Alternative Manga Panel Guide
Alternative Manga Panel Guide

Alternative Manga Panel Guide

“…in terms of popularity and sales, manga in America can be divided into Naruto and everything else. Aren’t most comics “alternative” to most of America? So what the hell.  For the purposes of this post, the manga under discussion are Awesome Manga, all the titles that are too smart, too weird and/or too old for the established comics audience.

-Sheanon Garrity, Hooded Utilitarian – Manga Roundtable

Hey everyone, I hope  you enjoyed our “Alternative manga” panel that we ran at ACEN. First off I want to remind people that the distinctions between mainstream and alternative are more blurred in Japan with Josei and Seinen magazines sometimes publishing works that would easily be considered alternative in America and even alternative anthologies publishing works like Emma which might be considered more mainstream to an anime fandom audience.  That’s the reason for Shaenon Garrity’s quote above, I think it sums up the goal of my panel, which was to introduce people to works that were more literary or weirder than most American anime/manga fans were familiar with whether the works were mainstream, semi-alternative, or fully alternative. Think of it this way, from most mainstream to most alternative, contemporary works in this panel are at most published in Mainstream Adult anthologies but usually will be idiosyncratic or break genre conventions in one way or another. To confuse things even more the late 1960s/1970s saw a blossoming of very serious works in very mainstream shounen publications (though by 1980 this pretty much ended), It is best to think of Japanese comics as a fuzzy continuum with authors often jumping between different categories see below:

Ultra Mainstream (Shounen Jump, Flower) -> Mainstream Adult (Big Comics, Young Sunday, You, Kiss)  -> Semi-Alternative (Afternoon, Ikki) -> Alternative (Garo, COM, Comic Beam, Manga Erotics F, AX)


Below is a listing of some of the terms, artists, and manga that we discussed:


Lending Libraries: Libraries setup in the immediate post war era of Japan, to provide cheap entertainment to a populace that was still struggling to recover from the devastation of World War II. These libraries had their own publishing system based out of Osaka versus Tokyo for the emerging mainstream magazine publishers. These manga were known for having a seedy reputation oftentimes pulling content from western pulp novels.

Gekiga: Meaning Dramatic Imagery, in contrast to Manga or “frivolous drawings.” This was the first wave of alternative manga that grew out of the lending library market in the late 1950s.  At first these were pulp film noirish books aimed at a teenagers, but later would become adult comics tackling any serious subject matter. These were enjoyed by college-age student protesters who eventually became adults during the 1960s and 1970s.

ANPO Hantai (Oppose the Security Treaty): Youth political movement in the 60s and 70s protesting the U.S.-Japan North American Security Treaty or the San Francisco Treaty. Hippie like counterculture developed around it, and reading manga was a symbol of rebellion for those who were involved in the subculture surrounding these protests. Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), Isao Takahata(Grave of the Fireflies), Katsuhiro Otomo(Akira), Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) and Leiji Matsumoto (Galaxy Express 999) were all involved in this movement in one way or another. Culturally this political movement was a catalyst for manga, usually the darker alternative gekiga type, to be accepted into the mainstream of Japanese society.

Guro: Short for Ero-Guro-Nonsensu or Erotic Grotesque Nonsense. Comes from a broader literary genre in Japan that developed in less than scrupulous markets in the 1950s. These graphic and edgy manga are disgusting and grotesque but sometimes satirical and irreverent.  Notable manga artists in this style include Suehiro Maruo and Hideshi Hino.

“I” manga – Autobiographical tales that aren’t told from the perspective of the artist but instead from a character’s voice who is a standing for the creator, see also “I” novel. Porco Rosso is said to be a classic example, where Porco is Hayao Miyazaki (its director) even though Miyazaki is not a pilot-turned-pig from the 1940s, the character still represents much of his own personality.  Yoshiharu Tsuge’s and Seiichi Hayashi’s surrealist works were pioneers in this genre for manga.

Otaku: Japanese slang for obsessed nerd. Originally was a very polite way of saying “I” to the point where it makes the person who says it seem very diminished in status to the point of being extremely self deprecating. When this panel refers to something as an Otaku work it means that these are manga that are aimed at anime fandom (which generally isn’t as mainstream as the general manga scene in Japan – reference the comic book guy from the Simpsons as the stereotype). Earlier Otaku works had pulpy sci-fi elements, but more lately they are extremely focused on stories of cute girls known as moe. Though both aren’t mainstream, the difference between alternative works and Otaku works is dependent upon genre conventions. Otaku comics may fit even more narrowly into genre convention than mainstream shounen works as the Japanese fandom demands certain expectations of what a work has to offer to be good to oftentimes vitriolic degrees. The same can be said for the similar yet different Fujoshi (rotten girl) subculture that focuses on comics about beautiful men. Alternative manga doesn’t care about convention and is more interested in subverting it.


