Adrian Tomine interviewed in Words Without Borders

An Interview with Adrian Tomine

Words Without Borders    |    Dot Linn    |    April 6, 2009

Over 800 pages and eleven years in the making, A Drifting Life is a monumental achievement and the long-waited autobiography of legendary Japanese cartoonist Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Called the father of gekiga—realistic or mature-themed manga that predated the literary graphic novel movement in the U.S. by decades—Tatsumi was formally introduced to English-language readers with the acclaimed Drawn & Quarterly publications of his short stories: The Push Man and Other Stories, Abandon the Old in Tokyo, and Good-Bye. These stories ranged from dark and haunting depictions of mundane and urban Japanese life to bleak insights into a conflicted nation struggling with post-war recovery and identity.

A Drifting Life encompasses the years from August 1945 to June 1960 and features entirely new work from Tatsumi. The sprawling narrative covers his young adult years in Osaka, his family life, and his beginnings as a manga artist—including the oft mentioned meeting with manga idol and future mentor Tezuka Osamu (Astro Boy). The story also unfolds against a detailed background of social and cultural history, much of it dealing with the years after World War II and the evolution of the Japanese manga industry.

In the 1980s, while still a teenager, American comics artist Adrian Tomine discovered Tatsumi through an unauthorized U.S. release. Tomine had been looking for comics other than the traditional superhero ones, and in the process, found Tatsumi and American figures in the underground comics scene such as Jaime Hernandez and Dan Clowes.

Tatsumi and Tomine are very different artists from different generations, but critics have drawn a few similarities between the two: both started drawing comics professionally as teenagers; both have been known to create character-driven stories of relatively ordinary people; and both received some critical recognition at a young age—Tatsumi with his groundbreaking gekiga (he even coined the term) and Tomine with his popular Optic Nerve comics.

Many years after discovering Tatsumi's comics, Tomine now plays a role in helping to bring Tatsumi's work to English-speaking readers, as he serves as editor and designer for the previously published short-story collections and the new autobiography.

Below, Tomine speaks on Tatsumi's A Drifting Life and his own work in comics:

Dot Lin: How was working with Tatsumi on A Drifting Life different from that with his past works, given its longer length and autobiographical nature?

Adrian Tomine: It was a much more ambitious undertaking, not only because of the sheer length of the book, but also because of the numerous references to actual events, people, places, etc. The book is also something of a cultural history of post-war Japan, and we wanted to be as accurate as possible.

DL: What can readers expect from A Drifting Life?

AT: I think people who are familiar with Tatsumi's earlier work will see A Drifting Life as very much the work of the same artist, but an artist who has matured, progressed, and set new challenges for himself. I was surprised by how he melded his own personal history with that of the manga industry, as well as that of Japan in general.

DL: A Drifting Life incorporates newer work for the first time and it's not necessarily a straight-up autobiography with the stand-in protagonist of Hiroshi—were you and Tatsumi looking to push the boundaries of storytelling or the traditional autobiography in any way?

AT: Well, just to clarify, A Drifting Life is comprised of entirely new work. It's been Tatsumi's main artistic focus for the past eleven years. And as to whether it could be described as "straight-up autobiography," I think the answer is yes. It may be different from some of the autobiographical comics that North American readers have grown accustomed to, but I don't see any aspects of the book that move it out of the realm of autobiography.

DL: Though you've known Tatsumi for a few years, was there a particular part in A Drifting Life that you found especially entertaining or interesting?

AT: I liked seeing that at least at one point in his life, Tatsumi was just as fanatical about comics as I was. And I may be coming at this from a particular angle, but I was interested in any of the specific details about either creating comics or getting them published. On a broader scale, I was just awed by the scope of Tatsumi's story … the way it focuses on the intimate details of his personal life, then pulls back to depict the dynamics of his family, then pulls back to show what the comics industry was like, and then pulls back to talk about larger cultural and historic events in Japan. At least in terms of what's been done in North American autobiographical comics, this is a fairly innovative and novel approach.

