Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

This article originally appeared on JHU Online in slightly different form in May 2009.

I've come to expect the unexpected working at JHU Comic Books, but I was still floored when I walked into work one recent Friday, and sitting at our back counter, sketching and signing a bunch of copies of his latest English Language releases, was none other than manga master Yoshihiro Tatsumi!

Yoshihiro Tatsumi is credited with creating gekiga, a revolutionary form of alternative, mature manga in the 1950's. He was long regarded as one of the most significant figures in the history of manga in Japan, but until recently, his many works were out of reach to most western audiences. Beginning last year, however, our friends at Drawn & Quarterly started an ambitious new program of releasing much of the master's best works in new, gorgeously presented English language editions, starting with last year's release of the red-hot critically lauded Good-Bye. As part of their new initiative to re-introduce the world to Tatsumi, D&Q has just released A Drifting Life, the astonishing new graphic memoir and cultural history of Tatsumi's rise to prominence in post-World War II Japan, through the advent of gekiga at the end of the tumultuous 1950s.

I don't have a lot of experience with manga: my to-do list is exponentially larger than what I've read, and at 850 pages A Drifting Life is no slim undertaking. But I took a stab in the dark and read the book last week on the strength of the many, many positive reviews that have been coming from all corners of the world for this remarkable work, and I was not disappointed in the least. While reading the book, there were points that seemed repetitive and in some small spots a bit slow, but these are few and far between and are frankly obliterated while reflecting on the work afterwards. Indeed, it was after I finished reading it that the book's many strengths began to appear to me: this is an astonishing achievement in not just manga, but in comics. A Drifting Life is a memoir in comic form about one of the most significant periods in comics history - really, a new development in the form, not just for manga but for comics, period. While there is no lack of autobiographical comic works, how many of them focus on the creation and revolutionizing of the form the story itself takes? There are many excellent histories of the comic medium (Men of Tommorow being the best), but how many of those are comics? Imagine if Jack Kirby or Will Eisner had crafted an epic, brutally honest comic memoir about their experiences in the Golden Age of American comics, and you can start to understand the significance of this work. [Update, 2013: I have long since read Eisner's The Dreamer, a roman a clef of his experiences in the Golden Age. While entertaining, it is a very slight work and too overfictionalized, and doesn't compare to Tatsumi's monumental accomplishment with A Drifting Life.]

Tatsumi signing at JHU Comic Books in New York City, May 2009
A full decade in production, A Drifting Life opens at the end of World War II and follows an oh-so-slightly fictionalized version of Tatsumi as he turns his love of comics to the work of his life. We follow Tatsumi as he struggles with money and editors, colleagues and women, and his explorations and reinvention of no less than the very idea of what manga, what comics can be. There are fascinating passages recounting Tatsumi and his peers discussing the language and theory of comics, and their subsequent role in revolutionizing the form forever. This is a stunning work about one creator's role in completely changing comics, that, in itself, is playing a role in completely changing comics. Tatsumi is, naturally, at the top of his game here. He mixes in his own recollections of the history unfolding around him with snapshots of that moment's place in Japan's cultural and political history, from the first bottle of Coke sold in Japan to the riots over the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty. And the art is certainly top-notch, a mix of cartoonish simplicity and striking, page stopping detail.

One of the most fascinating elements of this book, for me, is certainly the look into the burgeoning comics culture of Japan. Not unlike the development of American geek culture in the 1930s, the nexus of Japanese geek culture was with the fans, getting together, forming clubs and interacting with their wonderfully accessible heroes. Equally fascinating and revelatory to me were the differences in the method of delivery for many comics in Japan versus their American counterparts. In the United States, comic strips were syndicated in newspapers, longer-form comic stories published in the magazine format still largely dominant today. In Japan, strips appeared largely in specialty magazines, and long format and anthology series were published in square-bound magazines and hard-bound editions that were sold largely to manga rental (!) outlets. At the same time that EC was revolutionizing the art and content of comics amid a firestorm of controversy and legislative investigations, Tatsumi and his peers were revolutionizing the art and content of manga with their own share of heat from the press and legislators. This is a must read for anyone wanting to learn about the history of comics in Japan, post-war Japanese culture, or a look at the creative process from one of the masters.

Review and photo c) 2009, 2013 Jeffrey O. Gustafson

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