Shared perspective

LA Times    |    Scott Timberg    |    July 18, 2006

American artist Adrian Tomine talks with Yoshihiro Tatsumi, the ahead-of-his-time Japanese cartoonist who inspired him.

As a lonely, comics-loving teenager in '80s Sacramento, Adrian Tomine went through what he describes as a crisis of faith in the field that had long sustained him. Until, that is, he stumbled on a bootleg printing of a Japanese cartoonist he'd never heard of.

Through smudgy art and bad translations — the text had passed through Spanish on its way to English — this work by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, penned several years before Tomine's birth in a country he'd never visited, spoke to him directly.

"It showed me that manga didn't necessarily have to be about samurais or robots," Tomine, now 32, recalls from his Brooklyn apartment. "I realized that you could use the language of comics to tell very personal, realistic and literary stories."

These tales of Tokyo sanitation workers and alienated blue-collar introverts reminded him of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez's "Love & Rockets" and the American underground comics of the '60s and '70s. But there was something else about the work that was more minimal, more compact and even darker than the output of R. Crumb or Art Spiegelman. And in emphasizing narrative and character, it seemed years ahead of its time.

Tatsumi created the work despite no formal art training. "I did terribly in art class from grade school to high school," he says, through a translator, from Tokyo. "I have had, and will probably continue to have, a complex about it all my life. Although I did not know exactly what it was, I knew there was 'something' that I wanted to express, and I started drawing very bad doodles. That was the beginning of my career in comics."

Says Tomine: "I always assumed that someone else would take the reins and get proper translations done, especially since book publishers were doing nice reissues of old comics, like 'Peanuts' or original Marvel and DC Comics."

Although Tatsumi was an underground legend in Japan — he's credited with establishing the nation's alternative comics, or gekiga ("dramatic pictures") — his work remained untranslated and unavailable in the U.S.

Almost 20 years later, Tomine, the literary cartoonist who draws "Optic Nerve" and the odd New Yorker cover, persuaded his publisher to bring out the often startlingly bleak work of Tatsumi — who at 71 has five decades of work under his belt. The two will appear at the UCLA Hammer Museum on Wednesday to discuss the project and the state of the art; their conversation continues at Comic-Con International: San Diego on Saturday.

The first Tatsumi volume, 2005's "The Pushman and Other Stories," which collects work from 1969, has been one of Montreal publisher Drawn & Quarterly's bestsellers and is on its way to a second printing. "Abandon the Old in Tokyo," with work from 1970, comes out in the fall. Both were edited, designed and lettered by Tomine.

Tatsumi's good fortune is not unique. "Prior to three or four years ago there were very few translated titles," says Chris Oliveros, D&Q's publisher. "But everything is opening up for graphic novels."

The medium, he says, has come of age: A new comics imprint, First Second, part of Holtzbrinck Publishers, specializes in foreign work, and there's a larger, more sophisticated audience and better distribution.

"Someone could have done this Tatsumi book 10 or 20 years ago," Oliveros says, "but they would only have been able to sell them in comics shops."

Comics' appearance in bookstores has allowed volumes such as Random House's "Persepolis," Marjane Satrapi's chronicle of growing up during the Iranian revolution, and D&Q's "Pyongyang," the tale of a Frenchman's trip into North Korea, to reach a more general audience.

There's certainly more foreign work available, says Kim Thompson, who grew up in Europe reading comics from several nations and now acquires and translates international work for Seattle-based Fantagraphics Books. Changes in technology that make the digital shipping of files cheaper help as well, he says. But he's not sure how long the boom can keep up.

"American comics readers tend to be pretty parochial," says Thompson, who is also Fantagraphics' vice president. "Cartoonists' styles differ from country to country, and even small differences can be confusing for readers." Although he admires a wide range of foreign cartoonists, from the Spaniard Max to the Frenchman Jacques Tardi, the work that does best in the States tends to resemble American comics, like that of the poetic Norwegian cartoonist Jason.

Tatsumi's work, appropriately, was shaped less by other Japanese comics than by local police reports and hard-boiled American novelists. "I was very moved by his descriptions," he says, through a translator, of the work of Mickey Spillane. "For example, in a Spillane novel, a man never merely falls to the floor. Instead, he would write something like, 'The floor rushed up and smacked me in the face.' That sort of writing was an enormous influence on gekiga, through which I was trying to find a new mode of expression."

Tatsumi's setting is unmistakably postwar Japan: During a period of economic and technological growth, he tried to capture those left behind as the country became more urban and anonymous.

And his worldview was irrevocably shaped in childhood by what he calls "the cruel and tragic scenes caused by American air-raid attacks on Japan." But with their Everyman antiheroes and hellish urban locales, their echoes of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Bukowski, his stories could be modern myths, set in any time and place in which individuals suffer and brood.

"It starts out on the precipice of defeat," Tomine says of one of the stories, "and by the end it's complete defeat."

Tatsumi insists he is not an especially dark guy, but his worldview resembles his stories. "It's sad, but when I look at 'life,' I can't help but see right through it and see 'death' behind it."

It's this universal quality, Tomine says, and the fact that Tatsumi's drawing style is generalized and has little detail, that allow Western audiences to empathize with the characters and connect to the work.

Tomine, who can't read Japanese, says his real motivation is to be able to read the work in English. "I'm basically having the same experience as readers do," he says. "Just a little bit in advance."

Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Adrian Tomine

Where: UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Price: Free
Contact: (310) 443-7000 or

Copyright Los Angeles Times

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