The Tragedy of Katsuhiro Otomo and Steve Oliff’s Full-Color AKIRA

AKIRA never seems like it’s not in the news, be it a new edition of the manga or news about the perpetually in-development Hollywood adaption. AKIRA is still relevant 40 years after it debuted in Young Magazine, but for all the reissues, updated video releases, and praise, one part of AKIRA history has been left forgotten.

Published by Marvel’s Epic Comics1, the original English-language release of Katsuhiro Otomo’s AKIRA was published across 38 square-bound volumes most notable for the fact that each issue was in full color. Deftly handled by colorist Steve Oliff, the Otomo-approved colors were added at a time when publishers were bringing over Japanese comics and trying different tactics to entice comic book fans. Yoshihisa Tagami’s Grey had a forward by science fiction author Harland Ellison. Eclipse/Viz published some of their titles, like Area 88 and Mai the Psychic Girl, on a bi-weekly schedule. Viz dabbled in colored manga (notably Gunhed and Silent Mobius, both by Kia Asamiya) published as high-quality, square-bound issues with thicker pages to differentiate them from regular “floppy” comics. Despite the origins of manga as disposable entertainment, when Japanese comics first appeared in English they were very much presented as premium comics.

Otomo was involved in the English-language version of AKIRA, working with Oliff to get the colors right and even redrawing backgrounds and other elements to accommodate the flipped layout. The 1988 film also played a role in how the colorized AKIRA comics looked, as Oliff mentioned in an interview with Anime News Network back in 2016 that he was sent color slides from the film for reference.

A complete run of Epic’s AKIRA. [Source]
That AKIRA was able to receive such a thorough coloring job and involve the original artist speaks to both the comic’s reputation and Epic’s desire to offer a premium comic, while, perhaps, also buying into the idea that black and white comics were somehow harder to market to American audiences.

Like Japanese animation, manga in the 1980s suffered through changes to arrive in American comic book shops, but it was less Harmony Gold’s Robotech and more Harmony Gold’s Macross pilot. For all of the changes made to Japanese pop culture as it arrived in English in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the original Epic Comics release of AKIRA felt different. It was a modified version of an original work, but one created with the approval of the original creator. AKIRA with Oliff’s colors is no worse and no better than the original but deserves celebration as a separate, vibrant version that’s worth revisiting. The caveat, however, is that it’s painfully difficult to do so.

Released as 38 individual issues between 1988 and 1995, the series was collected in two different versions; a 13-volume softcover series and a 6-volume hardcover series. Neither of the compiled versions was finished, meaning that the only way to read the color versions of the final chapters is by tracking down the original issues. The original black and white version of AKIRA has been published by both Dark Horse and Kodansha, most recently as an extravagant box set with unflipped artwork, but none of these releases have included Oliff’s colored version.

While rights issues no doubt make things complicated, the inability to legally read the color version of AKIRA in any legal form today is a disgrace. When you consider the generational impact and cultural influence Otomo’s comic has wielded on a global scale, and the historical impact of Epic’s release (not to mention that Oliff’s work deserves celebration and recognition, too), it seems like a gross oversight that the only way to read it is by tracking down old issues at expensive prices. Otomo’s visuals are without peer and despite never being intended to host color, his illustration work is enhanced by Oliff’s colors and in many ways serves as an aesthetic bridge between the original manga and the 1988 film.

In 1986, two years prior to the first issue of AKIRA hitting comic book racks in English, Roger Ebert asked “What was so wrong about black and white movies in the first place?” in response to the then-current controversy over film colorization. You could ask the same about comics in 1986, too. But in much the same way AKIRA the film feels a little different than the rest of its contemporaries in Japanese animation, the manga AKIRA feels a little different than its peers. Part of this is thirty-plus years of retrospectives, unrestrained praise, and a decades-long standing as “the” anime (or manga) new fans needed to read. But both remain obsessively detailed, incredibly cinematic, and showcase a technical prowess so profound it’s almost distracting. It’s just a shame we can’t read every version of it.

Update 6/16: Thanks to Twitter user @InsertDiskII for pointing this out, it looks like the color version of AKIRA may have been reissued in Germany in 2019.

Further Reading


  1. Coincidentally founded in 1982, the same year AKIRA was first published, Epic Comics was an imprint of the comics publishing juggernaut focused on creator-owned titles and did not abide by the restrictions of the Comic Code.