A Drifting Life reviewed by the New York Times

Manifesto of a Comic-Book Rebel

The New York Times     |    Dwight Garner    |    April 14, 2009

Underground comics took root in America in the 1960s and ripened with the counterculture; artists like R. Crumb, Kim Deitch and Art Spiegelman discarded the old funny-page formats and themes — beat it, “Blondie” — like so many desiccated cornhusks. In Japan, however, there had already been a comics revolution, and the man at its rowdy vanguard was Yoshihiro Tatsumi.

Mr. Tatsumi, born in 1935, came of age alongside Japan’s postwar obsession with manga, serialized black-and-white comics whose characters have a distinctive iconography: big, dewy eyes; tiny mouths; piles of spiky hair. Most manga takes place in a bright alternate universe where it seems as if any problem might be resolved with a cute-off: batting eyelashes at 10 paces.

Mr. Tatsumi began drawing manga as a child, but he quickly rebelled against the form’s aesthetic limitations. Manga was aimed largely at children, and its emotional and intellectual palette was circumscribed. Along with a cohort of young writers and illustrators, Mr. Tatsumi introduced in the late 1950s a bolder form of manga he called “gekiga” — darker, more realistic, often violent. The name stuck. And he became one of Japan’s most important visual artists.

Mr. Tatsumi’s work, long unavailable in English, has begun to be translated and issued by the Canadian publishing house Drawn & Quarterly in an annual series of books edited by the cartoonistAdrian Tomine. Now comes the big kahuna: Mr. Tatsumi’s outsize autobiography, “A Drifting Life.”

It’s a book that manages to be, all at once, an insider’s history of manga, a mordant cultural tour of post-Hiroshima Japan and a scrappy portrait of a struggling artist. It’s a big, fat, greasy tub of salty popcorn for anyone interested (as Americans increasingly are) in the theory and practice of Japanese comics. It’s among this genre’s signal achievements.

Manga, like rock ’n’ roll, is fundamentally a young person’s game. Mr. Tatsumi, 73, was born the same year as Jerry Lee Lewis; “A Drifting Life” was 10 long years in the drafting. But no strain of composition shows in this book’s marathon 855 pages, which chronicle his career from 1945 to 1960, the period of its greatest ferment.

Mr. Tatsumi was, he explains here, a geeky comics genius from the time he was in short pants. He began to draw manga in seventh grade in Osaka. Soon published widely, he formed a groundbreaking group, the Children’s Manga Association. The form’s masters were like gods to him. “Stories that capture the minds of children all over Japan,” his character says to himself. “How amazing it must be to be the person creating them.”

If success came quickly, confidence did not. Mr. Tatsumi’s family was poor. His father, a philanderer, was barely and sometimes shadily employed. Mr. Tatsumi’s mother and his three siblings made do as well as they could. Drawing manga was the author’s ticket to ride.

Once he was finished with school, Mr. Tatsumi began toiling in the cheesy, exploitative and highly competitive field of “rental manga.” These books were grab-bag collections that printed the work of several artists; readers borrowed them from stores and then returned them like video rentals.

Publishing houses cranked out rental manga like so much spicy sausage. To get the work done, publishers sometimes crammed their writers and illustrators into communal apartments for days or weeks at a time. In one scene in “A Drifting Life,” a publisher delivered a watermelon to one such apartment to “keep up your morale.”

Mr. Tatsumi does not deny the pleasures of this kind of quick-and-dirty work. His comics were being devoured by a wide and eager audience, and he was honing his craft. “For this 19-year-old boy with no guarantees for his future,” he writes, “the only place where he felt alive was in the realm of imagination.” There was “no freedom in reality,” he continues, but “any kind of transformation was possible in the imaginary world.”

All along, however, Mr. Tatsumi was also dreaming of something better: experimental work, “manga that isn’t manga.” He became obsessed with movies, both American and Japanese, and took note of their stylized visuals and their cool realism. He wanted to produce narrative comics instead of “manga with wild characters jumping about” or “manga that concerns itself with ‘humor’ and ‘punch lines.’ ”

After watching “Shane,” he was taken with the vividness of Jack Palance’s cruelty. And he fell hard for Mickey Spillane’s hard-boiled phrasings. Mr. Tatsumi drafted a “Gekiga Manifesto” and, along with a group of like-minded artists, started a movement that ultimately changed the face of manga.

As “A Drifting Life” progresses, it becomes clear that Mr. Tatsumi is not content merely to tell his own story — or just the story of gekiga. He charts Japan’s small cultural milestones in the wake of the war. This book begins with a panel depicting Emperor Hirohito’s surrender but soon moves on to topics like Japan’s first domestically manufactured washing machine, its Miss Universe contestants, maritime disasters and taste for Coca-Cola. It’s ground-level pop history.

The rap against graphic novels or memoirs is that they’re a bastard form that guarantees that both the art and the writing will be second-rate. There’s a speck of truth there, to the extent that the relationship between illustration and prose, in long-form comics, is symbiotic: you wouldn’t necessarily want to pry one from the other.

Mr. Tatsumi’s prose has been translated from the Japanese, fluidly, by Taro Nettleton. The occasional banalities of the language are, you suspect, not the translator’s fault. But I wish Mr. Nettleton hadn’t continually saddled Mr. Tatsumi with long-winded verbs like “utilized” instead of simple ones like “used.”

Mr. Tatsumi’s art is more sophisticated, retaining the form’s strange sparkle even at gloomy moments; he definitely does write manga that isn’t quite manga. The genre can be a difficult one in which to portray aging. Mr. Tatsumi looks just about the same here at ages 10 and 25.

A book like “A Drifting Life” is fairly easy to pick apart on a drawing-by-drawing or line-by-line basis. Don’t make that mistake. Its pleasures are cumulative; the book has a rolling, rumbling grandeur. It’s as if someone had taken a Haruki Murakami novel and drawn, beautifully and comprehensively, in its margins.

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