When one mentions “manga,” to the average passer-by, one is usually met with the question, “what is that?” Mention manga to the average American manga reader, you’ll likely hear mention of such series as Soul Eater or Negima!, or of such high-profile mangaka as Nagai Go or CLAMP. But many of them will likely not know about the sort of underground works that seldom actually make it outside Japan.
This is where AX: Alternative Manga (ISBN 978-1-60309-042-1; $29.95) enters the picture. A 399-page behemoth from Top Shelf Productions, AX is an English-language compilation of alternative manga works taken straight from Japan’s cutting-edge anthology periodical of the same name. Many, if not nearly all, American manga readers will likely not have heard of any of the artists or writers featured in this collection. They would be doing themselves a disservice, however, to not try this collection out; manga is more than just magical girls, large-scale fantasy romps or wacky romantic comedies. Manga can be just as experimental and surreal as American underground comics, and AX has such a selection in spades.
For such a large book, it’s actually a remarkably fast read, due in part to the bite-size stories and in part to the very visual storytelling used. Yes, manga is a visual storytelling medium already, but some of the stories have notably little dialogue or narration and rely quite a lot on the art to carry us through. The ones that do feature any significant amount of text use fairly simple sentences (mostly for the sake of impact) and read almost like illustrated storybooks, if highly unusual ones.
The part that may inspire one or more additonal read-throughs is the fact that so many of the stories in here have very bizarre themes or premises. One story might actually tug a bit at the heartstrings, then the one after it will really mess with your head. Some of them are so strange that, at first, it won’t even be clear what in the world it’s about or what it’s trying to say. Lazier readers may or may not appreciate this sort of thing, but manga fans looking to expand their horizons a bit will find plenty to appreciate here.
One such story, Inside The Gourd, is an unconventional love story involving a working man who cares more about studying insects than finding a wife. Another, Push Pin Woman, is a metaphorical look at the end of a relationship. Then we have The Hare & The Tortoise, a clever and amusing sequel of sorts to the classic children’s story. A more disturbing story, Puppy Love, puts humankind’s prejudices and hypocrisy on full display while giving an account of a couple’s sad journey through parenthood. And there are nearly thirty other stories to go with them, some making about as much sense, and others not seeming to make any.
Because this is an anthology, no two stories are written or drawn by the same person, giving us a wide variety of styles to observe and appreciate. Very little of what is presented will remind anyone of the sort of shonen series they may be accustomed to reading; the artwork is just as different from story to story as it would be from a Marvel comic book to MAD Magazine. Some present characters with the sort of proportions we would expect, and others use such wild, crazed caricatures that, were the stories not so short, it would be easy to understand if someone wound up forgetting they were still reading the same book.
One thing that should be mentioned is the fact that this is definitely not a child-friendly anthology. While one won’t find much objectionable language, one will find more than enough nudity, sexuality, violence and just flat-out disturbing themes to justify keeping this well out of the kids’ reach. These stories don’t pull any punches in any department, and as they are quite experimental in nature, they don’t exactly present their messages in a “now, what did we all learn today?” sort of way.
For the adult manga reader looking to find something more varied and thought-provoking than the works of Akamatsu Ken, however, AX is a fine choice. Author Paul Gravett, who writes the book’s introduction, expresses his hope that this will be only the first of many such anthologies to appear in English, and after having read it cover to cover, that would be my hope as well.