Washington Square News on TATSUMI TOMINE & SETH

Cartoon arts finally gets the recognition it deserves

Washington Square News    |    Eric Kohn    |    November 11, 2005

To anyone with average exposure to the funny pages, reading the comics may convey heartwarming memories of Charlie Brown’s childhood musings. Likewise, aficionados of the superhero comic book may fondly recall the noble adventures of Superman, Spiderman and the rest of the costumed crusading gang.

But while other visual art forms have been long recognized by mainstream audiences as advanced modes of expression, adult-oriented comics have been by and large downgraded to a lowly status as special interest fodder for a niche readership.

Still, the creative practice of bringing exagerrated pen-and-ink characters to life has managed to develop into a decidedly mature medium for over a century, ever since “The Yellow Kid” spawned epic ownership feuds between New York newspaper tycoons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Radical experimentation with narrative structure and content in comics can be traced through nearly every decade of the past 100 years, from the reclusive hippie sentiments of Robert Crumb in the 1960s to bleak explorations of human suffering in the later work of Will Eisner, who is credited with coining the now-popular term “graphic novel.” In 1992, Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust-themed “Maus” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. No one could argue that the recognition was undeserved simply because the book united pictures with words.

Given its unorthodox history as the progressive underdog of visual art, the key to unlocking the history of comics lies in the exploration of its roots. Earlier this year saw the re-release of selections from Winsor McCay’s pioneering strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” an early-20th century creation restored to its full glory in large panel format. And now comes “The Push Man and Other Stories,” the first volume of published works by Japanese cartoonist Yoshihiro Tatsumi.

Although many comic fans associate Japanese cartooning primarily with manga, which generally centers on fantastical adventure stories, Tatsumi’s work operates in an entirely more profound vein. His comics, published in Japanese magazines from the late 1950s and for several decades afterward, influenced numerous Japanese cartoonists in that country’s budding alternative scene. Tatsumi called the dark realistic nature of his work “geikiga.” The stories, generally no longer than eight pages, follow alienated characters struggling to survive amid a troublesome working class that forcibly negates individuality. Not a single story in “The Push Man” features what could be considered a happy ending. Among the grim themes involved are murder, adultery and cross-dressing, which may come as a surprise to American readers, given that the stories were initially published over 30 years ago.

The collection brings Tatsumi’s work to an English-speaking audience for the first time — sort of. Cartoonist Adrian Tomine, 31, whose “Optic Nerve” series grew from an independently published production into major recognition and critical acclaim after a few slim volumes, first encountered a bootleg English translation of a Tatsumi comic during the 1980s, when Tomine was still a teenager. Tomine, who serves as the editor of “The Push Man” as well as upcoming installments in the series, claims in the introduction to the collection that the Tatsumi comic helped him maintain interest in cartooning when mainstream works started to lose their appeal.

Years later, after “Optic Nerve” became a top-selling title for Drawn & Quarterly, Tomine suggested to the alternative comic label the idea of reprinting Tatsumi’s work. While in Japan, Tomine arranged a meeting with Tatsumi. Although the two men required a translator, they recognized their common affinity for a particular brand of off-beat, minimalist storytelling. Though Tomine’s drawings tend to favor a more realistic look than Tatsumi’s curvaceous lines, his work often deals with similarly alienated individuals coping with romantic hardships. His characters tend be young and wistful, so it comes as no surprise that his fanbase is largely made up of similarly aged, like-minded people. But Tomine insists that the cultural gap between his art and Tatsumi’s doesn’t significantly seperate their styles.

“A lot of times I’ll read reviews of my work where it’s described as a Generation-X thing, or some hipster twentysomething genre, which has never been my goal,” Tomine said in a phone interview last week. “That just comes as a result of trying to reflect your own surroundings. Then a larger group of people try to adopt that and say, ‘Yes, he’s speaking for me.’”

If Tomine speaks for anyone, it would be his fellow cartoonists. During a scheduled appearance at the Strand bookstore on Wednesday, he spoke about his first book tour nearly a decade ago, during which he slept on the floors of comic book stores. This time around, the accomodations have been far more comfortable.

“A small group of people who see the value of graphic novels have risen to positions of power in the world,” Tomine said. “There’s been a deep increase in the quality of the work that’s been coming out the last 10 years. It’s just too astonishing for people not to notice it.” That increased attention has allowed a number of cartoonist to promote their work through a variety of media. Daniel Clowes, another cartoonist whom Tomine cites as a significant influence, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2004 after adapting his graphic novel “Ghost World” as a critically acclaimed film. As recently as a few months ago, The New York Times Magazine began serializing new work by Chris Ware, a cartoonist considered by those in the field as a contemporary legend.

Tatsumi himself, following the publication of “The Push Man,” is beginning to gain greater recognition with western audiences. Over the decades, he has lived in relative obscurity, running a small mail-order bookstore in Japan and scarcely publishing any original work. This year, he will be recognized as a guest of honor at the San Diego Comic-Con, the annual mecca for die-hard comic hobbyists.

“He’s coming out of his shell a bit,” Tomine said, possibly with a tinge of pride. “It’s like unthawing someone from a different era. He lives such a nice, quiet life in Japan. Now he’s going to be thrust into what in my mind is one of the most vulgar environments in America.” Vulgar or not, here he comes. After all, no publicity is bad publicity, especially when you’re the underdog. That philosophy seems to be the axiom of the hour among the literary cartoonist crowd. “We need to get out of the comics ghetto,” said cartoonist Seth (born Gregory Gallant). “I’m happy to see comics going out into the real world.”

Seth, who appeared alongside Tomine at the Strand, is a frequent contributor The New Yorker, among other publications. His latest work, “Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World,” delves into an alternate universe of comic book history, where the competitive collectors are largely members of an esteemed and cultured class, rather than the geeky stereotype generally associated with the crowd. Revisionist history it may be, but such work highlights the fact that the medium does indeed have a rich and long-standing history, much of which has yet to be uncovered by its expanding fanbase.

“Comics have been neglected to a big degree,” Seth said, adding that he regrets misguided similarities people often draw between the intellectual nature of his work and the abrasive, action-packed superhero comics produced by corporate behemoths Marvel and DC. “It irritates me because I’m forced to have some kind of connection to it,” he said.

In a sense, cartooning may be one of the last few fields populated by artists who prefer their work to be recieved hands-on, rather than spread through digital media. “I associate the computer with work,” Tomine said. “I associate comics with sitting in a coffee shop and flipping through pages.”

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