29 Jun, 2010

Ax: A Collection of Alternative Manga, Vol. 1

By: Connie C.

Various Artists
Top Shelf, 400 pp.
Rating: Mature (18+)

In this 400-page anthology of some of the best Ax (an underground manga magazine) has to offer, you’ll find a sampling of short stories (33 in all) from artists who are both new to the English audience (Shinya Komatsu, Takao Kawasaki, Toranosuke Shimada) and who have appeared in their own volumes or in other underground anthologies in the past (Kazuichi Hanawa, Takashi Nemoto, the legendary Yoshihiro Tatsumi). There’s a little bit for every taste here, and as a look at Japanese underground comics, it’s the best we’ve had in English.

There’s a surprising number of underground manga that have been translated into English, considering how “scarce” they supposedly are in Japan. You can go for the literary short stories of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, the methodical prison accounts of Kazuichi Hanawa, the nigh-unreadable gross-out that is Takeshi Nemoto, or the surrealistic and strangely compelling work of Imiri Sakabashira. And that’s not even counting the collected anthologies that have been published over the years (Sake Jock, Comics Underground Japan, Secret Comics Japan).

Basically, much like manga itself, underground manga isn’t so much a “genre” as it is… well, in this case, the free-form stories that appear in Ax tackle any subject matter in any way they can. You’ll find everything from touching short stories of break-ups and potential butterfly love matches to mildly strange accounts of rooftop assassins/office workers/schizophrenics, to women that give birth to puppies and grieve when they aren’t accepted into society, to a story about long-legged men that find a pubic hair in their sushi. Some stories are better-looking and more coherent than others, but it’s fascinating to browse the myriad styles that come forward when editorial restraints are cut.

This was much longer than I expected, which means that there’s a lot more room to show off different styles. The book does a good job transitioning between stories, so you won’t go directly from melancholy stuff to, say, women who are made out of penises. There’s not many warm and fuzzy stories, though, and I think the first story, “The Watcher” by Osamu Kanno, does a good job of setting the tone for the rest of the book: it opens with a couple finding a man with a knife in his head sleeping on their front step, snoring loud enough to make all the neighbors complain. When the snoring man doesn’t wake up even when a dog pees on him, the couple grows bored and the woman begins dancing naked. The story ends. Without going into too much detail (there are simply too many stories, of too many different types), this is how a lot of the stories feel. A little arbitrary and with a jolting narrative that ultimately ends before anything can happen, and yet at the same time, most are still worth reading.

The artwork is a mixed bag, as it often is in these anthologies. Many of the stories go for a minimalist approach, with abstract anatomies and sparse details. More than a few are drawn purposely bad, in the heta-uma (good-bad) style that is so often discussed in these comics. But there are artists like Kazuichi Hanawa to balance things out, and a handful of stories are downright gorgeous and full of incredible detail. There are also more than a few that are likable for their own unique illustration style (cubist, for instance), neither crude nor fantastic, just highly individualistic, which is another one of the best things about an anthology like this.

Basically, I can’t do this book justice with a single review, since there are so many different stories with different approaches. Some might be put off by the crude stories, but most will undoubtedly find something to like. And the best thing about the abstract storytelling approach is that you can pick the book up and read a story over and over again and never come away with the same thing. It’s by far one of the best manga anthologies we’ve seen in English, and is up there with the best comic anthologies I’ve seen, period.

Volume one of the Ax: A Collection of Alternative Manga will be available on July 15th, 2010.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

3 Responses to "Ax: A Collection of Alternative Manga, Vol. 1"

1 | Ax 1 « Slightly Biased Manga

July 5th, 2010 at 11:03 pm

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[...] This was my final review at Manga Recon, and you can check it out over there. [...]

2 | Letture estive: USA « Fumettologicamente

July 19th, 2010 at 3:12 am

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[...] AX: Alternative Manga, di Tatsumi, Hanakuma, Hanawa, Einosuke e altri [...]

3 | | COMIX.INDIA

November 2nd, 2010 at 1:58 am

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[...] Ax: A Collection of Alternative Manga Vol.1. [...]

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