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.
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.
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, 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.
Tatsumi’s work, long unavailable in English, has begun to be translated and issued by the Canadian publishing house Drawn and Quarterly in an annual series of books edited by the cartoonist Adrian Tomine. Now comes the big kahuna: 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. 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.
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. Tatsumi’s family was poor. His father, a philanderer, was barely and sometimes shadily employed. 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, 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.”