Otanjoubiomedeto, Akiko! Celebrating 5 Years of a Japanese-American Comic
By Jake Forbes
What, you may ask, are we doing, featuring an American comic in an anime magazine? Akiko, by Mark Crilley, isn't anime-style like Warlands; it's not Japanese-drawn like Sandman: The Dreamhunters. Sure, she loves sushi and she drinks mugi cha with her uncle Koji, and she's even been stranded in rural Japan for a few issues, but I'm not going to lie to you- Akiko isn't trying to be manga. Akiko is just a brilliantly drawn and hilariously told story of a Japanese-American girl and her adventures in outer space-first rate, all-ages entertainment in the tradition of Miyazaki.
Akiko creator Mark Crilley got his start drawing comics while working as an English teacher in Japan. His first story, "The Beast that Ate Morioka" was a Japanese pop culture inspired adventure that he used as a teaching aid in class. Soon after he began work on Akiko, and while he didn't find a publisher in Japan, upon returning to the US he found one right away at Sirius Entertainment. At their suggestion he turned the one-shot "Akiko on the Planet Smoo" into an ongoing series that has run from 1996 to the present. The series has maintained a very loyal and growing audience of indy comic fans, japanophiles, kids and parents. It even got him noticed by Entertainment Weekly who named him in their 100 top creative people for 1998's "It List."
Akiko blends European and Japanese aesthetics with a very American story. The characters are reminiscent of Winsor McCay's Little Nemo, while the textured backgrounds look like something by Miyazaki. Mark Crilley quotes The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and Monty Python as influences on his storytelling, and their influences are apparent without being overbearing. Like My Neighbor Totoro or Calvin and Hobbes, his stories can be enjoyed equally by kids and adults- a true rarity in American comics.
Starting last year, the first Akiko story arch has been expanded and revised into an illustrated novel format, with books 1-3 of 4 available in bookstores now. This story arch is also collected into 3 graphic novels (when are you going to collect the rest of them!) which you can get at any comic book shop with a good selection of independent titles. There is even an Akiko animated series in development, but who knows if and when that will finally make it on the air. Keep your fingers crossed! In the meantime, we just get our regular, bimonthly dose of the Mark's comic, and while each issue is a modest 24 pages, it's still one of the most rewarding comics on the market.
The Story so Far
Who best to explain the story than Akiko co-star Mr. Beeba! Click the images below to see what you've missed.
So, did that answer all of you questions? No? Well, let me fill in the blanks. The issues of Akiko that have been released so far can be broken down into 5 story archs. These are:
Issues 1-18: The Menace of Alia Rellapor
In which Akiko is first brought to the planet Smoo in order to help rescue Prince Froptoppit with the help of Spuckler Boach, Gax, Mr. Beeba and Poog.
Issues 19-24: The Story Tree
In which Spuckler, Beeba and Gax each tell a story, illuminating bits about their past while creating new mysteries.
Issues 26-31: Bornstone's Elixer
In which Mr. Beeba enlists Akiko's help to find a cure for his dying mentor, and Prince Froptoppit finds a romantic rival in the form of the dashing hero Kell.
Issues 32-34: Stranded in Komura
In Which Akiko and her friends from Smoo find themselves stranded in the Japanese country town of Komura.
Issues 35-38: Moonshopping
In which Akiko is enlisted to travel to the Farflux dimension to find a new moon for the planet Smoo.
40-?: The Battle of Boach's Keep
In which Spuckler fights to keep his childhood home from being destroyed by the Goth-tek corporation, whilst Akiko receives a dubious honor on Smoo.
Issues 25 and 39 are very amusing one-shots.
The amazing issue 39 features a crisscrossing network of storylines with no less than three separate storylines going through each page!
Interview with Mark Crilley
You taught English in Japan for two years before devoting your life to comics, correct? What was it about Japan that made you want to work there?
Well, to be honest, the first place I taught English in was Taiwan, not Japan. That was 1988-90. I had long wanted to visit the Far East in general, I was just fascinated by the culture, the writing systems, just the all around "otherness" of it. I wanted to go there and learn the local languages and just soak up the experience of being there. As it turned out Taiwan and Japan were the two places I really lived and worked, around five years split between the two of them.
While you were living in Japan, did you become a fan of manga anime?
I must confess I didn't really become a fan of manga while living in Japan, and even today I am woefully ignorant of manga and -- to tell the truth - comics in general! I do have a pretty good familiarity with the animation of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.
What are your thoughts about the popularity of sequential art in Japan as compared to the US? Do you see manga as being a different art form from American comics?
The thing that really strikes me about manga in Japan is the everyday quality of it, the way they are read by everyone from all walks of life and are not limited to the realm of enthusiasts as they are in America. The very idea of manga about golf, cooking, baseball... it's very impressive that a market exists in Japan to support manga like that. On the other hand, I must say I think there are good things about the U.S. comic industry, the quality of the paper and the level of respect for the comic book as an object from folks like Chris Ware and others. I'm not sure a "Japanese Chris Ware" would be able to find a "Japanese Fantagraphics" that would allow him to publish such distinctive and gorgeous comics.
