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Review – AX: Alternative Manga (vol. 1)

17 November 2010 One Comment

Westerners talking about manga tend to think of only the most well-known titles: Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, Death Note, and the like. English-speaking audiences are limited to only translated works, so publishers like Tokyopop have almost limitless control over what manga is read outside of Japan. Unbeknownst to us, then, a rich underground comics culture has grown in Japan over the past few decades, a culture that is as diverse in its style as any time in Western comics. With this new volume, work by some of the greatest comics creators in Japan has been translated into English for the first time.
It is that diversity which is at first so daunting about Sean Michael Wilson’s selection from AX’s history. There’s nothing to tie these thirty-three short stories together. What will especially surprise some manga fans, used to a fairly consistent “in-house” style of artistry (the infamous anime eyes, as big and deep as Olympic pools and often filled with as much water), is the breadth of artistic styles present in the collection. In fact, eagle-eyed readers may recognize possible influences from American underground comics icons like Mike Allred or Bob Burden. (Shinya Komatsu’s “Mushroom Garden” even resembles a old-timey European children’s book.)
These styles are reproduced in Wilson’s collection to an impressive degree. With every translation project, there is a risk of losing the intention and atmosphere of the original work. This is compounded when going from Japanese to English; the process of Romanizing kanji often leaves no trace of what existed before. Top Shelf has paid careful attention to the original texts and their appearances, going so far as to tailor each story’s typeface to suit the mood.
But all this is of secondary importance to the stories themselves, which are mostly incredible. It’s true that very few readers will enjoy all thirty-three, as the genres run the gamut from children’s fables (Mitsuhiko Yoshida’s retelling of “The Tortoise and the Hare”) to artistic meta-commentary (Shigehiro Okada’s “Me”) and pure surrealism (Imiri Sakabashira’s bizarre “Conch of the Sky,” among others). But by the same token, there is something here for every comics fan to enjoy. One of my favorites, “Inside the Gourd” by Ayuko Akiyama, is a dreamlike tale of a disinterested Japanese boy who becomes fascinated by a caterpillar’s curious transformation. Like many other AX stories, Akiyama’s art is spare black-and-white line art with marvelous attention to detail, and his script is quiet and understated.
As difficult as it is to define the complete volume, AX is, by and large, a treat to read. I’ve found new writers to be obsessed with, new artists to envy, and an entire world of comics that I, like many other manga fans, previously had no access to. I might have been put off by some of the more schizophrenic offerings, but pound for pound, AX volume 1 is something that should adorn the bookshelf of any indie comics aficionado.

AX: Alternative Manga (Vol. 1)
Sean Michael Wilson (ed.)
400 pages
Top Shelf Productions

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