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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Good-Bye -- Some of the most soul-crushing sequences ever put to paper can be found in the pages of Good-Bye, the third collection of manga by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, edited by Adrian Tomine and published by Drawn and Quarterly. Despite that, the book feels like a crowning achievement.

And it is: When D&Q announced this series, I had never heard of Tatsumi. After reading the first volume, The Push Man and Other Stories, I knew I wanted to read as much Tatsumi as I possibly could, and readers seemed to agree. The series has sustained an audience through three hardcovers, and The Push Man has even gone into multiple printings.

Tatsumi's work feels familiar and welcoming to my eyes in a way that a lot of manga does not. Each volume collects several standalone stories of varying length; you don't need to know any backstory from previous volumes, or even much about Japanese culture, to appreciate each story, and each volume. Tatsumi's emotions are universal, even if their origins are sometimes unique to the Japanese experience; his emotions are raw, conflicted, embittered, sad, frustrated and hopeful in varying degrees. The way he makes them evident to the reader is a miracle of storytelling. The stories in these three volumes may date from the late 1960s and early '70s, but they feel fresh and new. Through Tatsumi's gift for attaching new heights and depths of emotion to his story construction, he invites and indicates powerful areas of comics storytelling that he alone seems so far to have explored.

If I make him sound like a genius, well, I kind of think he is. The sort of violent explosion of pain you'll find in "Good-Bye," the final story in the book it gives its name to, reminds me of the sort of thing Will Eisner wanted to evoke in A Contract with God, but only began to reach. Tatsumi gets the reader exactly where he wants him, in the guts, in the balls, and in the back of the head all at once. And not out of the creation of some clever supernatural creature or the depiction of wild, impossible events. No, Tatsumi devastates with the basest and most familiar of human emotions, lust, and twists it with its retarded cousins, jealousy and rage. "Good-Bye" is a mean motherfucker of a story, based on Tatsumi's real-life observations and extrapolations, and all the more agonizing for it. But I defy you to deny its power.

"Hell" is similar in its nihilistic ability to reveal human truth, if totally different in tone and subject matter. Like "Good-Bye," it is based on a uniquely Japanese experience, but no one will fail to recognize the basic human arrogance and venality that lie at its heart. I could see "Hell" easily fitting into one of Harvey Kurtzman's 1950s EC war comics, although the twist the story contains feels more like something Gaines and Feldstein would have cooked up. Tatsumi's handling is more skilled and nuanced than any of those folks could have managed, though I think they all would have recognized his gift for storytelling.

"Sky Burial" is perhaps the most uplifting tale in Good-Bye, although Tatsumi's visions of hope are not quite what you might expect. There's some despair and darkness to be found in it, but also a perhaps visionary observation about how nature never relinquishes its realm for long, despite what people might allow themselves to believe is the permanence of civilization. The story also features some very different techniques from Tatsumi from what we've seen in the other stories D&Q has published, especially in the awe-inspiring opening sequence -- Tatsumi's skill as an artist should be in doubt by no reader after experiencing this book.

Drawn and Quarterly are to be congratulated for seeing this three-volume project through, and thanked even more for promising us a huge, autobiographical work by Tatsumi next year. When you hear people talk about what a boom time this is for great comics, the availability of the works of Yoshihiro Tatsumi is a key part of that. Good-Bye and the two volumes that preceded it are elegant collections of complex, mature comic book storytelling, among the very best comics I've read in nearly 40 years of reading comics, and I want to read much more of the man's work.

Buy Good-Bye from Amazon.com.



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