You got your start in cartooning by drawing comics to use in the Japanese classroom. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
It was really just something to make my classes more interesting for me and my students. I created one page at a time, generally one per week, and took them into class for the students to read and learn from. With Akiko I had an eye towards creating something publishable, so I wasn't really tailoring it to English instruction, just trying to tell a good story. It went over quite well. I often wonder if any of my former students have ever come across an Akiko book and said, "Hey, I remember this!"
When you came up with Akiko, who was your intended audience? Was it going to be another teaching aid? Did you realize it would become such a long and successful series in America?
Actually my hope at first was to have it published in Japan, not America. That never materialized so I just kind of shelved it for a year or two while I continued teaching. When I submitted the first story to Sirius in 1995, they were the ones who suggested turning it into a series. I of course leapt at the chance! I certainly hoped it would succeed, but if you had told me in '95 that I'd be up to issue 43 within six years I'd have probably said, "Yeah, right."
Your style, while much different in appearance from manga, does share some similarities: you use just black and white, you use a lot of wide, epic shots, and you share the popular Japanese technique of using zip-a-tone for shading. Were you consciously thinking of the manga style when developing Akiko?
I know your readers are going to hate me for this, but I have to confess that the manga influences in my comics are mainly unconscious. I think a character like Poog has a slightly 'Miyazaki-esque' quality about him, and the Prince's eyes are meant to look a bit like something I once saw in a manga, but I can't even name very many manga creators, much less point to them as major influences! Most of my influences are non-comic book influences: Star Wars, Monty Python, The Wizard of Oz.
While Akiko takes place in many fantastic worlds that have nothing to do with Japan (or even Earth), you do keep coming back with cultural references to Japan and even based a story arch there. What is Akiko's relationship with Japan?
Akiko was first created in Japan, so I feel that I should make an effort to introduce a bit of Japan into the comic. The one arc you referred to, "Stranded in Komura", was the one in which I tried to expose readers to what it's like to be in Japan. Most arcs are strictly outerspace adventures, though, and the references to Japan are limited.
In a recent issue of Akiko you had Akiko get a Japanese culture lesson from her Uncle Koji. Is this going to be a recurring segment?
I'd like it to be. Part of the reason I did that was to leave open the possibility of doing such 'lessons' in the future.
In my experience, japanophiles are very picky when looking at American portrayals of Japan. When you were writing about Akiko in Japan, did you find that fans raked those issues over with a particularly fine-toothed comb?
I certainly wouldn't blame manga readers for turning their noses up a bit at Akiko! I had one reader correctly point out that I had drawn Akiko wearing shoes while standing on tatami, a major error on my part! I know better, trust me, it was just a slip!
Is Akiko published in Japan? Do you have any plans to publish any other stories in Japan?
No, not at the moment. There is the possibility of the comic being published in China, actually, so who knows, maybe that will lead to something...
What does the future hold for Akiko? Isn't there an animated series in the works?
Akiko is currently being optioned by Cinar and Bardell of Canada, with the aim of creating an animated show for television. As you know, development often takes many years, so we'll all just have to wait!
Are you working on any projects besides Akiko?
Akiko is basically it at the moment. I did get to do a 7-page story for an upcoming DC superhero spoof book called "Bizarro Comics". That will be coming out in the summer.
|AKIKO: CHARACTER DOSSIER
The spunky 4'th grader who the people of Smoo call on whenever they're in trouble. She's partial to blue jeans and almond ripple ice cream. It's unknown how her pigtails keep their shape.
A half-witted, scruffy looking nerf herder… or am I thinking of someone else? Spuckler may look like a pirate, but his heart is in the right place, and he's helped Akiko and crew out of many a scrape.
A little bit R2 D2, a little bit Eyore from Winnie the Pooh, Gax is Spuckler's loyal, but much abused, robot companion. Despite his beat up exterior, Gax is capable of many things.
The smartest creature on Smoo, or at least he'd have you think so. Mr. Beeba is fond of big words (his dictionary has more big words than anyone elses), but not all that fond of dangerous adventures.
Who or what Poog is is a mystery. He has big eyes, he flies, and he speaks in a language that only Mr. Beeba understands. Despite his lack of a body, Poog has probably saved the team more than anyone else.
Heir to the throne of Smoo, the young Prince has picked Akiko as his bride to be. Well, he has to wait, at least until Akiko get's into the 6'th grade, until he'll know if she's up for marriage. In the meantime, he's a loyal friend.
Monarch of the land of Smoo, King Froptoppit is the one who sends Akiko on her many adventures. One isn't quite sure if the good king is in possession of all his marbles. Best to laugh at all his jokes, just in case.
|Bip and Bop
No one knows what exactly Bop and Bip do except for bringing Akiko to Smoo. I guess we don't know what anyone on Smoo does except for getting rescued by Akiko.
The curmudgeonly old hermit who has begrudgingly helped out Akiko and her friends on a couple of occasions. Akiko knows he's really a softy.
If you want to learn more about Akiko, you can visit Mark Crilley's website at: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Olympus/6912/