Just as the American comic market is sometimes thought to be strictly a repository of high adventure, pulp-inspired tales of the fantastic, the Japanese manga industry is often thought to be limited to teen-focused shojo or shonen fantasy. Both sides of the Pacific rim, however, shattered this precept in the late 60s with challenging, socially-aware cartoonists who came to make their market on their country’s idea of what comics are capable of accomplishing.
Yoshihiro Tatsumi coined the phrase gekiga – literally “dramatic pictures” – to describe the revolutionary comics he created at the time. Focused on the social messiness of post-World War II Japan, Tatsumi dug into the scarred national identity of a society that was consumed with pulling itself to the level of an international economic power, regardless of the individual cost paid by its citizens.
Good-Bye is the third collection of Tatsumi’s early 70s comics, edited and designed by acclaimed cartoonist Adrian Tomine (Shortcomings) and published by Montreal-based Drawn and Quarterly.
Adrian Tomine took time to answer questions about Tatsumi’s work and impact on the manga field.
Newsarama: Adrian, when did you discover Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s work?
Adrian Tomine: I discovered Tatsumi’s work when I was a teenager. It was right around the time that I was losing interest in the comics that I’d grown up reading, and was actively seeking out new things. And Tatsumi’s comics were unlike any I’d ever seen before.
NRAMA: Good-Bye is the third collection of his work that you’ve edited. How do you approach that job? Are you selecting which stories to include in the book?
AT: Even though I’m billed as the editor, the process is really a collaborative one, involving Mr. Tatsumi himself, his representatives in Japan, and D+Q publisher Chris Oliveros. I think we all have a hand in the process of selecting stories. The most time-consuming part of my contribution is probably the stage at which I sit down with Yuji Oniki’s translation and the original Japanese pages, and make panel-by-panel decisions about everything from how the sound effects should be translated to whether or not a panel needs to be “flopped.” Finally, I design and lay out the book, which also presents its own set of challenges. I think the ultimate goal is to arrive at a design which is attractive and eye-catching, but also one in which the emphasis is placed squarely on Mr. Tatsumi’s work.
NRAMA: Do you talk to Mr. Tatsumi about which stories will be in each book? How involved is he in the production of each collection?
AT: I think he’s involved quite a bit in that he’s the one who initially sends us the stories to pick from. I don’t know for sure, but I’d imagine that this is like a first round of elimination.
NRAMA: In this book, I expect “Hell” and “Good-bye” to garner the most reaction from American audiences, given their focus, respectively, on the aftermath of Hiroshima’s bombing and the presence of Ameican G.I.s in Japan, yet I found the somber daily toil of the other stories more moving in some ways. If a curious reader picks up the book and skims a single story for a first impression, which story captures the tenor of Tatsumi’s work best in your opinion?
AT: The story entitled “Good-Bye” is probably Tatsumi’s most well-known work, and I think it’s a good representation of many of Tatsumi’s skills and stylistic tendencies. Considering how short it is, I think it does a number of amazing balancing acts between quotidian details and larger political issues, sympathy and misanthropy, heart-breaking realism and shocking audacity. He certainly has many stories that lean more heavily in a given direction, and I’m sure there will be readers who will gravitate towards those more pure, concentrated examples, but if I wanted to quickly give someone an overview of Tatsumi’s work, “Good-Bye” seems like a good place to start.
NRAMA: Adrian, the popular notion of manga in the U.S. seems to be shonen or shojo, with a healthy dollop of fantasy and/or samurai. Do you think that bringing Mr. Tatsumi’s work to America is helping to change to the perception of manga, or is it simply a case of bringing good comics to an audience, regardless of their national origin?
AT: I think the last part of your question there is a good way of looking at it. Prior to Tatsumi, D+Q hadn’t published any Japanese cartooning, and it wasn’t like Chris Oliveros called me up and said, “Hey, I want to try to get in on this whole manga trend. Who do you recommend?” I think we both just have an interest in good comics, regardless of their particular style or origin. But that also doesn’t negate the first part of your question. I do think that many Americans have a limited view of what constitutes Japanese cartooning based on what gets translated, so it’s great to see an increase in diversity. There seems to be a bunch of upcoming projects that will go even further in terms of this, and I couldn’t be happier.
NRAMA: Yeah, I’ve been loving some of the recent Osamu Tezuka books. These stories in Good-Bye reflect a very desolate time in Japan’s history. Reading them is like voyeuring into a very confused, very conflicted time in history, isn’t it?
AT: I get the impression that this very quality of Tatsumi’s work is what, in many ways, kept the stories from being more widely embraced at the time they were created. He spares no one really, and goes right into some of the darkest areas of the post-War period. And while I think that’s a big part of what makes his work so fascinating, it was hard for people to take initially.
NRAMA: What feedback have you received on the last two Tatsumi books you edited, The Push Man and Other Stories and Abandon the Old in Tokyo?
AT: We were sort of testing the waters with the first book, so the fact that the series has continued is indicative of its success. I was very gratified to see that the books were selling, and to meet people who had enjoyed them. It was particularly heartening to sit beside Mr. Tatsumi at the San Diego Comic-Con and watch his fans line up, ask for sketches, and bow with respect.
NRAMA: How has Mr. Tatsumi responded to the feedback from American audiences?
AT: We talk about that a little bit in our Q+A at the end of Good-Bye. I think he was honestly surprised and grateful for the warm reception he’s received.
NRAMA: Are you still expecting to put out another volume of Mr. Tatsumi’s work each year?
AT: The next project that we’re working on now is Mr. Tatsumi’s massive autobiography—almost a thousand pages of comics—entitled A Drifting Life. Unlike the three books we’ve published so far, this is current work, and I think fans and cartoonists alike will be awed by the level of ambition and skill with which Mr. Tatsumi is working, this far into his career.
Good-Bye ships in early July, 2008. For more information, visit www.drawnandquarterly.com.