Top Shelf Productions
Sean Michael Wilson (Editor)
The task of reviewing AX feels somewhat heavier than a normal manga review. As well as weighing in at an impressive 400 pages and sporting a £22.50 price point, this anthology has garnered a large amount of attention both before and since its release. As I wanted to go into it fresh I have been closing my ears to all talk surrounding it while hunting down a copy, and finding one in London's Forbidden Planet store was something of a relief.
AX (volume one) is a collection of selected one-off stories originally published during the past ten years of the Japanese alternative manga anthology AX - a smorgasbord (always wanted to use that word) of different authors, topics, art styles, and structures all attempting to explore the limits of what can be expressed in the manga format. All of the individual stories keep to around a normal chapter's length and the anthology uses its 10 years of backlog content well in providing a wide range of material free of any unifying theme.
All of the above paragraph and more is outlined to you in this volume's bombastic two page introduction, which was written with an almost exasperating amount of flowery language that verged on hyperbole. While instructive as to the motive behind the anthology, it left me feeling rather cynical due to the extreme tone used when talking about how important the collection is - I was doubtful that the book could be as ground-breaking as the introduction insisted and wondered if it would be borne out in the actual content. It almost sounded somewhat like the blustering someone will exhibit when wracked with the pangs of buyers remorse.
Things get off to a horrendous start with what for me must be the worst story out of the entire anthology, "The Watcher" - an ugly, nigh-pointless piece that caused me to worry for the book as the whole due to its lack of direction. It felt flippant, as if it was made for the sheer sake of being made and labelled as "alternative" simply because it was not clearly defined by normal conventions. A few of the stories in the anthology fell into this same trap, leaving me feeling dissatisfied as they lacked any element of sincerity in their design or presentation. I would not call myself a master critic, but I personally believe that a creator should be earnest in their creation, and this thought put into the work is important to separate a mere thing from art. This intent on part of the author often shines through, and is what provokes thought in readers and generates both internal and interpersonal discussion, something I would especially want to see from an anthology that bills itself as alternative or mould-breaking. I don't think it is too much to ask for the stories in this anthology to spark something in the reader.
Thankfully, the majority of the book does just that, though the degree to which it succeeds varies greatly from story to story and will no doubt differ dependant on the reader. The most successful chapters, of which I have a personal handful, have stayed with me since reading the book and have prompted me to return directly to them and ponder them further. These stories, such as “Push-Pin Woman”, “A Broken Soul” and “Rooftop Elegy” (to name a few) seize upon a key idea and twist it around just enough to tweak your mind and leave a lasting impression. Things such as the pain experienced during a break-up and the history of a South American Motorcycle manufacturer are shown alongside the more fantastical offerings such as what to do should your soul suddenly cease functioning, each story setting itself apart from anything that could be considered as traditional for manga in its execution and subject matter. In this regard, the anthology can be considered a success as these stories have stayed with me long after I have put the book down. I have the volume in front of me on my desk as I write this, and I find myself idly flipping to my favorite stories to see them again. After I finish this review, I’ll probably read these stories once more to pick them apart and chew them over further.
A lot of the stories have very stark art styles, and this is heightened by the abrupt change from story to story where often two vastly different styles will be shown back-to-back across a two-page spread. The individual styles are always striking and while quite a few of them could be considered just plain ugly, this swift switching helps keep you interested and engaged with the anthology as your mind absorbs each new art style as it comes. Almost all of the individual styles could be used as the perfect counterpoint to anyone who points at a copy of Shounen Jump and utters the semi-immortal judgement: "All manga is just big eyes and small mouths!"
The anthology itself is a solidly made product with a seamless presentation and translation that aids reading and keeps your mind on the content itself rather than how it is delivered. The one annoyance I experienced while reading is that some chapters in the anthology use non-standard fonts - while this is not a bad thing in itself the choice of replacement fonts does not feel as comfortable to read, particularly in long stretches and during the more typographically adventurous stories.
While I feel like this is somewhat of a cop out, I have to say that this is a highly subjective collection and the best buying advice I can give is to ask if the volume’s premise is something you are honestly interested in. If you already want to read alternative manga, then this is made for you hands down. If not, then it honestly is not for you, especially with its price point and the variable quality of offerings within. If I were more cynical, I would say that AX seems to be almost tailor-made for manga bloggers and reviewers, something to provide them with a new take on what they love so much.
This book is not going to grab or convert the average person, but might work wonders on someone who likes western graphic novels but has not yet made the leap to manga. At doing what it sets out to do, AX does it well. It contains a genuinely wide selection of material, ensuring in that process that no one person will like all of the the things on offer within the volume, but if you want to see the limits of manga in storytelling and presentation pushed, then it is well worth taking a look at.