edited by Sean Michael Wilson
published by Top Shelf Productions; $29.95 US
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.
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.)