A Drifting Life
Yoshihiro Tatsumi, writer/artist
Drawn & Quarterly, 2009
I have a friend from college who every time I talk to him we’ll just end up talking about comics and music and movies, and then I’ll hang up and my wife will be like “Did you tell him about our new house?” or “I saw on his girlfriend’s LiveJournal they got a new dog?” and I’ll just have to shrug my shoulders, because there was no way we could fit topics like that into our discussion of Dragon Head or John Romita Jr. or whatever. This massive autobiography is like that: It’s about the joys of pure unabashed obsessive nerdery, the almost physical pleasure of talking and thinking and writing about and working on nothing but the art you enjoy. That makes it an easy book to like. So does Tatsumi’s appealingly simple and direct art, which like a McCloud thesis in action presents Tatsumi and a galaxy of manga-pioneering stars as lovable little caricatures you never get sick of watching and rooting for. And so does the history lesson about the Japanese comics industry that it inevitably teaches. Comics as a mass medium, comics as a legitimate art form, book-format comics, comics in a variety of genres for a variety of age groups and interests–nearly everything the American comics industry is only now achieving, and in some cases may actually never achieve, Japanese comics had already done decades ago. It’s like if we’d fought World War II against Hicksville.
The thing is, much of what makes it such an easy book to like also makes it a hard book to love. Tatsumi’s relentless focus on manga, its omnipresence as the focalizing device for the story, left me scratching my head about whether other aspects of his life really did intrude upon his writing and drawing as perfunctorily as he shows them doing here. I mean, just as an example, was this dude really that uninterested in getting laid throughout his teens and early 20s? There are of course a couple of nods in that direction but they just make the relative absence all the more conspicuous. Early in the book his family plays a larger role, which makes sense because he lives with them. But his brother (and frequent coworker and collaborator)’s illness, his parents’ loveless marriage, his father’s ne’er-do-welling–did they just go away?
What’s more, the book is more about the business of manga, and making a living in it, than it is about the art itself. For every page-long disquisition about the nature of the mature “gekiga” style of comics storytelling Tatsumi helped pioneer, there are dozens about catching a train to drop a manuscript off so that he can collect a paycheck from a publisher before they declare bankruptcy or whatever. That sort of thing is a lot of fun, don’t get me wrong–when I wrote my oral history of Marvel Comics I could have sat in Joe Simon’s apartment and listened to him ramble about him and Jack Kirby fighting with Martin Goodman for hours–but it’s not going to have the impact that really digging into what made young Tatsumi tick as an artist could have had.
Indeed, the book just picks up with li’l Tatsumi already a hardcore manga fan. We never learn what hooked him to begin with, and that’s an absence that’s reflected, in its way, right up until the end: The story cuts off abruptly as Tatsumi, literally swept into a violent protest against the government by a surging crowd, connects the anger of the protesters to the ingredient he’d felt had gone missing from his own work. I assume this was the last moment Tatsumi doubted his career path? Or perhaps it was the last moment he felt blocked as a writer or artist? It’s not clear why after 800-odd pages, this is where it all ends. Like the action kicking off in medias res in terms of Tatsumi’s love of manga, it’s an odd lacuna.
One of the insights we really do get into Tatsumi’s gekiga is that it’s intended as a type of minimalism, a sort of off-kilter spareness traceable to cinema and hardboiled American detective fiction. (Its lack of text made it an easy target for bluenoses, who said that any comics page that was two-thirds wordless or more was automatically immoral.) And the book’s definitely economical in the sense that it’s a no-nonsense flow of images and text smoothly propelling us from one thing to the next as Tatsumi’s career progresses. But the constant narration rarely gives story or reader a moment’s pause. Couple it with the “on this day in history”-type panels featuring highlights from Japan’s cultural and political evolution during this time, and it’s easy to feel like you’re skimming a life rather than drifting through one. (Which reminds me, if this is what passes for A Drifting Life for Tatsumi, whose sole, laser-like focus throughout is drawing manga for a living and who busts his ass day after day and year after year to make it happen, I’d hate to think what he’d make of me!)
I think A Drifting Life is a fine book. (I definitely like it a lot more than the kind of ham-handed violent O. Henry short stories I’ve read by him.) Reading it is a lot like plowing through a long run of a serialized comic in one go: It’s a delicious, I wanna say tactile experience, and the subject matter guarantees it’s time well spent if you love comics enough to read a blog like this one. You’ll recognize a lot of yourself in it. But I suspect that that recognition comes at the expense of revelation.