Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira is one of the crowning achievements of graphic fiction. It’s a 2000+ page epic that never lets up for a minute. Page after page, Otomo demonstrates that he is a master of his medium, choosing layouts and panel structures convey so much information without ever sacrificing readability.
To try and cover every innovation and perfection that Otomo made to the medium would take much more space than I have here. Instead I’ll focus on the technique that most struck me on my recent reading: the splash page.
Comics are no stranger to splash pages – those single panel pages that so often bookend mainstream comics. While they are casually thrown about in superhero comics, Otomo uses them to a much different effect than what Western readers are familiar with.
Start with frequency: in the first volume of the book, there are 11 splash pages, many of which are double splashes. The book is 350 pages long, so Otomo averages 1 splash every 32 pages.
For comparison, look at the recent Justice Leauge #1. It’s 25 pages long, and has 4 splash pages. That’s 1 every 6.5 pages. A whole lot more than Akira.
But it’s not just quantity. The whole approach is different. In modern comics, the splash has been reduced for really two purposes. One is the glamour shot: the superhero arcing through the air, a chance for the artist to dig his heels in and deliver a spandex-clad anatomy lesson. Generally these pin-ups are fan-service-y tools of decompression and artistic overindulgence.
The other modern use is the reveal. We find out a terrible secret; a full page closeup ofcompromising evidence. It forces our attention, and let’s us know that this is a Big Moment. It’s heavy handed, sort of the comic equivilent of very obvious music cues, but it can be quite effective when used properly.
But Otomo’s use of splashes in Akira couldn’t be more different than either of these two techniques. The splashes in Akira are all about space. Scale. Scope. They’re downright geographic.
And almost all of these splashes are in the first 30 or so pages. The following 200 pages are filled with alleys and corridors – claustrophobic stuff. So when at the end of an underground lab complex action scene we are treated to the two page splash of Akira’s chamber, it’s a moment to breath, a break in the action.
That’s why all of these splashes are long shots, a far cry from the medium and close ups in the Western Canon. It serves to set the stage that these small actions have bigger ramifications. The splashes mirror the overarching structure of Akira’s narrative, which begins as a conflict between people and grows into a battle of massive forces.
It’s not that Akira uses splashes right and everyone else does them wrong. What Otomo does throughout his work is take familiar techniques and concepts and bends them in ways that suit his story. He is always first a storyteller, as he transforms familiar comic idioms into original techniques.
That is why Akira is not only a landmark achievement in visual storytelling, but also a damn good read.