Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 356 (1/25) -- AX: Alternative Manga, Vol. One edited by Sean Michael Wilson

Someone else's avant-garde is a difficult thing to evaluate: without a close knowledge of their state-of-the-art, who can say even what direction the radical fringe is setting out in, let alone how successful they are? For that matter, it's not even certain that an outsider will be able to realize what makes a story avant-garde to begin with -- one could easily be left wondering what the point of the whole thing was.

So I'm treading lightly around AX: Alternative Manga, Vol. One, the first American collection of manga stories translated from the Japanese alternative manga anthology of the same name. (If I had to explain AX into North American terms, I suppose it's something like Mome -- though with a very different role in a very different market.) This fat book has thirty-three stories by thirty-three creators, all of them originally published in AX in Japan between 1998 and now. (Though, unfortunately, the book doesn't say exactly when any of these stories were first published -- there are decent capsule creator bios at the end to put each person in a larger artistic context, but nothing to specifically slot these stories into a coherent sequence.)

Some of the stories here are clearly "alternative" -- about sex and violence and bodily functions, transgressive in one way or another -- while others are small, carefully-formed stories about people, like literary
short stories the world over. But there's also a retelling of Aesop's "the Tortoise and the Hare," and a few other seemingly inoffensive stories -- for a change? or are they equally striking against the standard manga industry in some way that isn't clear to me? A really good review of AX would run through those stories one by one, but that's more strength or time than I have on day 356. What I can say is that the variety here is amazing -- particularly for a reader who has a narrow view of manga as "bug-eyed girls swooning over boys with long hair" or "go-getter ninjas battling for three hundred pages at a time," AX will show that Japan is a country with a huge ecosystem of comics, with room for vastly different kinds of expression.

I found a lot of the work here puerile for the sake of being puerile -- crude and nasty rather than interesting and thoughtful -- but these aren't the comics of my country, and they're not my taboos being flouted. Even so, there's a lot to impress in AX, from Yoshihiro Tatsumi's creepy "Love's Bride" near the beginning of the book to the equally creepy (and gorgeously drawn) closer, "Six Paths of Wealth" by Kazuichi Hanawa. When it comes to alternative comics, Japan -- or the creators of this anthology, at least -- are in a place something like the underground comics creators of the late '60s, in love with flourishing of their own talent and with their freedom to write and draw whatever they want. AX is an indispensable book for anyone interested in what else is going on in Japanese comics -- though I can still hope that the editors have a deeper well to draw from for future volumes than just shock and surprise.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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