By Kevin Leslie
I discovered Akira at a rare time in my youth when I was not buying comic books. My family had moved to California in the late 80’s and I started the 6th grade. Maybe I gave off some sort of midwestern charm, but for whatever reason girls started to pay a lot of attention to me and I to them. Comics and G.I. Joe dropped down on my list of favorite things. I was still going to a comic book store, though. My wonderful mother dutifully carted me around so I could continue buying X-Men and X-Factor comics, but by the time I started 7th grade I had been introduced to baseball cards, too. I started asking if I could buy packs of cards with the occasional big purchase, like Ryne Sandberg’s (My favorite player because in Minot, North Dakota the only sports we saw were on WGN, home of the Cubs. God Bless Harry Caray!) rookie card. I remember my mom asking me if was sure the first time I said I didn’t want to buy the latest X-Men issue. How cute is that? My mom was worried that I might regret quitting on the X-Men.
In 7th grade I went to a much bigger school and my 4ft. frame was apparently less noticeable to the girls, particularly when compared to my friend Richard who was close to 6 feet and had a fuzzy moustache.
Junior high was plenty strange. I didn’t have the terrible experience that most people can recall. I made friends with kids like Richard, the 7th grade version of a jock, because I was smart and could help them with their homework. I was small, but pretty good at football.
In 8th grade I branched out. I had my brief flirtation with popularity in the 6th grade. I figured out how to fit in in the 7th grade. In the 8th grade I found my people, so to speak. Bryon W. was in a bunch of my classes, history, science and art. He was not popular and not a jock, but I liked him. He gave funny answers to questions and seemed to care more about drawing than homework. He was always drawing his own superheroes, which he said were part of a team called X-Max. Fairly uncreative team name, but the heroes themselves were pretty great, and they all had origin stories. I started hanging out at Bryon’s house (he lived right by the school) on a regular basis and we became good friends.
Even with Bryon’s influence I had not gotten back into comics at that point until Bryon pulled out Akira issue 21 during science class. I would like to say that it was the amazing, detailed artwork of Katsuhiro Otomo that spoke to me that afternoon, but it was really the amazing violence. I am pretty sure every comic I owned at that point was a Marvel or DC superhero tale. The craziest things I owned were X-Men issues where a team of mutants were going around killing other mutants, usually off panel, and certainly with very little blood or graphic detail.
Akira was different. People were getting gunned down. Kids were taking drugs and attacking authority figures. This was my revelation that some people out there were making comics that were not about folks in pajamas. I loved it and went to find a copy as soon as I could. I got my hands on this very issue with no problem, picking it up at the same shop that Bryon had found it, but finding back issues was near impossible. There was only one shop in town that had an extensive back issue collection, literally housed in the basement of a building--the kind of place that would make me shiver nowadays, but was heaven as a teenager. I’m sure I picked up one or two more issues there, but that was it.
I am not sure how I parlayed that Akira experience into discovering that there were other comics from Japan. I was probably starting to watch Anime with Bryon and other friends at the time, so that was probably it. I remember finding Fist of the North Star in that same comic book dungeon and just pouring over the pages. The violence was on another level, fists punching through chests, exploding heads and all these crazy lines that made it seem like it was all happening at super speed. Manga in general was pretty hard to come by then. It’s amazing now that just a few years ago you could find two rows of manga in certain bookstores.
I did not get into many other manga series at the time, but Akira is definitely what got me back into comics (for better or for worse) as a teenager. When I think about it now it kind of makes sense that I jumped from Katsuhiro Otomo to Jim Lee.