Adrian Tomine on Tatsumi's A Drifting Life

A Distant Life

Legendary Japanese comics artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi, the creator of the adult-oriented gekiga style comics, has enjoyed very popular last few years on North American soil, with strong reader and critical reception to Montreal-based publisher Drawn and Quarterly’s annual selection of his best short stories from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

After the successes of The Push Man And Other Stories, Abandon the Old in Tokyo, and last year’s Good-Bye, Tatsumi’s English-language publisher, in conjunction with the designer and editor of the previous collections, cartoonist Adrian Tomine, are giving Tatsumi fans an entirely new look.

A Drifting Life is Tatsumi’s eleven-years-in-the-making autobiography, weighing in at over 800 pages, and chronicling the life of an influential manga artist as he debuts in the cartooning business and searches for the voice that would create the acclaimed stories we’ve already been able to discover.

Tomine answered some of our questions about A Drifting Life, the comic book industry worldwide, and the new challenges that come with new work from the gekiga master.

Newsarama: Adrian, I was very surprised by the book. I came to it essentially expecting an autobio, but Tatsumi barely touches on his personal life. The entire book is really about his professional development, and to a large degree, the development of the manga industry. Is that a fair assessment?

Adrian Tomine: I think the focus is certainly more on Tatsumi's professional life than his personal life, for sure. There is some interesting stuff about his competitive relationship with his brother, and his first experiences with women, but it's certainly not Joe Matt-style autobio. I actually found the focus of this book to be very refreshing, and quite unusual in terms of what we generally see in autobiographical comics.

NRAMA: I agree completely. Did you talk to him about his approach to this book? Was that focus on the parallel development of his professional life and the burgeoning manga industry always his intent?

AT: I have talked to him about the book, but I wouldn't want to go on record in any way about what his intentions were. Maybe someone can ask him this question directly at some point.

NRAMA: Fair enough. Because much of Tatsumi’s life parallels the development of the manga industry, was it interesting for you personally to look at the comics industry of another country echos and diverges from the industry here? Tatsumi certainly dealt with some underhanded characters, though even they are often seen in more positive light.

AT: Yeah, maybe I'm biased because I'm a cartoonist myself, but I found all the stuff about the manga business very interesting. In reading this book, and also in talking to Mr. Tatsumi, I'm constantly reminded that there are a lot of things that seem to be universal to being a cartoonist, regardless of the culture or era in which you grew up. One difference that I did notice, though, was that even in the 1950s and 60s, the business of comics in Japan was very much a business. In some cases, it almost seemed like you could replace the comics with any other product, and the bosses and all the machinations would still be exactly the same. I think up until fairly recently, the world of “alternative” or “underground” comics in North America has been much smaller, with lower stakes, and consequently, most people got involved solely out of their love for the material.

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NRAMA: Adrian, after three years of publishing collections of Mr. Tatsumi’s short comics from the late 60s and early 70s, why shift gears to publishing a recent autobiography?

AT: When I first met Mr. Tatsumi, he commented that it felt odd for him to see such old work of his republished, especially considering that he was still working hard and producing new work. And I can certainly understand the sentiment. When we learned about A Drifting Life, both Chris Oliveros (Drawn and Quarterly’s publisher) and I became very excited. And I think the timing worked out nicely … we had the chance to introduce Tatsumi's work to a broader audience in North America with the first three books, and then Tatsumi completed this new book that he'd been working on for eleven years.

NRAMA: Tatsumi changes his name, and those of several other persons, yet many names haven’t been changed – obviously Osamu Tezuka, and I noticed Kazuo Koike’s name and recognized the titles of several manga series. Do you know why did he opt to change some names, but not all? It almost seems like you could reconstruct who was whom anyway.

AT: Sorry, to keep dodging your questions, but I'm just the designer! Obviously this was some choice that he made, but I wouldn't presume to explain it in his place.

NRAMA: Ha. No, it’s okay. Did the autobiographical nature of A Drifting Life present any new challenges, other than sheer length, compared to working on previous Tatsumi books?

AT: Yes. Not just the autobiographical nature, but also the historical aspect, presented new challenges. The book is loaded with references to actual events, actual people, actual locations, etc., and we tried to be as conscientious as possible about translating those things accurately.

Mr. Tatsumi

NRAMA: A Drifting Life is over 800 pages. How long did you spend working on this book?

AT: I'm not exactly sure, but as you said, the book is quite long, so simple steps in the process that had been much quicker in the past (such as just checking the proofs to make sure the pages were in the right order) took a fair amount of time.

NRAMA: Tatsumi never really explains how manga works on the readers’ side of things. He talks a lot about the rental shops, but never really explains them. How much do you know about that aspect?

AT: My work on these books has lead me to do a fair amount of research on my own, sometimes just so that I can provide a clarification in the form of a footnote or, in the case of A Drifting Life, with the appendix at the back of the book. One positive aspect of the technological era we live in is that people can do a lot of this kind of research themselves without too much trouble. I think it would be great if something in the book piqued a reader's curiosity and got him or her to investigate further.

NRAMA: With A Drifting Life out, do you intend to continue working on more Tatsumi books? What’s next?

AT: I'm still discussing future Tatsumi-related plans with Drawn and Quarterly. I think we've all been working so hard on A Drifting Life that we haven't had too much time to plan far into the future.

NRAMA: Finally, A Drifting Life only goes up to 1960. Does Mr. Tatsumi plan to follow up on this with another autobiographical volume?

AT: Again, I'll leave that to Tatsumi himself to answer. As a fan, I think it would be a great idea.

A Drifting Life arrives in stores in mid-April from Drawn and Quarterly.

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