Osamu Tezuka: The God of Manga known for famous works like Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, and Unico amongst countless others. All post-war trends in manga in one way or another come back to him or involve him. By inspiring an entire generation of manga readers in the 1950s, he laid the foundations for later innovators to move past his originally silly disney based style and tackle more serious themes. Later Tezuka would be inspired by the younger generation of serious “gekiga” artists to do his own work that tackled deep and adult subject matter. Vertical has released a number of these more serious works including Ayako, Message to Adolf, and Ode to Kirihito. Viz has also released Phoenix which was published in Tezuka’s alt manga anthology COM around the same time period.

Yoshihiro Tatsumi:  Created Gekiga, through the lending library market in Osaka. While he was influenced by Tezuka, his movement would later influence Tezuka’s darker works of the 1970s. He wrote a fantastic memoir called “A Drifting Life” that chronicled the start of the Gekiga movement and how that movement wished to achieve a marketplace for comic books aimed at older readers with a hard boiled cinematic edge. With the help of Japanese-American cartoonist Adrian Tomine his work has gotten quite a bit of attention in the U.S., giving him a renewed interest in his home country of Japan.

Shigeru Mizuki: A living legend, at 92 years old he is still active. He escaped a suicide squad at the end of World War II, losing an arm in the process, and was then nursed back to health by natives on a remote pacific island. After returning home he was inundated by American comics during the occupation and began drawing from them, especially the EC horror comics like Tales from the Crypt to generate his own style of creepy tales for children devoted to traditional Japanese spirits, most famously in Gegege No Kitaro. Originally being published in the rental library market, he would later jump on the gekiga trend with works like Onwards Towards our Noble Deaths a brutal semi-autobiographical look at his experiences in World War II.

Sanpei Shirato: Originally did Gekiga for the lending library market, with a focus on Jidaigeki or traditional Japanese stories with a strong marxist bent most notably in Ninja Bugeichou.  His tales are action packed but often feature peasants struggling against their lot in life, working towards the ideal of eventual equality. Shirato was most famous for starting the magazine Garo, which represented the second wave of alternative manga after the original hard-boiled tales that came out from the Gekiga group and Saito Productions. His samurai manga were a symbol of youth rebellion, like “Sex, drugs, rock and roll, and manga.” Next to nothing is available from him in English other than a short translation of “Red Eyes,” a film version of Ninja Bugeichou which literally films the manga and adds narration/sound effects and a side story of Legend of Kamui that is done by the artist from Lone Wolf and Cub published by Viz which is long out of print.

Yoshiharu Tsuge: A very enigmatic cartoonist who brought critical attention from serious academics in literature to the world of manga with his work “Screw Style,” published in Garo.  His work is personal, obtuse, and surrealist with an oftentimes conflicting or confusing mood representing both his own struggles with depression and Japan’s struggles towards modernization during the 1960s. Screw Style is available in English, but can only officially be found by looking for The Comics Journal #250.

Seiichi Hayashi: Cartoonist who built upon Tsuge’s surrealst personal style publishing his most famous work Red Colored Elegy which was famous enough to inpsire a  hit song: a live-action movie adaptation. This work is incredibly surrealist representing the anxieties of Japan around 1970 when student protest movements had collapsed under their own weight and Japan’s future seemed very uncertain. Two of his works Red Colored Elegy and a short story collection Gold Pollen and Other Stories are available in English.

Moto Hagio: Pioneer of Shoujo manga who was also featured in Osamu Tezuka’s alternative manga anthology COM and published comics for all demographics.  A short story collection A Drunken Dream and Other Stories was recently released by American alternative publisher Fantagraphics.

Murasaki Yamada: Notable feminist alternative cartoonist who was first featured in Tezuka’s COM. In spite of her influence/importance nothing at all is available in English from her. My panel was done in part to raise awareness of important artists like Yamada who aren’t represented in English very well.

Kazuo Umezu: Umezu is the master of Japanese horror manga. He got his start in the rental library market and worked on gekiga.  When that market collapsed he was part of a wave of gekiga/rental market artists who published works for mainstream shounen publications, fusing the mainstream and alternative schools of manga in Japan circa 1970. Orochi is considered his masterwork though there’s only one volume in english and Drifting Classroom is his most famous work. It is very dark and politically tinged by today’s standards. These works would never be published in large scale shounen magazines in today’s more commercialized environment.

Katsuhiro Otomo – Not really alternative but popularized French influenced comic books in Japan and provided inspiration to numerous later artists.