DL: Tatsumi has talked about the mentor relationship with Tezuka. What is your working relationship with Tatsumi like?

AT: My working relationship with Tatsumi is friendly and respectful, but there is an inherent distance, both literally and due to the language barrier. I've very much enjoyed the handful of occasions on which we've been able to meet. It is sort of amazing that I've ended up in this position to help expose his work to a broader audience, but I don't see it as any kind of collaboration. At most, I'm merely a very lucky fan, and my contributions to the series are negligible.

DL: You certainly worked hard on Shortcomings, which received critical praise and sparked discussions on race and identity. It came out two years ago and releases in paperback this April 2009. Are you still hearing from readers who agreed or disagreed with the views expressed in it? Have any of the initially strong responses settled down into some sort of consensus of opinion?

AT: Oh sure. I got some of my most polarized responses when Shortcomings first came out, and I'm sure that will continue when I go out into the world again to promote the softcover edition. I don't think there has been any consensus. I'm glad that most of the criticism has to do with the content of the work, not the quality. I sort of expected this kind of response, though. I think that the most frustrating aspect of the book for some people is the lack of clarity in terms of what are the views of the fictional characters, and what are the views of the author.

DL: The new 32 Stories Box Set, also set for April 2009, looks great. Does it bring back memories to see the Optic Nerve minis back in their original form? And what is the story behind that high school photo of you …

AT: Thanks. I think in some ways, maybe out of self-preservation, I've had to distance myself from the contents of those old comics a bit. When I was going over the proofs, I really felt like I was looking at someone else's work. And the story behind the picture? People will have to read my introduction to find out.

DL: Does working with a variety of publication formats—from comics to CD/ book covers to New Yorker illustrations—make the creative process more interesting? Do you actively pursue a variety of projects?

AT: The only two work-related things I've ever actively pursued were getting my comics published by Drawn & Quarterly, and getting my illustrations into the New Yorker. And yes, I think it's useful for me to have a variety of projects going on at once. There are certain jobs that I feel are opportunities to try something new, and other ones where I know I have to give the client exactly what they expect.

DL: Critical acclaim found you at an early age, and in some ways, you have grown up in the public eye as a comics artist. Are you glad things happened the way they did? Any advantages or disadvantages? And given how the comics landscape has changed or stayed the same, do you have any advice for artists starting out today?

AT: I'm very grateful for the way things have worked out for me, and I know a lot it has to do with good luck and good timing. I'm sure that if I'd started out either ten years earlier or ten years later, things would've been much tougher for me. But I do think I was given too much praise too early. It had more to do with the landscape of the industry at the time, and maybe the novelty of my age, too. But trying to develop as an artist is a tough process, and to do it more or less in print has been kind of strange for me.

The two bits of advice I have for an artist starting out today are almost pointless to bring up because no one would ever heed them. But the first is: Start out small. I know it's tempting to take that big book contract the first time it's offered to you, but it might be better to hone your skills in a less ostentatious venue for a bit, then move up to something more ambitious. If you're really good, this route will only make you better, and the opportunities to be published on a bigger scale will still be around. The other bit of advice that comes to mind, which I wish someone had given me when I was younger, is to resist the urge to talk into every microphone that's put in front of you. Say no to as many interviews as you can. Nothing is more important than the quality of the work, and you run a very high risk of saying something that you'll regret for a long time. As I said, I really wish someone had given me this advice!

DL: As teenagers, you discovered Tatsumi when looking for more than traditional superhero comics and Tatsumi started his own work out of the desire for more realistic comics. Have you seen any changes in the comics landscape since then that you like?

AT: That's a huge question! I'm very happy to see comics finally garnering a little bit more respect as an art form in America, and I think it's terrific that as the business has picked up a bit, a wider range of talent is being attracted. It's very inspiring to see the work of new cartoonists and not be able to recognize any of their influences.

DL: Thank you for your time, Adrian. Best of luck to you and Tatsumi, as you both continue to contribute great work to the comics scene.


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