Manga Appreciation Society: AIR GEAR by Oh!Great
I want to take a little time today to FINALLY talk about a manga that caught my fancy sometime last year. I’ve been planning to do this write up for a long time now, but have had a hard time actually sitting down and writing it out. Part of the problem is that I’ve been very busy lately and have had little time to sit down and actually collect my thoughts about how I feel about this particular manga series and synthesize that into a well thought out, succinct review. The other part of the problem is that it would be hard to really top what’s already been written about this series that is available online.
I’m speaking about Air Gear by mangaka Ito “Oh Great” Ogure. This series is currently being reprinted in the United States by Del Rey and is up to volume 14 as of October of this year. You can actually read the series for free online here, where it has been translated well beyond the Del Rey print run (how well, I’m not sure). I’ve been faithful enough to only read the copies I’ve bought in print but I’m so into the series that I’m going to be reading it online now. The series has inspired an anime series as well as a MUSICAL (!) and even featured an Obama shout out/parody during election time. The series is currently being serialized in Japan in Weekly Shonen Magazine.
A little background as way of disclaimer: I have never been a huge anime/manga fan, but I’ve flirted with the genre for years. I’m from the Robotech/Nausicaä generation of US kids exposed to manga/anime (born in the 70′s, grew up in the 80′s). Akira premiered here in the States when I was a freshman in college back in the early 90′s. Over the years I caught Ghost in the Shell, Ranma 1/2, the work of Miyazaki, and All Purpose Cultural Catgirl Nuku Nuku even! Read a few manga growing up as well… The Lone Wolf & Cub reprints, Mai the Psychic Girl, some Tezuka (though not much), Gunsmith Cats, and a lot of random stuff. I was also exposed to a lot of “japanimation” growing up as well (like Belle & Sebastien, The Little Prince, The Mysterious Cities of Gold) during the early days of cable and during frequent summer visits with family in Mexico.
It wasn’t until the last year or so that I’ve completely immersed myself in Japanese comics and comics making techniques in earnest. Not only to gain an understanding of its cultural relevance but also to hopefully absorb some of their techniques and processes for producing comics to (hopefully) better inform my own process. I’ve especially become a huge fan of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s work.
It was during my initial research into manga that I came across a book which featured three Japanese mangaka, one of whom was Oh!Great. I was immediately drawn to his work, his sense of design, his ability to create compelling sound effects that integrate well with the images (especially in the original Japanese language Air Gear pages, which border on graffitti) and his use of screentones. He was creating work that fell into the same manga mode/style we’ve seen over and over again through the years and yet he retains a personal signature style that is uniquely his own. You can look at an Oh!Great image and immediately recognize that it is his.
AIR GEAR’s story (from Wikipedia):
Itsuki “Ikki” Minami, is a student and a delinquent. Also known as the “Unbeatable Babyface”, Ikki is the leader of the youth gang by the name of “East Side Gunz”. Upon his return home, after being humiliated by a Storm Rider team called the Skull Saders, Ikki discovers a secret hidden from him by his benefactors, the Noyamano sisters. The sisters belong to a group of Storm Riders who go by the team name of Sleeping Forest. In the anime, learning the sisters’ secret angers him and he steals a pair of Air Trecks, abbreviated as “AT”. (In the manga, the sisters give a pair of ATs to him and invite him to skate with them.) Ikki eventually settles his grudge with the Skull Saders, but in the process he receives more than the simple satisfaction of revenge. Determined to experience the sensation of “flight” for as long as he can, Ikki is quickly engaged in the mysterious, irresistible world of Air Treks.
My own thoughts on the series:
My love of this series is a complete paradox. There is absolutely no reason in the world for me to like this series. It is boy’s manga written specifically for 16 year oldss. It’s full of potty humor, the over-sexualization of young girls, homophobic comedic situations and overweight characters being blatantly lambasted for being “pigs”. Some of the jokes/situations revolving around the female characters border on the misogynistic and at the very least are clearly infantile/immature. And yet… and yet…
The series contains many tropes that the narrative returns to again and again as Ikki becomes more and more competent with his Air Treks and goes up against harder and harder opponents. Oh!Great’s art work in this series is impeccable and a visual feast, with amazing double page spreads that leave you breathless in their complex panel arrangements.
I’m a big fan of the side characters in the series as well, most of whom are pretty well thought out and developed. The overall story of Air Gear is a bit hard to follow and seems to become more convoluted as the series progresses. There’s also a ton of Japanese pop culture references that may take some getting used to if you’re not familiar with them (like me). Also if you’re easily offended by juvenile humor, potty jokes, and nudity this might not be the series for you. It’s definitely shonen manga and I have to say it’s caught the fancy of the sixteen year old boy in me!
Far from perfect, and apparently losing favor with some of its fans in the last couple years due to the complete convolution of the story and the introduction of a million new characters, I find this series to be inspirational visually and conceptually. I admire what it aspires to be as a whole, even if the parts are sometimes less than whatever it is we demand of such entertainment. Oh!Great is one of my favorite artists of all time (no joke) for his stunning technical ability as a cartoonist and his hip graphic design sensibilities overall.
Is it a guilty pleasure that I should be ashamed of? Maybe. No more than any romance novel or a bit of trash TV. And really, isn’t that something we all sometimes crave?