Last year at a conference on “the translation and adaptation of comics” in Hildesheim, Germany, I gave a talk on the first English and German editions of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira . The conference proceedings have now been published as a book, albeit with most of the papers in German, including my own. I’m working on making an English-language, Open Access version of my talk available soon. Anyway, here’s the bibliographic data:
de la Iglesia, Martin. “Akira im Westen.” In Comics. Übersetzungen und Adaptionen, edited by Nathalie Mälzer, 355-373. Berlin: Frank & Timme, 2015.
The ISBN of the book is: 978-3-7329-0131-9
Every once in a while I learn something at my day job that I think would be applicable to comics research too. For instance, in literary studies, dictionaries are compiled that contain all the words (or only the nouns, similar to an encyclopedia) used by a particular author, or even only those used in one single literary text. Think of it as a sort of commentary in a critical edition which explains references to real-world entities, or obscure words that aren’t used anymore, only separate from the source text and organised alphabetically.
Applying this method to comics, we would, of course, ignore all the images and lose the information they convey. On the other hand, looking at the words alone might yield interesting results. For instance, by comparing the frequency of words used in a particular comic to the frequency with which they occur in written language in general, we could test common hypotheses such as “author X uses word Y a lot”.
For comics of more than a few pages length, it would be nice to automatically create a list of all the words in digital form (at least those in speech/thought bubbles and captions – sound effects and inscriptions/labels can be difficult to automatically recognise). Unless a script for the comic you’re interested in is already available, a straightforward (though not necessarily easy) way to get such a list would be to obtain digital images (e.g. scans) of the pages of the comic, then run Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software on them.
As an example, consider these two panels from Akira, in which a scientist is introduced to some colleagues:
The OCR software www.onlineocr.net recognises the text in the five speech bubbles like this:
As far as I can see, only two mistakes (ノレ instead of ル and ですノ instead of です) were made. Instead of focusing on nouns (for which there probably are detecting algorithms for Japanese), it’s easier for now to just look at the kanji and filter out all hiragana and katakana characters. (While you can’t simply say that kanji represent nouns and kana represent other parts of speech, the idea here is that kanji tend to carry more semantic information than kana, which are often only used as flection suffixes.) That leaves us with the six kanji 初, 名, 前, 博, 士, and 初 again.
We can look up their frequency with which they occur in Japanese language in general, e.g. the frequency rank at WWWJDIC:
- 前: 27
- 初: 152
- 名: 177
- 士: 526
- 博: 794
i.e. 前 is the most frequent of the five, 博 the least frequent. Compare these ranks to the frequency with which they occur in our slim sample of two panels:
- 初: 33% of all kanji
- 前, 名, 士, 博: 17% each
What we can see here, if anything, is that two kanji, 士 and 博, are significantly more often used by Katsuhiro Ōtomo than by the average Japanese author. This doesn’t come as a surprise, as the compound 博士 signifies the academic title ‘Dr.’, which is the appropriate form of address for the scientists in this scene, whereas the other kanji 前, 初 and 名 are linked to names and introductions in general, and thus more often used in standard Japanese.
However, even if the frequency of 士 and 博 remained above-average if we analysed all of Akira‘s over 2000 pages, that wouldn’t necessarily mean we had discovered a lexical characteristic of Ōtomo’s writing style. What it would tell us is that there is a subplot about scientists in Akira. Of course, topic analysis based on word frequency is nothing new. More interesting from a formal-lexical point of view would be if we discovered kanji used in different frequencies than we would expect with regard to the subject matter treated in Akira. In this situation it might be useful to look at synonyms: when Ōtomo had several options to express the same thing, why did he choose some words over others?
For instance, on the same page as the example above, the relatively infrequent (rank 920) kanji 栄 is used as part of the word “honour” in the expression “I’m honoured to meet you”. Instead, Ōtomo could have used the phrase “nice to meet you” for a third time, using the kanji 初 again, but he didn’t. Suppose there was a significant number of further instances of 栄 in Akira, maybe that would be a formal-stylistic choice, rather than one merely implied by the content of the comic?
