My mother has a decent repertoire of meals she can make and not much beyond that. The problem was that my mom likes to try crazy new dishes in hopes of expanding her menu. On occasion we will get new meals everyone will enjoy but most of the time we get an inedible mess. This is the perfect analogy for the AX anthology. The main appeal of this book is that it is not a book of your standard Shonen Jump style manga. Some of the art has distinctly European and American influences, some of it looks like offbeat seinen and josei, and some of it is just plain ugly. The stories can often be extremely sexual and often throw out the idea of a conventional narrative. They push boundaries and try things no one has tried before for the better and for the worse. While this means when these comics work it can knock your socks off with how original they are it also means most of the time they are a mess.
This unique collection, the first of a presumed series, contains more than 30 very short manga approaching all subjects, genres, and art styles. More than anything AX allows its creators a large amount of freedom and encourages thinking outside the box. Anthologies like this are incredibly important to manga diversity. They showcase experimentation and go far beyond most of the manga one has access to in English. I hope to see collections like this continue to be made if only to further expand manga’s reputation and give people a place to try new things. All that being said, I didn’t like reading this nor did I think many of the stories succeeded.
Lets start with what I did not like. Some of the stories were plain incomprehensible to me. At points I thought I knew what the Watcher was about but as soon as I figured out some sort of theme to the story it switched gears and lost me again. But the comic about the girl who is traveling through the Arizona desert and gets pissed on by a giant never made any sense to me ever. Some of the stories were partially comprehensible but still turned me off. I think that the story about the couple who has a litter of puppies is about the mistreatment of mixed race children in Japan. But just because I understood its message did not mean I liked it. I know that people love the hyper sexual and grotesque manga by Hanawa Kazuichi but it has never been my cup of tea. One of the stories reminded me of Drill Hole in My Brain from Faust which meant I instantly disliked it. All the other stories shared some of the things that I mentioned above in varying degrees. At one point I rushed to do work instead of having to sit thought another chapter of AX which is usually the opposite of how things work. I might make it seem like I did not like anything in the book but I did enjoy several stories. The tortoise and the hare story was very good and had the feel of a western storybook and while the art was very stylized I thoroughly enjoyed the story of the Eldorado motorcycle company. But these stories were few and far between. The fact that I enjoyed 6 out of 33 stories is hardly a winning percentage.
Most of this collection boggled my mind, this may be a plus for some but not for me. Whether it be comedy or drama much of the storytelling left me scratching my head. It could be described as non-linear at best and nonsense at worst. The opening story sets that tone perfect, for good or ill. What I did find most engaging in the book throughout was the variety and energy present in the myriad of different art styles; some a huge departure from what you have come to expect from manga. However, there were stories that I thought utilized their art and told a story with skill that are more than worth checking out. Chief among them was Enrique Koboyashi’s Eldorado (pictured below) which reads like an odd story from history but is complete fiction. I actually had to look up Eldorado motorcycles to make sure it wasn’t true, and in fact the brand is not even real. If you wanted something a little more emotionally poignant I found Push Pin Woman (pictured above) and The First Umbrella (pictured top) lovely, quiet pieces. The comedy in the book eluded me a lot, some of it being down right creepy, but I was very amused by The Hare and the Tortoise as well as the extremely short Up and Over. But that is pretty much it for me on memorable stories. The introduction to the book and the profiles of artists at the end are great resources to the book and really help to give it some context.
You need heretics and radicals to challenge the norm. Established artists can cut loose and experiment occasionally within their pages while letting conventional magazines take what works in alternative magazines. It also gives a space for artists who would never work well in mainstream magazines. That being said there will be many a manga reviewer who will tell you to run out and buy every copy of this book because its mind-blowing stories will grab everyone who give it a chance. They are not telling you the whole story. There is a set of people who love bizarre modern art. This will be the book that will give them exactly the sort of manga they need. The are people who wish to approach manga in a scholarly fashion. AX is a great way to explore the underbelly of the manga world. But I see most people reading this book and enjoying about as many stories as I did. There is a reason these comics are not mainstream. The mainstream reader is hardly remiss in skipping over this book and rather trying something more conventional that is still outside of their normal boundaries.
My opinion on whether or not to check AX Alternative Manga Vol. 1 is rather contradictory to my personal feelings on the book. If you are looking for an expansion to what you think manga is, then by all means check this out. If you like indie, often nonsensical experimental comics, then you will love this book. I think this a worthwhile series that should continue but this isn’t for everyone and as a whole it didn’t cut it for me.