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Getting the Ax: Top Shelf's New Manga Translation

Ax is the new manga anthology series from Top Shelf that brings some of the most exciting and diverse works from Japan and translates them for a new American audience. If you’re looking for a good opportunity to sample the manga field and learn about what it can offer, Ax is your chance. We talked to series editor Sean Michael Wilson about Ax and its impact on the art form.

Tell us about Ax and its cultural relevance in Japan. How is the anthology viewed in Japan and what are its contributions to the manga art form at this point?

Even in Japan, Ax is a minority affair.  Serin-Kogeisha is the only alternative manga publisher in Japan, according to Asakawa-san, as others are offshoots of mainstream publishers that do some alternative-style books. Serin-Kogeisha is the only one who does exclusively and specifically alternative/indie style. The most successful Serin-Kogeisha book is Doing Time by Kazuichi Hanawa, which sold around 100,000 copies in Japan. So some very personal-style manga can be financially successfully too. This is available in English from Fanfare/Ponent Mon. But Ax itself only sells about 5,000 copies per issue, which comes out every two months, 300-plus pages each time. That would be pretty good sales figures for a U.S. indie anthology (and a very regular schedule), but it’s much smaller than the sales figures for mainstream anthologies in Japan.

When did you first become familiar with it?

I met with Mitsuhiro Asakawa, the main editor of Ax in Japan, at the Seirin-Kogeisha office in Tokyo. It was an interesting first meeting as that same day I met with Kodansha, who has this massive rocket-type building about 24 floors high or something. Then later that same afternoon, I had to hunt round the back streets of Shinjuku to find the little one-floor office of Seirin-Kogeisha, hidden behind some local shops. Quite a contrast! But soon Asakawa and I got on well and established a rapport. We both love The Beatles and The Who and other ’60s rock music!

What drew you to the series and what do you think makes it special and worthy of translation?

I immediately respected the ethos of Ax: "Manga should be independent, manga should be open, manga should be experimental." The freedom of expression, the personal vision, the quirkiness of the manga, the wide range of styles from everyday life, from erotic to “heta-uma” to very beautiful exquisite designs. I have always been drawn to more alternative/indie-style British and American comic books since I was a kid in Scotland. So, we decided to make a joint effort to get more of this alternative-style manga from Ax out in English. The key reason being because the vast majority of manga in English is the more teenage-style mainstream stuff. There is nothing wrong with that; it’s one valid type. But to have only that is limiting. So we want to show the more mature and literary side too. Drawn and Quarterly are also doing a great job there, as are Last Gasp and most recently Fantagraphics. It’s all good; it’s all going roughly in the same direction.

How did you choose which stories you were going to print in this first edition of the anthology?

It was a mix of a “best of,” with an attempt to be representative of the range in Japanese Ax.

What’s the criteria in the stories you choose to reprint here in the States? Are there certain stories you think just won’t do as well over here?

The only criteria was that we tried to make them mostly self-contained stories for this first volume. There was no criteria in terms of artistic aspects or what we thought would or would not appeal to readers in English (meaning not just the States, but also Canada, the UK, Ireland, etc.). That is up to the individual readers to decide. With 33 very different stories, there are bound to be some you like more than others. It's OK, this is an introduction to a new world.

What are the immediate plans for the Ax series in the U.S.?  Are more editions coming soon? And what frequency do you see the publication schedule being?

We do plan to make it an annual, er, “annual.” Hopefully, we can make each volume within one year now that we are up and running. It depends first on sales figures, public and critical reaction. All have been very good so far. Please keep it up, guys, so that we can have a whole range of Ax volumes in English. It will be a great achievement and a wonderful “box of pleasures” of literary-style manga.

Would there ever be new content in an American Ax anthology?

I don't think so. We have about 18,000 pages of Japanese Ax to chose from!

Will the Ax anthologies be reprinted in other languages or other parts of the world?

Yes, they will. Interested publishers can contact me and I will discuss it with Asakawa. The first other-language edition is agreed already, being the French version to come out in 2011 from publisher Le Lezard Noir. See them here.

Are there any stories in this first edition that you’re particularly proud of or inspired by?

I am proud of them all, mochiron! I guess it’s especially nice to have another Tatsumi story out. My own favorites in the book include those by Abe, Kondo, Hanawa, and Yamamoto.

Do you have any other translations or manga imports that you’re working on that you can tell us about at this point?

Yes, we announced in San Diego about the forthcoming book by Masahiko Matsumoto's Tobacco-ya no Musume, which we decided to call in English Cigarette Girl. This is a collection of short stories originally published in 1974. Matsumoto is one of the key early artist in the alternative gekiga movement. Tatsumi recognized him as a big influence on his own development. He is featured a lot in Tatsumi's biography A Drifting Life in Gekiga. His stories are roughly also in a “big city alienation” type, but with a lightness of touch in both the artwork and the story content. So they sit nicely alongside Tatsumi's stories, but diverge from them also. This is a major step forward to have this other key gekiga artist's work also come out in English. Doko doki!

-- John Hogan