Satoshi Kon – Famous anime director of Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress etc, who dabbled in manga early in his career.  Tropics of the Sea is a pretty straightforward work available in English, but buying it may allow for more interesting stuff like World Apartment Horror to get published here.  Two days after I ran this panel, Dark Horse announced that Opus and his collaboration with Mamoru Oshii Seraphim: 266613336 Feathers will be available in English soon!

Nananan Kiriko – Minimalist contemporary artist who does stories about women in Japan. Her most famous work is Blue.


Recommended Manga, google these for more detail:


A Drifting Life by Yoshiharu Tatsumi

The Push Man and Other Stories by Yoshiharu Tatsumi

Black Blizzard by Yoshiharu Tatsumi

Red Eyes by Sanpei Shirato

Ninja Bugeicho by Sanpei Shirato

Showa: A History by Shigeru Mizuki

Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki

Ayako by Osamu Tezuka

MW by Osamu Tezuka

Ode to Kirihito by Osamu Tezuka

Barbara by Osamu Tezuka

Phoenix by Osamu Tezuka

Drifting Classroom by Kazuo Umezu

Orochi by Kazuo Umezu

Surrealist “Tsuge” School works:

Screw Style by Yoshiharu Tsuge

Mino No Hito (A worthless Person) by Yoshiharu Tsuge

Red Colored Elegy by Seiichi Hayashi

Gold Pollen and Other Stories by Seiichi Hayashi

The Box Man by Imiri Sakabashira

A Single Match by Oji Suzuki

Guro Works (warning can be quite graphic!)

The Strange Tale of Panorama Island by Suehiro Maruo

Panorama of Hell by Hideshi Hino

First wave Internationalist (usually Franco-Japanese) Manga

Guide to Jean “Moebius” Giraud’s Bande Dessinee (Franco-Belgian comic books) – major influence on these artists:

Domu by Katsuhiro Otomo

Memories by Katsuhiro Otomo

Tropics of the Sea by Satoshi Kon

Opus by Satoshi Kon

Seraphim 266613336 Wings by Satoshi Kon (art) and Mamoru Oshii (story)

Black and White (Tekkon Kinkreet) by Taiyou Matsumoto

No. 5 by Taiyou Matsumoto

Ping Pong by Taiyou Matsumoto

Nouvelle Manga (Low key Franco-Japanese manga/BD movement)

Mariko Parade by Frédéric Boiletand Kan Takahama

Kinderbook by Kan Takahama

Icaro by Jiro Taniguchi (art) and Jean “Moebius” Giraud (story)

Other Great Contemporary works:

AX: Alternative Manga by Various Artists from the Japanese Magazine of the same name.

Blue by Nananan Kiriko

Itaitashii Love by Nananan Kiriko

Doing Time by Kazuichi Hanawa

Sexy Voice and Robo by Iou Kuroda

Japan Tengu Party Illustrated by Iou Kuroda

Nasu (Eggplant) by Iou Kuroda

Not Simple by Natsume Ono

Pink by Kyoko Okazaki

Helter Skelter by Kyoko Okazaki

Blame! by Tsutomu Nihei

Journey to the End of the World by Kyodai Nishioka

National Quiz by Reiichi Sugimoto (story) Shinkichi Kato (art)

Dance Till Tomorrow by Naoki Yamamoto

Believers by Naoki Yamamoto

Freesia by Jiro Matsumoto

Tropical Citron by Jiro Matsumoto

Nijigahara Holograph by Inio Asano

Oyasumi PunPun by Inio Asano

Solanin by Inio Asano

A few Indie American Comics with strong Japanese influence:

Lost at Sea by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Heavy Liquid by Paul Pope

One Trick Rip-Off / Deep Cutts by Paul Pope (notable for including his manga Supertrouble)

Demo by Brian Wood (Story) and Becky Cloonan (art)

Habibi by Craig Thompson



In Japan all comic books are originally serialized in weekly, monthly, and bi-monthly magazines. These magazines are divided into different categories by demographic group – kodomo, shoujo, shounen, seinen, josei or special interest (golf manga, pachinko manga etc).  Outside of the mainstream magazines there are ones that have loose editorial policies encouraging artistic expression / experimentation. Here are a few examples:

Garo: The original alternative comics magazine. Co-founded by Sanpei Shirato to feature his jidaigeki (stories from Feudal Japan like Kurosawa movies) manga.  As the publication grew in popularity it would later come to support a newer more surreal style with artists like Yoshiharu Tsuge and Seiichi Hayashi becoming symbols of the magazine. Other trends would follow including an interest in grotesque works that were influenced in part by R. Crumb’s American underground comics from the 1960s. For almost 40 years this magazine was the leading voice of alternative comics in Japan. By the late 1990s Garo fell apart due to mismanagement and the death of some of its founders. It was replaced by several other anthologies.

