Wednesday, 8 September 2010

5 Reasons to Read AX Alternative Manga (Top Shelf, 2010)

Sean Michael Wilson (Editor) | 16.5 x 21.6cm, black & white | $29.95 | Out Now

A world away from countless high-concept, low-intelligence titles that litter your local comic shop's manga section, AX Alternative Manga is the latest of several very welcome efforts from a variety of publishers to showcase the wealth of Japanese comics that exists below the mainstream. A descendent of the seminal Garo, AX magazine has been regularly collecting inspired comics outside of the mainstream for approximately a decade, and it's a real treat to finally get hold of some of them in English.

Compiled by AX editor Mitsuhiro Asakawa and edited by Sean Michael Wilson, it's an appropriately imperfect introduction to alternative manga/ gekiga. Rather than simply laying down a few quality, easily-marketable stories, the team behind the book have plunged their hands deep into a barrel of comics, pulling out huge fistfuls of content for readers. Offering a privileged peek into the seedy underbelly of Japan’s diverse comic culture, it wasn’t hard to come up with five reasons why you should absolutely check the book out.

"Grandfather of gekiga", Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s perfectly-constructed vignette, "Love's Bride", about a loser who turns to bestiality following a disastrous attempt at romance. Brilliant in its creation of a simultaneous sympathy and gut-churning disgust for the protagonist

Reason One: It’s a great introduction to alternative comic styles in Japan.

I’m no expert in alternative manga or gekiga by any stretch of the imagination, and so the chance to read such a varied collection of material in one volume was very welcome. Weighing in at an impressive 400 pages, it’s definitely the biggest anthology featuring this type of material that I know of, and is as much a necessary crash course in its subject as it is a slap in the face to show you exactly how much you've been missing so far.

In his introduction to the collection, Paul Gravett, author of the excellent Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics, offers the following warning to the reader: “Approach with caution! There’s a growling, spotty dog prowling amongst these pages, and he’s called Manga. It’s the perfect name for a sharp-toothed, mixed-breed mongrel, one who cocks a leg to piss on a snoring man lying in the street with a knife jammed into the top of his skull.”. Pungent, violent and just a little baffling, Gravett’s chosen metaphor (borrowed from the first story of the collection, Osamu Kanno’s The Watcher) perfectly encapsulates the complex mix of elements found within the book, setting the stage for the thirty three memorable short-form comics that follow. 

Ayuko Akiyama's spellbinding "Inside The Gourd" is just one of many strips fascinated by the transformative aspect of nature. Whereas other comics in the collection feature horrific, nightmarish visions of nature transgressing against humans, here a young man discovers that all is not as it seems as he checks on the caterpillar he left to pupate in his gourd.

Reason Two: Plenty of choice.

With styles varying from hyper-ornate to sketchy minimalism, and content ranging from poignant reminiscence of childhood to naked giants attempting to defecate on schoolgirls, the collection illustrates the breadth and scope of AX’s editorial concern, if nothing else. At times disjointed, the reader is given little room to breathe as the book moves from one berserk story to the next, and it’s clear that this collection is intended to be less an exercise in anthology curatorship and more about showcasing the potential of the comic form itself.  This decision to challenge readers by providing a large cross-section of material was a brave choice, running the risk of turning away casual potential readers for the reward of converting a more select group of new fans.

Reason Three: It’s not for everyone.

One opinion that seems to unite the majority of reviewers so far is that AX is not a book with widespread appeal. That’s no bad thing though. Because you’re more likely to respect his word than mine, Gary Panter’s quote on the back cover of earlier anthology Comics Underground Japan: A Manga Anthology, says it all: “Japanese comics are so refreshing; like dripping flowers in the rain they show many faces; they don’t all try to be roses”. Whilst the majority of AX’s comics ain’t roses, there’s certainly a few cactuses and venus fly traps ready to poke you in the eye (in the best way, of course).

Much like the sirens that Ulysses faced in The Odyssey, the challenge of AX’s content demands that the readers tie themselves to manga’s mast and courageously seize the opportunity to experience its song. Whilst valiant sailors of sequential art will find that the melody might be a little off at times (with little if any harmony at all) there are some genuinely brilliant pieces within, that make the collection more than a sum of its parts. With such a variety of weird and wonderful stories, the knowledge that it will not appeal to everyone is exactly why people should read it. Be brave!

Initially resilient to the subject matter of Katsuo Kawai's "Push Pin Woman", it's one of the rare cases where using poetic analogy to describe the process of breaking up and moving on works without being maudlin. Comprised of thin black lines and sparse white spaces, the visuals compliment and enhance the effective simplicity of the piece.

Reason Four: Unbridled Nudity. 

Everybody knows that boobies are the universal semiotic symbol of alternative comics, and nudity to AX is as gills are to fish; ever-present and wobbly. As any pre-consumer internet child transitioning from TV anime to film and manga would excitedly tell you, there’s never been any shortage of the naked form in Japanese comics, but AX thrusts breasts, penises, vaginas, anuses and everything else at you like an especially belligerent nudist amidst a heated BBQ argument. 

Opening with inexplicable nude dancing to the soundtrack of the aforementioned snoring knife-headed man, and closing with a young woman’s bizarre quasi-religious seduction of a divine/alien creature, nudity here is alluring, repulsive, pure and impure all at once. Some of it has psychological purpose, some seems exclusively for transgression’s sake, and some has just been included (as fans of Superbad might tell you) because drawing a giant penis is never not funny. Who can argue with that?

Potentially my favourite story in the collection, Toranusuke Shimada’s "Enrique Kobayashi's Eldorado" is a subtly comic forgotten history of a fabled 1940s South American motorbike. Featuring a post-WW2 conspiracy, wild-eyed Conquistadors and just the right amount of seriousness, it's one of the more low-key comics in the book, and all the better for it.

Reason Five: It challenges mainstream preconceptions of what manga can be.

One of the big problems with Japanese comic marketing in the English-speaking market is that "manga" is inherently defined as alien by description. Hardly anyone would describe a Franco-Belgian graphic novel as being a bande dessinée, as if the term alone implied a particular and essential difference in its content, so why treat Japanese comics any differently? The unfortunate tendency with manga is to confuse the stylistic conventions of mainstream Japanese comic content with the form itself. Remember that time you tried telling your friend about a comic book, only to hear them express disbelief that people publish funnybooks that don’t feature spandex, Archie or Rob Liefeld? Exactly.

Whilst not every comic in the anthology knocks the ball out of the park, every single one is different and almost all of them play with the established conventions of Japanese comics, both in form and narrative. You may not enjoy every single entry, but I'd be surprised if you didn't manage to find a couple of personal diamonds in the rough. Ultimately, almost every strip has the potential to polarise readers, and, to me, that's a very worthy reason to check it out.

With the market absolutely flooded with vapid, interchangeable manga titles, AX is a part of a very welcome wider movement to redefine the English-language market’s idea of Japanese comics. If you know someone out there hopelessly addicted to the hypnotic attractions of Bleach or One Piece, for heaven’s sake get them a copy of this book. They’ll thank you later. I sure would.


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