Graphic Novel Of The Month

A Drifting Life (Drawn & Quarterly): Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s autobiographical tome clocks in at 850+ pages, chronicling the post-war manga boom and Tatsumi’s own quest to differentiate his tonally serious gekiga (“dramatic pictures”) style from the larger context of the sometimes whimsical and gag-oriented manga strips of the time. There’s a lot of repetition in this book about Tatsumi’s lifestyle and many non sequitur scenes that abruptly interject into the book’s natural flow. I believe this is done deliberately to illustrate the initial excitement that more traditional manga brought Tatsumi’s life, but also the eventual boredom and frustration he regarded it with as well. As he states very clearly, he grew tired of simply drawing “childish things jumping about” and continually tried to lead his life and career in a more adult and culturally significant way through his subject matter. I think Tatsumi hits a mental turning point around 1955 with the publishing of the story “The Man Smiling in the Dark,” a self-decribed "detective thriller" with cinematic influences from both Western and Eastern films. It was so much fun to see his gekiga style begin to coalesce, the heyday of manga, meeting other creators with similar interests, cold pitching ideas to numerous publishers, and getting a few deals that allowed him to make a higher than average salary and living. All the while, Tatsumi has an instinctive drive never to be satisfied or settle with his output, his fellow creators challenge each other to bring out their best work, and he tries to push his own style toward being a step ahead (or at least, a step in a different direction) from where the industry as a whole was moving. He’s not afraid to voice unpopular opinions about wanting to drop “manga” from the subtitle of his books, and begins utilizing a more decompressed film noir-ish style that emphasized pace, panel design, and sparse dialogue over cramming as much as possible into a page with a relatively simplistic set of four standard panels. While it sounds passé today, this approach was considered highly experimental at the time. It was at this time that Tatsumi began pondering the form’s “synchronization of panel and time,” culminating with the Shadow anthology in 1956. Tatsumi always comes across as a humble guy; as a creator, he consistently shows a degree of uncertainty after completing a work, wondering if it’s too experimental and will reach an audience or if his artistic choices have actually doomed his publisher(!) As a young man with limited experience, he questions whether it’s better to simply go along with his contemporaries and the prevailing wisdom of the time or listen to his instincts and pour energy into the divergence of his new methodology. As I mentioned before, the work is punctuated by random cultural events, social landmarks, and political developments. Another recurring dynamic that pops up is the presence of a ubiquitous mailman who tracks him down to deliver letters and telegrams, knowing his routine and where he’ll hang out based on time of month, day of week, social circles, and what’s generally happening in the world. Whether factual, embellished, or imagined, the mailman serves as metaphor for how Tatsumi can’t escape from manga; the two are linked in perpetuity. Even when he craves a brief respite, it always finds him and pulls him back toward his calling. I enjoyed the rude awakening that the Skyscraper anthology becomes for Tatsumi, as both editor and contributor. He quickly learns that the business aspect and art aspect of the publishing industry can butt heads at times and can be competing paradigms, in conflict with their respective objectives. To further this point, a fellow contributor later suggests that a friend function as editor. This friend has a business degree and has experienced much success in that world. The Tatsumi character simply says “I never thought of that.” This isn’t an indictment of his intelligence or own brand of business acumen, but effectively illustrates how thoroughly he thinks of himself as an artist. It wasn’t even in his DNA to consider it a business, or that editorial could perform as a non-artistic business function. It was also interesting to see that in 1959 Japan underwent a comparable witch hunt, like the one Dr. Wertham catalyzed here. This culminated with ludicrous statements from the government like “any book with pages, 2/3 or more of which is without text, is immoral,” in response to some of the moody, decompressed crime tales he and his brethren were making a living from. The end of this book plays anti-climactic, it abruptly stops. There’s another “end” in the epilogue story about attending funeral services of the legendary Osamu Tezuka. The repetitive themes found here basically amount to Tatsumi committing to comics, and his gekiga quest, forever. Since his quest to elevate manga to gekiga proportions is admittedly not yet over, perhaps it is fitting that the inconclusive endings (think The Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica, Angel, etc.) are utilized as just another recurring theme. Anyone interested in autobiographical comics, a historical overview of manga from an individual perspective, or Tatsumi’s stellar work (Drawn & Quarterly having now translated – thanks to Adrian Tomine – The Push Man & Other Stories, Abandon the Old in Tokyo, and Good-Bye) should definitely check this out. Though I would have loved another essay or interview excerpt from Tomine included (as was the case in the aforementioned works), at 850+ pages for $29.99, this is both fantastic reading and a bargain. The only April Fool's Day joke is the one you play on yourself if you don't buy this book. Grade A+.


At 2:30 PM, Blogger Ryan Claytor said...

Wows. This sounds killer. Looking into it.

Ryan Claytor
Elephant Eater Comics

At 4:13 PM, Blogger Justin Giampaoli said...

Hard for me to see autobio comics and not think of you!




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