AX: Alternative Manga
Edited by Sean Michael Wilson and Mitsuhiru Asakawa, Top Shelf, $29.95 paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-60309-042-1
In the introduction, manga and comics expert Paul Gravett calls the stories in AX "manga taken off its leash." And he's largely right. Within the pages of this greatly anticipated manga anthology are some of the most imaginative, lush, grotesque, and ridiculous comics to come out of Japan. There is a vast array of both art and narrative, ranging from the plot-heavy, detailed "Rooftop Elegy," about a salaryman–cum–hit man, to "The Neighbor," an abstract but aggressive and combative look at neighborly love. AX includes gekiga godfather Yoshihiro Tatsumi (A Drifting Life) and heta-uma (bad-good) zombie humorist Yusaku Hanakuma (Tokyo Zombie) as well as the otherworldly storytelling of precision manga craftsman Kazuichi Hanawa (Doing Time). Neither commercial nor conformist, some shorts are at times absent of story, acting as scenes or commentary. In Einosuke's "Home Drama: The Sugawara Family," a father tries engaging his family in conversation over a dinner of soba noodles, a task against which the lush, visceral, and fully absorbing activity of eating wins. AX is a daunting size, but not impenetrable. (In the event of feeling overwhelmed, start in the middle.) It's an incredible selection and sampling of manga made in Japan without commercial intervention. (July)

Set to Sea
Drew Weing, Fantagraphics, $16.99 (144p) ISBN 978-1-60699-368-2
After a career turning out much-admired Web comics and small self-published work, Weing produces a classic tale of the sea and self-discovery in his graphic novel debut. The unnamed hero is a poet who writes overblown verse about the wonders of sea life, while trying to pay his bar bill with promises of book dedications. That attitude quickly changes when he's shanghaied aboard a clipper bound for Hong Kong. At first a lumbering victim, the poet is pushed to the limit in a battle with pirates and discovers the strength and courage he never knew through violence. Presented almost like a Big Little Book for grownups, with one lovely panel per page in a small volume, the hero's journey in this tale isn't particularly unpredictable, but Weing's mastery of both small details (the hero's waxing and waning love affair with language) and sweeping vistas (from the glaciers to a steaming port city) gives it richness and emotion. After a lifetime of adventure, the doggerel poet learns that experience and suffering are the best motivators for real art, leaving open the question of whether art is worth the suffering. Weing's E.C. Segar–influenced drawings elevates what could have been an oft-told story into a powerful fable. (Aug.)

Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido, Dark Horse, $29.99 (184p) ISBN 978-1-59582-393-9
First making waves a decade ago, Blacksad, created in Spain, published in France, has since garnered well-deserved critical success and status as an international bestseller. Writer Díaz and illustrator Guarnido take the detective noir genre and breathe new life into it with a trio of anthropomorphic animal gumshoe dramas centering around John Blacksad, a methodical PI who conducts his investigations in early 1950s America, a post-WWII society deals with upheavals involving racism and the "Red Scare." Within this atmosphere of ready-to-explode tension, the creators weave what can only be called narrative magic. This current edition collects the three graphic novels that have been released to date, the first being a standard (though beautifully executed) murder mystery, the second centering on the machinations of a white supremacist organization and those whose lives it has thrown into a very personal bedlam (perhaps the most affecting of the lot), and the third addressing the perceived threat of communism within the United States. All of this material is riveting, and Guarnido's artwork is atmospheric and full of indelibly captured characters--he's a true master of the form. Blacksad is a comics classic, and American readers are fortunate to have these first three in one volume. (June)