‘AX Vol. One: A Collection of Alternative Manga’ Is Full of Weird, Puzzling Beauty

“MANGA should be independent, MANGA should be open, MANGA should be experimental.”

Represented by artists like Robert Crumb, North American underground comix peaked in the late-’60s and early-’70s. Several years earlier, a similarly revolutionary artistic movement took place in Japan, with the inception of a magazine named Garo.

“Japan’s manga industry is without question the world’s most enormous and diverse, yet it remains plagued by the same disease that affects commercial entertainment everywhere: a tendency to shallowness and imitations,” writes Frederik L. Schodt in Dreamland Japan. “But only one magazine–Garo–has consistently been dedicated to the fostering of creativity.”

Created in 1964 by “will-o’-the-wisp yet tough-as-nails” Katsuichi Nagai, Garo fostered manga that was decidedly far from mainstream. After Nagai passed away in 1996, the key members of Garo’s staff and contributors created a new publishing company, and started a new magazine, which debuted in 1998.

“Respecting his spirit… they named it AX, because even a small axe can cut down a big tree,” writes Paul Gravett in Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics. “Nagai would have approved of their manifesto, as printed on the cover of every issue: ‘MANGA should be independent, MANGA should be open, MANGA should be experimental.’”

Under its original title, MANGA’s Devil AX, the magazine presented manga “liberated from stylistic standardisation, assembly-line weekly production, armies of assistants, commercial compromises, editorial directives, and the fickle tastes of popularity polls,” as Gravett writes.

Now, English publisher Top Shelf Productions and editor Sean Michael Wilson have put together AX Volume One, which attempts to collect a representative selection of works from a magazine that has been publishing roughly 300 pages every two months for more than a decade. It’s a daunting task, as Gravett asks in his introduction to the anthology: “How representative can 400 pages be of some 18,000-plus pages of dizzingly diverse manga?”

Over 33 stories, we get what Gravett describes accurately as “searing psychodramas, Lovecraftian monstrosities, motorcycle diaries, Aesop’s fables re-mixed, demented graffiti, erotic grotesqueries, philosophical absurdities, symbolist tenderness, the ‘wobble wobble’ of an elderly, unsteady boxer or mewling dog-babies.”

Of the manga-ka here, Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Imiri Sakabashira might be most familiar to western audiences, through English translations of their work published recently by Drawn and Quarterly. These include Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life, Black Blizzard and several collections of his classic gekiga (‘anti-manga manga’), and Sakabahira’s The Box Man.

In Ax, Tatsumi’s story, “Lover’s Bride”, involves a troubled man developing romantic feelings towards a monkey, and it’s telling that this might be the most traditionally told story in the collection. By contrast, Sakabashira’s contribution, “Conch of the Sky,” presents a series of nightmarish scenes and images (including bodily invasion by squid tentacles and a train) that will feel familiar to readers of The Box Man.

Delving deeper into the anthology, an unsettling frequency of scatological and gross-out sexual imagery becomes apparent, alongside child-like tales (notably, a Looney Tunes-esque retelling of the hare and the tortoise) and melancholic slices of life. The mesmerizingly repulsive quality of some of the images here bring to mind the “meta-pleasure” of underground/alternative comics, as described by Douglas Wolk in Reading Comics:

“When you look at an image and find it beautiful to the eye (rather than intellectually “beautiful”), you automatically imagine that everyone else will note its beauty too; it gives you a sense of kinship with everyone else who might see it. To look at an image you know is viscerally repulsive and find in it something pleasing, on the other hand, is alienating: you have the sense that your experience is different from most people’s and that that difference sets you apart from them. And the meta-pleasure of enjoying experiences that would repel most people is, effectively, the experience of being a bohemian or counterculturalist.”

That “alienating” quality runs strongly throughout this anthology, and at times it’s nearly impossible to determine how to simply approach the stories and images, much less figure out what’s happening or what the intended effect could be.

In Saito Yunosuke’s “Arizona Sizzler”, a young woman runs through a strange desert landscape overshadowed by a naked giant (mostly his dangling genitals). Takashi Nemoto’s “Black Sushi Party Piece” features various characters (and also a blanket) covered in penises, and one character whose entire head seems to be a woman giving birth. Then we get charming stories like Akino Kondo’s “The Rainy Day Blouse and The First Umbrella”, which emphasize quiet, small and delicate qualities.

The visual styles are even weirder and more varied than the plots and themes. For example, Katsuo Kawai’s “Push Pin Woman” is sparse and simple, using a medium-sized line throughout, few details and a generous use of white space. Conversely, Takato Yamato’s “Into Darkness” is so lush and finely detailed with swirling, flowery designs meshing with insectoid squishiness and erotic figures, it’s hard to believe they came from the same magazine.

“There’s a spectrum here spanning minimalist scrawling to maximalist overload, from an unpolished urgency akin to Outsider art, its awkwardness and skewed anatomy only reinforcing its potency, to charming, precise observation and full-blown, luscious extravagance,” writes Gravett in his introduction.

This is not an anthology to rush through. Each story is so strange and unique, beautiful in its own weird and puzzling way, that it seems best to read one story, then pause, read the short biography of the writer, maybe take a walk.

As Gravett suggests, “Engage and explore and see what questions each artist confronts you with, what kinds of feeling, mood, imagery, narration, are being evoked here, what register the author is working in, being funny haha or funny peculiar, maybe a bit of both, or definitely not funny in the slightest.”

In short, the book is a head trip of the best kind.

RATING 8 / 10