Top Shelf's release of "Ax" can be seen as an assault on two common myths. The first myth is that anthology books don't work. The second myth is that manga is all spiky hair, flowery romances, and ninjas. Within "Ax'''s four hundred pages are over thirty stories that explode everything you might have thought about what manga is. Odds are good that you haven't heard of most of the manga creators involved in this book, and if you're coming into it looking for romance... well, there is romance, sorta, and a whole lot more besides.
'Ax' comes out bi-monthly in Japan, and has served as a showcase for indie creators for over ten years. The four hundred pages of "Ax" bring that showcase to American shores, with a curated line-up of thirty-three creators working in a variety of styles and genres. Like most anthologies, the tone of the book changes from story to story, veering from adorable to obscene to touching to creepy and right back around to adorable.
Yoshihiro Tatsumi is a name that should be at least slightly familiar to American audiences, due mainly to Drawn & Quarterly's publication of "A Drifting Life" and "Black Blizzard." Tatsumi's "Love's Bride" is about love, loss, and finding love in... we'll just call it "unorthodox places." Tatsumi's art style is about as traditional as you'll find in "Ax," with clean line work and cartoony faces. Grasping the story is pretty easy, and though it goes to a weird place, it makes a certain amount of narrative sense. This story is the one most people will likely point to as an entry point into "Ax," as it is closest to the usual stereotypes of manga.
The rest of "Ax," though, tosses you directly into the deep end. Consider it a crash course on Japanese indie comics. With stories ranging from bizarre to attractive to ugly to filled with crude drawings of poop and penises, "Ax" is a pretty impressive cross-section of indie manga. Some of the stories are ephemeral and introspective, feeling more like a dream than a narrative that goes from point to point. Tales like Saito Yunasuke's "Arizona Sizzler" wouldn't be out of place next to Johnny Ryan's 'Prison Pit,' with a frankly impressive grouping of penis jokes. Katsuo Kawai's 'Push Pin Woman' takes a great and deliciously off-kilter setup and run with it, delivering a rocking and emotionally moving story in a few short pages.
Mitsuhiko Yoshida's adaptation of "The Tortoise & The Hare" is exactly what it sounds like--a new version of an old tale. There aren't any shocking surprises or weird moments in it, just some really great drawings of a forest, a turtle, and a rabbit. Directly preceding it is a story where a high school student explodes in a burst of maggots. After "The Tortoise & The Hare" is a story where two naked men debate the validity of their respective gods.
Osamu Kanno's "The Watcher," the story that comes directly before Tatsumi's "Love's Bride," features a snoring man in the middle of the street with a knife in his head. A dog pees on him, a different man records the sound of his voice, and that somehow leads to nude interpretive dancing. The art is crude and the story more than a little absurd. Anatomy comes and goes as the story goes along, and when the story ends, it ends.
Some of the stories traffic in allegory in addition to absurdity. Einosuke's "Home Drama: The Sugiwaras" features a family devouring food while the father tries to ask them questions and connect to his family. They ignore him while slurping down noodles in as gross a manner as I've ever seen. In the end, he smokes a cigarette on the roof of his house and broods.
The variety is what makes "Ax" work. It is an anthology book with a wide variety of stories, all of which challenge the generally accepted idea of what manga is and can be. Each new story is genuinely fresh, and that range of tales is what keeps "Ax"
interesting. Several of these creators have never been published in English before, and if you wanted a primer for the indie side of manga, "Ax" is it. Check out a quick preview on Top Shelf's official site