AX: Alternative Manga Volume 1

I am very glad anthology collections like AX: Alternative Manga exist, but I don’t care much for actually reading them. It’s an important book, and it’s a good thing that this kind of material is being translated into English, to give a more diverse portrait of what kind of manga is being created, but the male-centric viewpoint of many of them is off-putting, and I don’t find these stories particularly enjoyable or enlightening.

AX: Alternative Manga cover
AX: Alternative Manga
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That’s probably because I don’t find it shocking or transgressive to draw poop or sex or bodily injury. That seems to be the goal, pushing boundaries and stunning the reader, sometimes with near-incoherent nightmarish imagery. In many ways, these stories are ugly, either in mood or plot or rough art style. The goal of this 400-page book is to present a selection of works from the Japanese alternative comic magazine Ax, which features “the most innovative, experimental, and personal works in contemporary manga”. Top Shelf is a great choice for the publisher, as they put out similar kinds of American comics from indy creators also.

The stories that worked best for me, in order of appearance, were these:

  • “Inside the Gourd” by Ayuko Akiyama — Lovely and thoughtful, this is the kind of adult material I want to see, defined that way by tone, not explicit content. A lonely young man, like those in some of the other stories, finds succor in an unexpected way that suggests hope instead of disgust.
  • “Puppy Love” by Yusaku Hanakuma — Crudely illustrated, but it works out its premise — what if a woman gave birth to dogs? — with humor.
  • “The Hare & The Tortoise” by Mitsuhiko Yoshida — A twist on the traditional fable that’s well-illustrated animal action.
  • “The Rainy Day Blouse” and “The First Umbrella” by Akino Kando — Quiet meditations on a woman in the rain.

That small number is not a particularly great track record, but my obviously, my dislike of the material isn’t shared — Top Shelf has already announced a follow-up volume due next November. And other critics have been more positive over the contents.

Katherine Dacey puts many of the stories in context, as well as pointing out how the “female characters often seem more like receptacles for male anger, sexual aggression, or disappointment than they do actual human beings.” Greg McElhatton praises the book overall, while Dave Ferraro shares his favorite stories. Editor Sean Michael Wilson was interviewed about his goals for this project, and a group of critics on Twitter discussed every story in September. (The publisher provided a review copy.)


  1. For what it’s worth, I share similar thoughts. Like you, I am very glad this collection exists and grateful to Top Shelf for releasing it. At the same time, I couldn’t even get past the first story. “Ugh,” I thought, weighed down by the same ugliness you mention, “Even for the sake of a review, I don’t think I can take stories like this over and over again.” I’m sorry to hear I missed a few gems, though.

  2. This was one time when I was very glad to be a reviewer, since I was able to sample without risk. But I don’t want to bash it too much, since I’m sure there is a substantial audience out there that will appreciate it better than I do.

  3. Thanks for this review – it mirrors many of my thoughts about this book and you worded it well. I really disliked this book personally but still also appreciate its existence for what it aims to offer. There’s obviously an audience for it so good for those who liked it, but I’d love to see some diverse short stories from a variety of artists that don’t rely on such dirty and dark stories that seemed to lack so much polish.

  4. Very good review that reflects my sentiments exactly. It’s unfortunate that pushing boundaries has to involve some really gross imagery. There’s a difference between shock value and a valuable story.

    To me “Red Snow” by Susumu Katsumata delivers what I had hoped to find in AX. It does push boundaries but also recreates a really charming world in long-lost rural Japan. Many of the stories are dark, but the overall feeling is humane and thoughtful. It’s a great pity that Katsumata passed away a few years ago.

  5. Just curious here about somthing. It seems there’s much more tolerance for misogyny in Manga than there is in superhero comics (which isn’t to say I think there should be equal amounts of misogyny, there shouldn’t be any). I’ve seen things reviewed on various manga sites that, to me, amounted to porn yet was championed as being high quality stuff and important in the genre.

    Granted, I hardly ever read any manga at all as I just don’t care much for it and a lot of times, just don’t understand it even though I enjoy reading the reviews of it here. But I’m an old superhero junky and always will be. But the phrase “I’m glad it exists but…” and then going on about it’s offensiveness seems like a strange comment. I don’t think I’d ever hear someone say that “I don’t like the rape of Sue Dibney but I’m glad the story exists because there were other cool bits in it”.

    I’m seriously not trying to be argumentive or twist the statements meaning, just looking for some clarity. I’m sure I just read it wrong here, but on other sites the tolerance for some pretty sick stuff is not ambiguous.

  6. Lissa Says:

    “…It’s unfortunate that pushing boundaries has to involve some really gross imagery…”

    Whether or not it has to depends on which boundaries are being pushed. Pushing the boundary around something like not crapping in public, yes. Pushing the boundary around something like being racist to immigrants, no…

  7. Hsifeng, that was Jaylat, not Lissa.

    Grant, this is probably an easier conversation to have if we talk about specific examples, so I know what you’re thinking of as misogyny and vice versa. Were there particular books you had in mind? Porn isn’t the same thing as sexism, after all, although they can go together.

    To better elaborate on my point that was confusing — I’m glad diverse tales are being brought over, even if I don’t personally care for them. Those that I found misogynist were only a handful, and I’d rather they would have been left behind, yes. Some of the others can be described as “I found some of the shock for its own sake childish”, but that has its purpose too. Does that help? I appreciate knowing when my points aren’t coming across — that’s why I love online discussion, so we can gain further understanding together.

  8. Sorry, Jaylat!

  9. Thanks for the clarification. I get where you’re coming from.

    I honestly couldn’t tell you specific titles as the titles are usually incomprehensible, I’ve just popped on some of these sites through various links and seen samples of things that have gotten positive reviews by that sites reviewers. Stuff that has pretty explicit sex, bdsm and rape (and not even hentai but things with covers that are pretty innocuous). I just don’t know where people are drawing the line between stuff like Lady Death, Grim Fairy Tales or Tarot, which is considered bad and a manga with explicit sex throughout, which is considered okay.

    I’m sure a lot of it has to do with the manga sites and the reviewer and the reviewers taste, although not knowing much about Manga, one site looks pretty much like the rest. Going in cold and reading some of the reviews and then seeing some of the content, one tends to walk away a bit confused. I’m sure I’m just out of touch and too conservative. Think I’ll go read some old Ditko Spider-Man’s. I don’t sound as stupid talking about that. ;)

  10. I suspect you’re integrating your net reading into one big picture where that may not apply. I mean, the person praising a manga that contains rape may not be the same objecting to (or making fun of) Tarot. Also, bear in mind that explicit sex may not be misogynistic if the partners are treated equally. (I have praised some porn comics here before, for example.) It’s how the images/content are portrayed, not just that they exist. It’s an interesting observation you have — and some particular sites may be inconsistent in this way, using the exotic as an excuse for something they wouldn’t tolerate “at home”, I dunno.

  11. […] if you express distaste at stories that pointlessly wallow in poop, for example, the editor of the book you’re evaluating might respond based on your gender instead of your points. (Although apparently he’s thought […]

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