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San Diego Comic-Con 2010
Manga for Grown-Ups: Gekiga, Garo, Ax, and the Alternative Manga Revolution

by Carlo Santos,

Believe it or not, manga history is more complex than just a straight line from Tezuka to Dragon Ball to Naruto. Among the many styles of Japanese comics is the field of gekiga ("dramatic pictures"), epitomized by the recently-released anthology Ax from Top Shelf Publishing. Sean Michael Wilson, editor for the English translation of Ax, teamed up with manga scholar Ryan Holmberg and Top Shelf marketing coordinator Leigh Walton to discuss the meaning of gekiga and the state of alternative manga today.

Wilson began the panel by outlining the origins of gekiga. Although the term was coined by the legendary Yoshihiro Tatsumi in 1958 (and first used to describe Tatsumi's "The Ghost Taxi"), the style itself had already begun to evolve a few years prior. Tatsumi's first published work, Children's Island, arrived in 1954, and 1956 saw the launch of Kage ("Shadow") magazine—a collection of dramatic stories that were several shades darker than the usual style of the more well-known Osamu Tezuka.

In fact, Tezuka himself served as a foundation for the birth of gekiga, as his stories inspired Tatsumi and his contemporaries to push the limits—it was Tezuka who got the cinematic style down, but Tatsumi who wanted to explore more mature territory. Wilson showed several slides to illustrate the differences in how gekiga took a different route from mainstream manga in the 50's, eschewing loose, gag-type visuals for a more subdued style.

Wilson also brought up the names of other gekiga pioneers from the same era as Tatsumi, including Masahiko Matsumoto and Yoshiharu Tsuge. Together, these manga-ka and others worked as both rivals and friends, bouncing ideas off each other that would lead to new steps in gekiga. Tsuge, for example, added an element of the surreal to the dramatic themes of gekiga, typified by his 1968 work Neji-Shiki ("Screw-Style").

It was at this point that Wilson announced the acquisition of Matsumoto's Cigarette Girl, due to be released by Top Shelf in 2011. Among other notable Matsumoto works is the autobiographical Gekiga Freaks, which Top Shelf is hoping to license (although nothing is confirmed yet) as a complement to Tatsumi's own autobiographical manga A Drifting Life.

For those seeking to discover other names in gekiga, there are also anthology magazines, the most famous one being Garo which began serialization in 1964. The tone of Garo's material changed significantly in its early years; Holmberg mentioned during the panel that the magazine started out being targeted at children and intended to teach them leftist political principles. Up until the 70's, Garo's content spoke out against issues such as Japanese militarism and the Vietnam War; it was only later that the magazine changed its approach to edgy, avant-garde stories aimed at a college-age audience.

So great is Garo's influence that Ax, which was launched in 1998, was basically created by a staff consisting of former Garo employees. This is why Ax continues to be the definitive voice of alternative manga today—a voice that comes in many timbres. In Ax one finds not only traditional Tatsumi-style gekiga (often tackling themes of working-class plight), but also more surreal efforts, and even "heta-uma" ("bad-skillful") works that purposely use an "ugly" art style to communicate an artistic message. Various excerpts from Ax were shown to the audience to illustrate this wide range of material. Interestingly, the Japanese edition of Ax even contains translations of American underground comics, showing that the cultural exchange works both ways.

Ironically, much of the general Japanese population today has forgotten the word "gekiga," or if they do know it, it carries a twisted connotation of extremely manly, melodramatic manga from the 60's and 70's like Golgo 13. Even Tatsumi himself published an academic work in 1968 called Gekiga College, because he felt that the genre was slipping away from its roots and he wanted to reclaim the meaning of the word. Thanks to recent 21st-century efforts to bring Tatsumi's work to an English-speaking audience, it seems that he is getting his wish at last.

And as for the origins of Ax's short, nondescript name? Wilson explained in an anecdote that this was taken from a line in the Bob Marley song "Small Ax": "If you are a big big tree, we are a small ax," a metaphor for taking down the mainstream, commercialized side of the industry. With new gekiga material finally making its way to an international audience, it looks like that small ax is becoming more powerful with each swing.

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