massively extended form...It showed a whole new way to approach the adventure story in comics. What was, in the raw-boned American form, bludgeoning and brutally fast, became in the Japanese form strange, slow music."
Originally published in Japan by Kodansha in weekly and biweekly episodes in 1983, Akira tips the scales at over 2200 pages. American readers recall the colorized version by Marvel Comics' Epic in 1988. Akira's US rights finally reverted from Marvel back to Kodansha in 1999, which owns the Marvel/Epic translation. Dark Horse's is publishing the entire story in its original black and white format in six volumes every four months. The first 364-page volume hit in December for $24.95, with volume 2 in March 2001.
Of course, the spectacular animation jazzed both East and West to the point where it is still synonymous with "anime." Originally released in 1987 in Japan, Akira was distributed in 1990 by Streamline. Streamline was bought by Orion (later bought by MGM) and the rights lapsed in late 1995. Similarly savvy Pioneer recently finalized negotiations with Kodansha (the international rights holder) and will re-release in Summer 2001.
Chad Kime, Pioneer's Marketing Manager confirms it will be fully loaded as "a Day and Date VHS (sub & dub) and DVD (two versions: one movie only, the other with a second disc with extras). The English version will be re-dubbed and the DVD will have 5.1 surround sound. Both the subtitles and the English dubbed versions will be based off of a new translation of the script that is more true to the original Japanese version. Some of the extras were included on the Criterion Collection Akira Laserdisc, but it will be the first American release for others."
Aiming for a Mainstream Audience.
Retail and customer response has been predictably stellar to Dark Horse's big committing to publish LW&C and Akira simultaneously. Neither LW&C smaller size nor Akira's higher price seem to be deterrents. Mark Bernardi, Dark Horse's Sales Manager, recapped, "Sales of Akira and Lone Wolf have been great. We've almost sold out of the first printing of Akira (20,000) and will have a second printing of 10,000 shipping 3/9. Meanwhile, the first few LW&C volumes have been reprinted and are closing in on 30,000, while the 4th & 5th had 20K initial printings."
Summarized Warner (PULP, 5.01), "With Akira and Lone Wolf and Cub, we've got two of the crown jewels of graphic fiction, some of the best work the medium has ever seen. Having both available in the manner in which their creators want the work to be seen only enhances the work, regardless of format."
Both titles embody non-stop action. LW&C depicts the swift strokes of cutting blade, medieval intrigue, and dramatic duels. Akira captures the fierce speed of airborne crafts, automatic weapons and incendiary explosions. As a pair, they form the ideal bookends for readers; not only of time (past vs. future), place (history vs. sci-fi), and style (roughly hewn vs. mechanically precise), but also of the impressive quality of storytelling that the finest comics can achieve.
Oliver Chin is the Director of Marketing for www.obongo.com and a professional media consultant. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.