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Sean Michael Wilson Introduces Us to AX Alternative Manga

Ax Alternative Manga Sean Michael WilsonThis week, Top Shelf Month continues with an interview with Sean Michael Wilson, editor of AX TPB Vol. 01, a collection of alternative manga that is “Independent, Open and Experimental,” according to the cover. We got the chance to pepper Wilson with questions regarding this unusual collection–check out our conversation below!

TFAW.com: So what is alternative manga?

Sean Michael Wilson: That is as hard to answer as asking what is “alternative comic books.” Basically the same characteristics might be there though, as with alternative comics in the U.S. or UK or France. It delineates something artistic, artist-centric manga, an exploring spirit, less boundaries, less control by editors, etc. The motto of AX is: “Manga should be independent, Manga should be open, Manga should be experimental.” So that’s what our English collection is also!

TFAW.com: How does gekiga manga fit into the overall genre?

SMW: Gekiga is the first attempt at a more mature style of manga. Though we should not say “gekiga manga,” which is like saying “book book” almost. Just “Gekiga” is enough–the original creators of that invented the word to describe a thing in itself, a type of visual storytelling that uses certain techniques and certain themes that might be more interesting to older, mature audiences. Those originators are [Yoshihiro] Tatsumi, [Masahiko] Matsumoto and [Yoshiharu] Tsuge–though many others are involved, that’s the three main ones we are focusing on.

TFAW.com: Can you give us a quick history of AX?

Ax Alternative Manga Sean Michael WilsonSMW: AX and the publisher Serin-Kogeisha developed out of Garo. Most of the staff at AX once worked at Garo. When Garo changed hands in the ’90s and started to take on a more mainstream character, some of the staff disliked the change. It’s contentious as to what happened, involving a lot of gossip and accusations–but the end result was that the people who later formed AX left Garo in 1997.

They soon decided to do something to continue to make more alternative-style manga. So, within six months they had started AX–which first came out in February 1998. Its named after a Bob Marley song, “Small axe,” about cutting down the big Jamaican record companies, as they likewise provide an alternative to the big manga companies.

TFAW.com: What types of things will AX Vol. 1 include?

SMW: Several types of manga are in it: erotic, dreamtype, “I” type stories, heta-uma (intentionally bad/good stuff), offbeat humour, gekiga-influenced, nichijo (everyday stories) etc. As they say, something for everyone!

TFAW.com: Do you have any personal favorites?

SMW: My own favourites in the book include those by [Shin’ichi] Abe, [Akino] Kondo, [Kazuichi] Hanawa and [Takato] Yamamoto, and of course the story by Tatsumi is delightfully odd.

AX Alternative Manga Sean Michael WilsonTFAW.com: How did you become involved in this project? What was your role, as editor?

SMW: I met with Mitsuhiro Asakawa, one of the editors at the Seirin-Kogeisha office in Tokyo. I had to hunt around the back streets of Shinjuku to find the little one-floor office of Seirin-Kogeisha, hidden behind some local shops. After that we normally meet in a cafe in Jimbo-cho, the same one that Tatsumi has being going to since the 1960s. Asakawa and I got on well and established a rapport. We both love the Beatles and The Who and other ’60s rock music! In fact we talk about music as much as manga. So we decided to make a joint effort to bring some AX stuff out in English.

The basic reason was to show more of this alternative, indie-style manga, since it has not been seen much so far. I began by telling people about it in the NYCC in 2008 and got interest right away. From then on I steered the whole process through, working with Asakawa, the interior designer Ian, the translator Spencer and the whole crew at Top Shelf: Chris, Brett, Leigh, Rob and the cover layout designer, Eric. It was a lot of work over 400 pages, but we pulled it off quite well.

TFAW.com: How did you select which pieces would be included?

SMW: It was a mix of a “best of,” with an attempt to be representative of the range in Japanese AX, and also to show mostly self-contained stories this time.

AX Alternative Manga Sean Michael WilsonTFAW.com: How did Top Shelf become a part of this?

SMW: Basically because I respect their work and their positive attitude. It was a book that several companies wanted to do, as it was clearly going to be something special. But my recommendation to Asakawa was that Top Shelf would be good for it. And they have been very supportive.

TFAW.com: What would someone who enjoys books like Naruto or Gunsmith Cats think of AX Vol. 1?

SMW: So far some have reacted like “Eh, what is this, it’s gross!” Others have been “Wow, this is amazing, I’ve never seen manga like this!” The more mature, experienced fans have said that they are very happy to see the book come out and for manga available in English to take this further step forward.

TFAW.com: Since this is titled “Vol. 1,” can we expect additional volumes?

SMW: Yes, if enough of you buy volume one!

AX Alternative Manga Sean Michael WilsonTFAW.com: How has manga evolved over the past 10 years, in your opinion?

SMW: Well, I am not knowledgeable enough to say. One thing I need to make clear is that I am not a manga expert. I am a comic book writer who lives in Japan and works with Japanese artists and Japanese publishers. It’s only this gekiga/alternative style that I have a special knowledge of, and that’s mostly thanks to Asakawa.

TFAW.com: Do you have any idea of what the next 10 years will look like?

SMW: Who knows, manga spaceships finally? But for gekiga, mature-style manga, this is the best time there has ever been. It seems to have finally found its time for greater appreciation, not just with our AX book, but also the Tatsumi’s books with Drawn & Quarterly, and the efforts of Fantagraphics and Last Gasp also. Tatsumi’s book winning two Eisner awards this year [Editor’s note: Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life won “Best Reality-Based Work and Best U.S. Edition of International Material–Asia” this year] is an indication of that wider appreciation, and several people told me that the AX book itself will probably get an Eisner nomination next year. So, if things go well, 10 years from now there should be a large library of mature-style manga available in English, and that will be a great thing.

TFAW.com: What else do you have coming up that you’re excited about?

AX Alternative Manga Sean Michael WilsonSMW: Well, Masahiko Matsumoto’s Cigarette Girl is coming out next year, probably timed for the next San Diego. That will be a big step forward for the understanding of gekiga. Matsumoto was a big influence on Tatsumi, and developed various techniques associated with the gekiga approach. Then, as a writer, I have my first book with Kodansha International coming out in September in Japan, and in January in the U.S./UK. That’s called Hagakure, and is an authentic version in manga format of a key guide to the way of the samurai, written in the the early 18th century. This was written by myself and with art by Japanese artist Chie Kutsuwada.

Chie and I have also done The Story of Lee for the U.S. publisher NBM. That will come out in December–set in Hong Kong is a mix between a cross-cultural romance and a culture/age clash story. That’s an original story by me, with lots of real Hong Kong places in it–I went there and did my research! I also have my version of Oscar Wilde’s A Canterville Ghost coming out in October, from Classical Comics in the UK. So, lots more to come!

We want to thank Sean Michael Wilson for giving us the inside scoop on AX TPB Vol. 01–check it out and save 20% on it and all Top Shelf books this August! Also, make sure to take a peek at our 17-page preview of this amazing collection.

Are you a fan of alternative manga? Post your comments below!

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Written by Elisabeth@TFAW

Elisabeth has been reading comics since we was a wee girl. She's obsessed with John Byrne, Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, and making the perfect scrambled eggs. Follow her on @Twitter to get bonus conversations with her cat!