AX is the premier Japanese magazine for alternative comics. Published bi-monthly for over ten years by publisher Seirinkogeisha, the pages of AX contain the most creative and cutting-edge works of independent comics in the world’s largest comics industry. In 2010 Top Shelf will publish a 400-page collection of stories from ten years of AX history, edited by Sean Michael Wilson with stories compiled by Mitsuhiro Asakawa, featuring work by 33 artists, including Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Akino Kondoh, Kazuichi Hanawa, Shinichi Abe and many more.
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. Manga is a lot like that dog, out there without a collar, without a lead, not fully house-trained, a playful puppy at times but taken to roaming wild, marking its territory wherever it pleases and howling at the moon.
If you’re a reader in the West who has been finding your way into manga via their animated spin-offs on the big and small screens, or perhaps via games or merchandise, then you are probably in for a few surprises in this compendium. Here you’ll discover what happens when this medium is liberated from stylistic standardisation, assembly-line weekly production, armies of assistants, commercial compromises, editorial directives, the fickle tastes and votes of popularity polls. This is manga taken off its leash, sometimes sweet-natured and affectionate, sometimes snarling and fierce, and always unpredictable and curious, in both senses of the word.
It might be hard to imagine, but all of these hugely varied, idiosyncratic stories originally appeared in one magazine, AX, an extraordinary anthology magazine of some 300 pages published every two months. AX has been carving its own small but beautifully formed niche in the gargantuan Japanese comics market for more than a decade. But AX would not exist without the pioneering openness of its progenitor, the magazine Garo founded in 1964. A fair few of the artists showcased here found a vital nurturing home in founder Katsuicihi Nagai’s periodical. Credit needs to go to intelligent, insightful publishers, editors and critics, like Nagai and like AX editor Mitsuhiro Asakawa. Their roles are crucial to the development of comics, because every emerging mangaka or comics author needs to find someone who believes in what they do and can help them hone their personal approach and connect them hopefully to an audience.
Garo faced a crisis after Nagai’s death in 1996 and although it continued, sometimes with breaks, until 2002 and persists online, its key staff walked out on July 7, 1997 and formed a new publishing company, Seirinkogeisha with Noriko Tetsuka as director. Many of Garo‘s emblematic contributors followed them and in February 1998, AX, or Manga’s Devil AX to give it its full original title, was born and, in many ways, Garo was reborn. From its first cover, AX was cutting edge, literally as Shiriagari Kotobuki drew a lone figure, one big eye staring out at the reader, his whole body quivering as he barely manages to brandish a massive axe.
Love’s Bride by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
So how cutting edge, how alternative, how truly underground can comics get in Japan, when they are so ubiquitous, so much a part of everyday life, imprinted on the national psyche, and where among the best-sellers you continue to find truly one-of-a-kind originals in print, from the eternal Osamu Tezuka to modern masters like Naoki Urasawa, Jiro Taniguchi or Taiyo Matsumoto? Well, dip into the treats in this selection box, and you’ll get some tastes of how deep-down underground manga can still go, coming in milk or dark coatings and with soft or hard centres, and ocasionally a mixture of both. As a guide to Japan’s subculture scenes, and not only that of cult manga, AX may not sell more than a few thousand copies, and there are other alternative outlets from the big players to go to, but there is still a need for freedom, for a platform for nonconformist, subversive, even transgressive manga, for new voices or for more established authors to cut loose and try something different.
Japan’s conformity and consensus, its striving for top grades, loyal salarymen, stable families, all the components of the economic miracle which transformed the nation, can take its toll on its citizens and surface in disenchantment, alienation and anger. I couldn’t help thinking of the underlying societal links between much of modern alternative manga, from Yoshihiro Tatsumi starting in the late Fifties through to AX today, and the avant garde in Japanese film. Last Saturday I got the chance to watch Night & Fog In Japan at London’s National Film Theatre, the fourth and final film made by former student radical and rebel director Nagisa Oshima for the Shochiku studio. It was released on October 9th 1960, less than four months after the suppression of student protests against the US-Japan Security Treaty. Tragically, on June 15th, these claimed the life of a young female university student, Michiko Kanba. When on October 12th 1960, the Head of the left-wing Socialist Party, Inajiro Asanuma, died after being was stabbed by an extreme 17-year old rightist, the studio withdrew the film, claiming “No one comes to see it. No one understands it.” Enraged, Oshima quit the studio, protesting “You have succumbed to political oppression.” Underlining the synergies between alternative cinema and manga, Oshima adapted Garo‘s first great serialised epic, Ninja Bugeicho, the 16-volume chronicle of peasant uprisings and ninja warfare by Sanpei Shirato, for the screen in 1967, using off-screen voices and montaging panels from the comic.
Me by Shigehiro Okada
As his biography A Drifting Life disclosed, Tatsumi had been caught up in those same protests. He may not have dealt as explicitly as Oshima with politics, but they have in common their frank, unglamorised, unapologetic dissections of real modern Japanese people, the losers and the lost, plagued by doubt, depression and desire. Theirs were not the soothing messages which those in power wanted the populace to hear to keep them docile. Here in the West, it’s worth remembering that Tatsumi’s gekiga, his “manga that isn’t manga”, were for many, me included, a seminal early exposure to what manga could also be. This was an amazingly different example of the riches of Japanese comics. No multi-volume sagas, none of the tropes familiar from mainstream manga and anime, none of shonen manga’s relentlessly upbeat “Never give up!! Hold on to you dream!!” indoctrination. Tatsumi’s tight, tense short stories did not hide the fact that underneath something was going wrong with the Japanese dream and that same frustration or bottled-up rage permeate much of the darker and crazier pieces in this volume.
Push Pin Woman by Katsuo Kawai
It’s a daunting challenge to whittle down more than ten years and seventy issues to date of AX‘s commitment to unconventional comics into just one admittedly chunky volume. How representative can 400 pages be of some 18,000-plus pages of dizzyingly diverse manga? Actually, it may also prove something of a challenge for novice readers to face such highly contrasting, perhaps jarring approaches to the medium sitting side-by-side. Don’t worry if you feel adrift at times, without your full bearings, as you are washed up onto the shores of each new story, each new strange land. 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, be it funny haha or funny peculiar, maybe a bit of both, or definitely not funny in the slightest.
And frankly, where else but in comics, and especially those from AX, can you come across so many divergent ways of drawing, each as personalised as your handwriting or signature? 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. Equally intriguing are the ways text is used here. One notion of manga is that they are usually a high-speed, highly visual read, like a flip-book, a storyboard, a movie on paper. Certainly prose narration in captions is not that usual, because the narrative unfolds commonly through dialogue and above all pictures. But several storytellers in AX want to use language to its full, and try ways of connecting, contrasting, even contradicting, words with what they show, delving into the gaps this forms.
The hope is that this carefully edited compilation will be only the first in a series of volumes that will enable more of these individuals’ visions, so far little-known abroad, to connect with a much wider global readership. Rest assured, these chosen contributors, and many more of their peers, have major bodies of work, longer stories, whole books, to their name, waiting to hop cross the language barrier. In the meantime, these scrumptious morsels promises you a feast: 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.
Now AX is special to Japan and clearly connected to the country’s long, vigorous traditions of exuberant graphic entertainments, but AX is not entirely unique on the world stage, because almost everywhere you look, in so many countries, comics are coming into their own as never before in this new millennium. Within these covers awaits further proof that we are only beginning to glimpse the wonders of what manga, and indeed comics from all over the world, can do, and what they might still become.Posted: May 30, 2010
This article first appeared as the introduction to AX, published in 2010 by Top Shelf.