I’m aware that all this is very hypothetical, and that looking at just a few panels doesn’t show anything, but if I wanted to analyse a comic in this way, I would basically go on about it as described here, only with more scans. If you would like to learn more about this kind of analysis, I recommend Allen Riddell’s tutorial on “Feature selection: finding distinctive words”.
Already in October/November last year, on the occasion of Designer Con in Pasadena, California, some people re-created comic book covers with Lego bricks and put pictures of them online, mostly on Flickr in the group Comic Bricks! and/or using the tag “comicbricks” (Nerdist and several other websites reported). Some of these pictures are fascinating in the way in which a three-dimensional object was extrapolated from a two-dimensional cover, e.g. the iconic “Demon in a Bottle” Iron Man cover.
The most interesting Lego cover from my perspective is, of course, the only one in that Flickr photo pool that is based on a manga cover: Akira #31. Its mere existence among otherwise American comics is remarkable. Then again, an issue from the old, coloured, 38-part Epic Comics edition was used, which was more like a US comic book than the later black-and-white collected volumes.
The creator of this Lego cover retained the abstract elements of the cover and interpreted them as a sort of window frame through which we see Kaneda and Kai riding the ‘caretaker’ robot. In contrast to the original cover, though, one leg of the robot extends through this frame in the front, while another robot leg can be seen extending to the right behind the frame (and also parts of the wall in the background to both sides), making for an imaginative compromise between 2-D and 3-D elements which, as far as I’ve seen, hasn’t been tried in any of the other Comic Bricks covers.
I’m looking forward to present some more preliminary results from my PhD research, more precisely on Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s manga Akira and its first English and German editions, at a conference on “Übersetzungen und Adaptionen von Comics / The Translation and Adaptation of Comics” at Hildesheim University, Germany, from October 31 – November 2, 2014. Information on where to read this paper to follow.
In my PhD research I don’t deal with 21st century reception of Akira, but recently I’ve come across some interesting adaptation projects which I wanted to share here, just in case you haven’t heard about them already:
The Akira Project – Live Action Trailer (via Major Spoilers)
A three-minute fan-made “trailer” for a live-action film that doesn’t exist (i.e. not the one that was recently announced to be at the scriptwriting stage).
Player Piano – Akira (via Geek & Sundry)
An elaborate video of a performance of the anime soundtrack.
A faithful panel-by-panel remake of the manga – except all original characters have been replaced by Simpsons characters.
It wasn’t until about a year ago that the relevance of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s manga masterpiece Akira for my PhD thesis dawned on me. At first I had thought I’d focus on earlier titles. When I realised I should concentrate my research on Akira instead, I started buying used copies of volumes from the first English-language edition (Epic Comics 1988-1995).
In contrast to the current six-volume edition, the Epic edition consists of 38 issues. Since last week, with the arrival of #25 in my mailbox, my collection is now complete.
My sources were Ebay (.de), Amazon (.com) Marketplace, and the online comic shop Sammlerecke (.de). Overall, I ordered my Akira copies from 7 or 8 different sellers. The downside of this approach, as opposed to buying all 38 issues as a set from one seller, was that the shipping costs (particularly from the US to Germany) quickly added up and turned out to be higher than the price for the actual comics. Plus, it takes a long time to find all issues and then to have them shipped.
The advantage of splitting the purchases is that you can select the best offers for each issue (or batch of issues), so that the average cost per issue (not including shipping) is very low. After some time I was even able to find the final issue at a reasonable price. For some reason, #38 seems to be rarer than the others and is otherwise offered only for three-figure sums. The aforementioned #25 turned out to be the most expensive issue instead, because it was the last one I was still lacking and thus it couldn’t be shipped together with other items from the same seller, so I ended up paying $5 for the comic itself and $15 for postage.