AX: Alternative Manga Vol. 1
Osamu Kanno, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Imiri Sakabashira, Takao Kawasaki, Ayuko Akiyama, Shigehiro Okada, Katsuo Kawai, Nishioka Brosis, Takato Yamamoto, Toranosuke Shimada, Yuka Goto, Mimiyo Tomozawa, Takashi Nemoto, Yusaku Hankuma, Namie Fujieda, Mitsuhiko Yoshida, Kotobuki Shirigari, Shinbo Minami, Shinya Komatsu, Einosuke, Yuichi Kiriyama, Saito Yunosuke, Akino Kondo, Tomohiro Koizumi, Shin’ichi Abe, Seiko Erisawa, Shigeyuki Fukumitsu, Kataoka Toyo, Hideyasu Moto, Keizo Miyanishi, Hiroji Tani, Otoya Mitsuhashi, Kazuichi Hanawa, writers/artists
Sean Michael Wilson, editor
Mitsuhiro Asakawa, compiler
Top Shelf, 2010
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This is a tough one. I mean, as a Whitman’s Sampler of approaches to Japanese comics outside of the Japanese mainstream, this inaugural English-language compilation of comics from the fat, regularly released alternative-manga anthology series AX strikes me as wide-ranging and comprehensive, almost to a fault. In terms of known quantities for American altcomix readers, you’ll find both the straightforwardly drawn irony of gekiga pioneer and a A Drifting Life author Yoshihiro Tatsumi and the over-the-top visual and thematic crudeness of Monster Men Bureiko Lullaby‘s Takashi Nemoto represented here. You’ll see comics that look very much like the lavishly illustrated horror or porn manga you might have come across (Takato Yamamoto, Keizi Miyanishi, Kazuichi Hanawa) and comics that are so far removed from the manga tradition and so similar in bold graphic spirit to the first wave of North American alternative comics that they’d fit in RAW (Nishioka Brosis, Otoya Mitsuhashi). In perhaps the most marked deviation from work from the equivalent time period (turn of the millennium) here in North America, there’s a metric ton of crass taboo-shattering of the sort cartoonists here haven’t been all that interested in as an end in itself since the underground days (Tatsumi, Nemoto, Mitsuhashi, Osamu Kanno, Shigehiro Okada, Kotobuki Shiriagari, Saito Yunasuke, Hiroji Tani), but there are also twee little slice-of-lifers, modern urban fables, and O. Henry/New Yorker litfic that you could easily see populating a Petit Livre from Drawn & Quarterly or an issue of Mome (Takao Kawasaki, Katsuo Kawai, Shinbo Minami, Akino Kando, Shin’ichi Abe, Shigeyuki Fukumitsu).
So your preferred color of the alt/art/lit/indie/indy/underground spectrum is almost surely represented somewhere in these pages, and chances are you’ll find something you’ll consider a minor revelation. In my case, I was really impressed by the murky, inky body-horror dream comic “Conch in the Sky” by Imiri Sakabashira, the title of which gives a pretty solid impression of what you can expect. Brosis’s “A Broken Soul” combined off-kilter 2-D character designs, a wiry thin line, gray textures that looked like an artifact of photcopying, and a sort of whimsical ennui, to remind me favorably of Mark Beyer. And Shinya Komatsu’s “Mushroom Garden” is a real stunner, its bulbous, plush mushrooms evoking an array of psychedelic comics practitioners from Vaughn Bode to Moebius to Brandon Graham. In other words I don’t regret the time spent with the volume at all, and it’s given me several promising roads for further exploration, god and translators willing.
That said, AX Vol. 1 is consistently undercut not just by the heavy hand of many of its contributors, too many of whom rely on shock value or Tatsumiesque hamfisted irony, but by various production shortfalls. First and foremost among those is the translation work by Spencer Fanctutt and Atsuko Saisho, which is the epitome of the translated-manga tendency to emphasize fidelity at the expense of clarity. Here’s a representative passage from Shigehiro Okada’s sex farce “Me”: “However strangely I might dress, if I could really slip my existence, I could become a part of the cityscape like those ruins of decades ago. My instinct would explode if it took form. The light holds death. The darkness holds life. That’s what I’m waiting for. I…I would die for its expression.” If it’s not a sentence you can imagine a native English speaker coming up with, you’ve got to go back to the drawing board!
Meanwhile, while the design and font selection for the jacket, table of contents, and ancillary material (including Paul Gravett’s informative, if slightly overwritten, introduction) are all quite strong, the lettering for the comics themselves is frequently distracting, with inexpressive computer fonts and, often, vast empty spaces in balloons and caption boxes where kanji clearly used to reside. Finally, the decision to list creators first-name-first in the TOC and on each page but last-name-first in the who’s-who at the back of the book is a baffling one.
None of these things are dealbreakers in and of themselves. Heck, I don’t think they’re dealbreakers even when all added up. Like I said, there are a lot of intriguing comics in here, and a few excellent ones, and the cumulative effect is an eye-opening and educational one if you’re a reader with an interest in Japan’s equivalents to the American alternative comics you enjoy but few inroads into them. But in a field that’s increasingly crowded with impeccably conceived, assembled, edited, and packaged anthologies, AX isn’t just competing with scanlators and sporadic English-language apperances in long out-of-print publications, it’s competing with what the Eric Reynoldes and Zack Sotos and Sammy Harkhams and Ivan Brunettis and Ryan Sandses and so-ons of the world are putting together. It’s in that sense that AX could stand to be sharpened. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)