COM: Tezuka’s answer to the growing popularity of more mature experimental manga found in Garo or in Gekiga anthologies. Most famous for publishing Phoenix, it was also famous for fostering the talents of female cartoonists who would later shape Shoujo and Josei like Murasaki Yamada and Moto Hagio. The magazine was also a launch point for guro manga pioneer Hideshi Hino whose works originally appealed to a young female audience. COM was eventually shut down in the early 70s during a period when Tezuka’s anime studio was facing financial difficulties.

AX: (pronounced like axe) Started by ex Garo employees, this anthology is one of 3 major alternative anthologies published in Japan in the wake of Garo’s demise. Most notable is a series of anthologies (one has been released more are planned) collecting short works in English being released by American alternative comics publisher Top Shelf Books.

Comic Beam: Another alternative comics magazine  in the wake of Garo’s demise. This one has more works that are aimed at anime fans or Otaku works, but generally is willing to publish stuff that would be found in Garo.  Works such as Soil and Emma come out of this magazine.

Manga/Comics Erotics F:  Another alternative comics magazine in the wake of Garo’s demise. While it calls itself “Erotic” this is not an overtly pornographic magazine, but rather an alternative comics anthology with an emphasis on stories that may involve erotic elements.  A number of the Nouvelle Manga (Boilet’s work, Kan Takahama, and Nananan Kiriko) were published in this anthology.

Ikki (Big Comics Ikki on older titles): Magazine published by publishing giant Shogakukan that focuses on more idiosyncratic artists like Taiyou Matsumoto, Natsume Ono or Iou Kuroda.  For those who are familiar with American comics, think of DC Vertigo, whose titles are more idiosyncratic than anything else DC releases, but often still grounded in genre unlike works from Fantagraphics or Top Shelf for instance.

Finally Morning,Afternoon, and Evening from mainstream giant Kodansha occasionally publishes more idiosyncratic works, though Ikki tends to do a lot more – these magazines have a lot more Otaku stuff in them.


Publishers/Imprints who release this manga in English:

Vertical:  – good source for Kyoko Okazaki’s work, Osamu Tezuka’s more serious works and more.

Drawn and Quarterly:  Good source for Yoshiharu Tatsumi, Shigeru Mizuki and a few other surrealist post Tsuge works mislabeled as Gekiga like “Red Colored Elegy” and “The Box Man.”

Top Shelf:  Published Ax Anthology vol 1.  This will be a multivolume set, the editor (a Scottish cartoonist living/working in Japan) confirms Vol 2 will be published eventually but has been pushed back due to delays.


Pioneering alternative American comics publisher with high critical standards, Nijigahara Holograph and Moto Hagio’s work is represented with more to come.

Viz (Sig Ikki/Signature/Editors Choice/Pulp):  Viz has always had a more “adult” division, which right now is known as SigIkki, after parent company’s semi-alternative anthology Ikki – good place for Natsume Ono, Taiyou Matsumoto, Inio Asano and many other great works.

Last Gasp: One of the last “Underground” American publishers from the 60s, who oddly these days are mostly translating manga or releasing artbooks. Works such as Junko Mizuno’s cute/grotesque manga, and Town of Country Calm, Evening of Cherry Blossoms were translated by them amongst others.

PictureBox:  This company just went out of business back in January, but before doing so published a collection of stories from Seiichi Hayashi under an imprint of “Masters of Alternative Manga” edited by Alternative Manga expert Ryan Holmberg.  It should still be available but act fast if you still want it.

Fanfare / Ponent Mon  –

Publisher based out of Spain with ties to Frederick Boilet’s work in France. These were some of the first people to exclusively release more literary manga in the United States. A lot of their work is out of print as they are a small publisher, but if you can find it, their release of Nananan Kiriko’s Blue is particularly good.


Additional Reading/Sources:

Books and Periodicals:

Gross, Milt. Manga Masters: Hideshi Hino, Suehiro Maruo, Saseo Ono, Asamu Tezuka, Yoshihiro Tsuge: Plus Cartoonists of Montreal. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics, 2005. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics:. New York: William Morrow, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publ., 2012. Print.

Schodt, Frederik L. Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga. Berkeley: Stone Bridge, 1999. Print.

Schodt, Frederik L. Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2001. Print.


Web Article Series:

What was Alternative Manga by Ryan Holmberg, Comics Journal: (extremely in-depth start from the last page work your way backwards):

KomiksuHooded Utilitarian’s roundtable on “Alternative Manga” by Various Authors: