There are reasons I left alternative comics for superheroes and there are reasons I keep going back. They each have their wonder and joy; they each have their irritating and sadly heartbreaking points. Nothing’s perfect, not Superman, not Jimmy Corrigan. But there is a way to find comics that you love and avoid ones that make you disike comics: collections. I’ve gone alternative again, even for just a while, with Top Shelf’s AX: Alternative Manga (2010), compiled by AX Magazine editor Matsushiro Asakawa and edited by Sean Michael Wilson.
AX is a fine collection of alternative manga with insect horror, insect romance, hitmen, existential gag strips, dark erotica, suburban kink, gentle beauty, surrealism and whimsical but edged children’s stories. And though Drawn & Quarterly has been publishing a lot of alternative manga and gekiga lately, I’m not surprised that Top Shelf is publishing AX. After all, Top Shelf has the best samplers. I have a copy of their Seasonal Sampler 2007 and it is amazing—even more amazing that they gave it away at stores.
This collection isn’t free, but it’s nicely edited and made, presenting the diverse manga and mangaka published by AX Magazine. AX is the descendant of Garo, a Japanese alternative manga magazine founded in 1964 by Katsuichi Nagai. AX represents a lot of history, more than I know or could ever know, so make sure to read the introduction and biographies. They are at least a way to begin learning more about Japanese alternative manga and finding more of what you like. AX is printed in a Japanese format, so all the panels and pictures are in their original orientation. The lettering isn’t fantastic, but it isn’t distracting and for the price, that’s great. Manga, manhua and webcomics have helped me realize that I have taken good lettering for granted and I apologize to all letterers past, present and future.
Some of the stories in AX annoy me in exactly the same way that certain European and North American alternative comics annoy me. I won’t bother saying which ones because the point isn’t what I like or don’t. The point is that AX is a burly enough book that if you don’t like one story you can flip to another and there are many, many more. The point of a collection is diversity, the opportunity of finding something new, and Asakawa and Wilson have done an amazing job of including a wide variety of stories and creators. So you can read AX to get a little overview of alternative manga, catch a
glimpse of a favorite mangaka (who maybe hasn’t been published in English) or to find something new. Manga fans could also use AX‘s artistic respectability and mighty size to put an end to arguments that manga are all the same. (Yes, AX is brawny enough to be
a respectable bludgeon).
AX includes some creators who have recently had longer works released in English. Yoshihiro Tatsumi has his own Drawn & Quarterly series designed by Adrian Tomine. Drawn & Quarterly also realeased Imiri Sakabashira’s The Box Man (2009). Last Gasp published Yusaku Hanakuma‘s Tokyo Zombie (2008), featuring his character, Afro / Fumio, who also appears in AX‘s “Puppy Love.” I was happy to see all three, but I was most pleased by the number of female mangaka collected.
AX features seven women: Ayuko Akiyama, Seiko Erisawa, Namie Fujieda, Akino Kondo, Mimiyo Tomozawa and Yuka Goto. Nishioka Brosis is a
brother and sister team. And yes, seven out of thirty-three seems pretty good to me, especially with their range of style and interest—from Fujieda’s parody of manga with inspiring teachers to Goto’s heta uma* depiction of a violent feud between neighbors. In fact, Goto’s “The Neighbor” and Nishioka Brosis’ “A Broken Soul” remind me of Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly’s 1980s American alternative comics magazine, Raw. The portrayal of extraordinary events as ordinary—a broken soul, for example—abstraction in style and layout,surrealism, scratchiness, an emphasis on the form itself, an appreciation of naive art and drawing for the joy of drawing all remind me of Raw. In fact, AX overall has some of the same concerns—revealing society’s corruption, secret cruelty and kinks. The concerns of bohemian artists everywhere.
It’s true that the point still isn’t what I like or don’t like, but what the hell: I love Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s confident lines, Yusaku Hanakuma’s characters, Yuka Goto’s revenge, Ayuki Akiyama’s butterfly girl, Toranusuke Shimada’s clever “Enrique Kobayashi’s El Dorado,” Kotobuki Shiriagari’s otherworldly gags and traditional brushwork and Akino Kondo’s graceful perfection (and elegant cover illustration). I respect Kazuichi Hanawa’s terrifying ant-woman. But my favorite story in the collection is Shigeyuki Fukumitsu’s “The Song of Mr. H.,” about a salaryman, Mr. Hirayama, who overcomes divorce and disrespect to become a boxer, with a combover and highly reflective glasses.
At least, it’s my favorite story right now. This collection is big enough that I’m likely to go through many favorites.
*Heta-uma is an aesthetic term and visual style meaning, “bad, but still good” or “skillfully clumsy.”
“There are dark parts in people, but there are always parts that shine, too! Carol Borden will never give up!! She will hold on to her dream!! She’s not gonna die till she has her chance to shine!!”