After reading a lot of mostly positive articles about this book, I checked it out from my local library (side note: I love that the Brooklyn Public Library carries this very adult manga!). And unfortunately, I was pretty disappointed.
Ax: Alternative Manga collects a slew of comics from the Japanese alternative comics magazine Ax, in the style of McSweeney's "Best American Comics" series. It consists of a sizable introduction and a collection of short comics, some of which are standalone tales and some of which appear to be excerpts.
While I'm always happy to see unexpected (and adult) manga translated into English, the content in this book was just not that great overall. There are a few titles that I liked, but too many were boring or nonsensical. Takato Yamamoto and Keizo Miyanishi's pieces, for example, were beautifully drawn, but I couldn't even get through them because they didn't follow a narrative and basically read like a stream-of-consciousness thing. I personally prefer my comics to tell some semblance of a story.
One complaint I read numerous times online is that the book as a whole has too much juvenile and gross-out humor, but this is definitely something I disagree with. Out of the 33 pieces, there are only about 3 or 4 that contain anything gross-out. Yes, these particular stories were pretty dumb and seemed like little more than an excuse for the author to draw penises, but they're hardly representative of the entire collection.
The stories that I enjoyed most were the furthest removed from the feel of traditional manga. Katsuo Kawai's simple line drawings more closely resemble the homemade mini comics you'd find in a local independent comic shop, and his brief tale about a woman's boyfriend leaving her for another woman is incredibly clever and elegant.
Toranusuke Shimada's thick black lines and bulbous shapes are positively fun to look at, and his fictional history of Eldorado motorcycles is one of the most engaging tales in the entire book. Kotobuki Shiriagari's "The Twin Adults" shorts are very clever and his drawings of the two little naked men are gently done in the watery brush stroke style of sumi (ink wash) paintings.
My two favorite pieces are by Shinya Komatsu and Akino Kondo (whose work also graces the cover). Komatsu's "Mushroom Garden" is illustrated in a highly detailed and magical Franco-Belgian style (think "TinTin" or "Asterix"), and the story of a mineral collector who switches to mushrooms is short and sweet. Kondo's "The Rainy Day Blouse" looks much more like traditional manga, but with perfectly smooth lines and lots of subtle roundness that gives it just a touch of an art nouveau feel. The simple story of a girl's new blouse and umbrella is also sweet and short with a hint of nostalgia. I will definitely be seeking out more of her work.
Now that I'm writing all this down, it sounds like there's a lot more that I like than dislike. However, that's because beside the stories I like a lot, I feel ambivalent about the rest. I don't like what's left, but I don't hate it (well, most of it) either. This collection is listed as "Volume One" on the cover, so I'm assuming Top Shelf will be publishing more. I look forward to picking up the next one at the library, but I would definitely not buy it, and overall there's just not enough good stuff for me to recommend this first volume.