A semi-regular column about great comics you probably don’t know about. These could be Indie comics, comics with small print runs, or foreign comics. As reader and lover of comics for over 35 years, I’ve accumulated a huge collection. And this collection runs deep with the weird and the esoteric.
Yoshihiro Tatsumi is my favorite cartoonist.
When Drawn and Quarterly started publishing beautiful, hardcover collections of his short stories about ten years ago, I immediately fell in love with his work.
If J.D. Salinger were a cartoonist, he might have done stories like this. I think the comparison is justified. Thought-provoking and subtle, Salinger’s work excites me and makes me want to be a better writer. I get that very same feeling from reading Tatsumi.
In the early 1960’s, Tatsumi was experimenting with a new kind of manga called Gekiga. It’s often described as “Alternative Manga” and it was aimed at teenage readers. Not kids, not adults. He was writing very specifically for older teenagers. Just like Salinger.
Tatsumi wanted to tell the stories of everyday people; the downtrodden, the forgotten, and the lost. He wasn’t writing fantasies. There were no twist endings or modern stylistic devices. The character, the emotion, that’s what Tatsumi was striving to convey. His work is bold and uncompromising, like the best art in any medium.
MIDNIGHT FISHERMEN is a collection of Tastumi’s stories that was published in Singapore in 2013. It was printed in English, and since it contained several stories not otherwise available in America, I ordered it from a book dealer in Hong Kong.
Make no mistake, a book printed in English but published in Singapore, not a lot of these were made. Finding a copy of MIDNIGHT FISHERMEN might be damn-near impossible now. But every Tatsumi fan should have this book. It’s indispensable, practically functioning as a fourth volume in the D&Q series. These stories were created in 1972 and 1973, a time period that Tatsumi described in his “Notes to the Stories”.
“Japan was developing as an economic giant. The growth of big industry resulted in the dumping of pollutants and the bloated economy was creating ‘dropouts’ in society. I was moved by how these ‘dropout’ people lived and kept on working in their sorry state. The dark mood of these stories reflect my feelings at the time.”
Here’s a list of all the stories in MIDNIGHT FISHERMEN:
The opening tale, “Midnight Fisherman” moves quickly from a squalid sex scene to the conversation between two, young street-hustlers, each with a particular skill for leeching money. The atmosphere Tatsumi creates in the story is oppressive. Everybody is desperate for something better, but nobody can quite reach the brass ring.
(Read left to right in true manga style!)
The second story, “Welcome Home, Daddy”, is haunting in its simplicity. We watch as a man gambles uncontrollably, consistently losing and having to borrow money to cover his losses. In the course of one night he losses 12,000,000 yen. He puts his house up as collateral to get another loan. As he does this, he imagines his wife and young son. He knows that he is betraying them but he feels that there is no other way to get out of his hole.
With another roll of the dice, his luck has finally changed. Cut to the final page, the man is coming home after a long night of gambling. His smiling son greets him at the door and-
“Dawn of Porn” is something of an anomaly in this collection in that it’s actually kind of funny. It opens with a young couple trying to have sex in their tiny apartment, but they realize that their nosy neighbor is listening through the wall.
They get the chance to stay in a friend’s luxury apartment for the night, but they are asked not to open the curtains or window on the West-facing wall. So of course, it’s pretty much the first thing they do. Looking down they can see a bath house and they think that their friend uses the window to spy on the female bathers. But then the wind changes direction, and black smoke from a nearby smoke-stack fills the man’s apartment, covering everything in black soot. Whoops!
“Run with the Midnight Train” is all about that elusive thing which we think will change our lives forever. For the protagonist, it’s a small piece of land and all it represents. Just like in America, owning your own land in Japan is “the big dream”. But his girlfriend only sees bad memories in his little dirt lot. In fact, she’s already on her way back to the city in these pages.
“My Boobs” is a terrible title, but it’s a great story.
Here we witness a striper as she gives it all for her audience, even when a known “undercover” cop shows up. She just can’t help herself. She loves the audience as they love her, and she gives them everything, despite the consequences.
The ending is a little weird, I have to admit. Not sure what it means when two audience members share a cry and then a look of understanding, even as the young striper goes to jail.
“The Woman’s Palace” is very unique in Tatsumi’s oeuvre. It’s a science-fiction story featuring a robot character, and it is very much an homage to his mentor Osamu Tezuka (the “Godfather of Manga” and creator of Astro Boy). This is a bittersweet story of an old woman and her equally ancient, robot servant. Their relationship is the end result of seventy years of living together, but now they are both on their last days.
In “Hometown”, we see a prostitute returning to her small hometown after six years of being away. It is a somber homecoming. Her father is dead and she expects her brother to hate her for not coming back for the funeral. He doesn’t hate her, he just wants to drink to kill his own pain.
In a society that eventually throws everything away, is anything left that’s important? That’s the question at the heart of “Misappropriation”. This is a disturbing story, with its graphic depiction of suicide and a young child’s death, all seen through the eyes of a Tokyo garbage-man.
The book ends with “The Lantern Angler”, a dark parable about what happens when a big fish suddenly finding himself in a bigger pond. This tale reminded me of Stray Bullets in that it’s a character-study that turns into a crime story.
Late in his life, Yoshihiro Tatsumi started to be recognized the world over as an artist of great importance. In Europe and North America, new translations of his work were receiving massive critical acclaim. In Singapore, a film based on his autobiography, A Drifting Life, was released.
I’m so happy he got to enjoy some of his much-earned success.
Yoshihiro Tatsumi died earlier this year, at the age of 79.
His work will surely live on, as each new generation discovers him and makes him their own.
Just like J.D. Salinger.
Just like all “The Greats”.
Next time in The Comic Exotic; we spotlight some of the hard-to-find, early work of comic-book superstar, Grant Morrison. ‘Nuff said.
Questions, comments, insults, send ‘em here: firstname.lastname@example.org
See ya’ next time!
A LITTLE POST SCRIPT:
I had the extreme pleasure of meeting Mr. Tatsumi at San Diego Comic-Con in 2006, when D&Q were publishing his books. He was an older guy, and didn’t speak any English, but this undeniably great artist bowed to every fan that stood in line for his signature. He was humble and perhaps a bit overwhelmed by all of his American fans.
He did a nice little sketch in everybody’s book, a different sketch for each person. Here’s what he did in my book. It’s one of my most-prized items.
I don’t know how he did it, but I feel like he captured a little bit of my soul in that quick sketch. It was as if, in our few seconds together, he could recognize something in my character and put it down on the page. Maybe it’s just my imagination.
“Always Looking Down When You Should Be Looking Up” is the title I gave to it.