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Sunday, April 05, 2009

A Drifting Life -- I finished Yoshihiro Tatsumi's A Drifting Life yesterday, and have been wrestling with what to say about it.

I really, really enjoyed reading it, but there's almost no extraordinary moments in it at all for me to point to. Virtually the entirety of the narrative is concerned with Tatsumi's transformation from a fan to a professional comics creator and the development of his own offshoot of Manga, a genre he dubbed Gekiga ("dramatic pictures.").

In the few moments where the book is about something else, it is either Tatsumi's sometimes tense and difficult relationship with his brother, or more fascinatingly and frustratingly, a couple of truly weird sequences in which we get a glimpse of the author's awkward sexual awakening. I would have loved to learn whether Tatsumi's timid, shame-faced encounters are culturally based or came out of his own upbringing and point of view. I suspect the former, but we never find out and once the minor thread is dropped, it is never even hinted at again.

A Drifting Life's title really does define what it is about, and I realize that telling you that it's 800 pages of passivity that is really interesting to read seems like a left-handed endorsement, but it's not intended that way at all. Tatsumi has an enormous canvas upon which to paint his life story, and he uses it well. It's broken up into discreet chapters, which makes it easier to tackle from a reader's perspective, but don't come into it expecting shocking moments or artistic revelations. There is an epic feel, but its effect is cumulative rather than something that sweeps you along through the author's personal history.

Tatsumi is one hell of a draftsman, and his depictions of life in Japan are amazing to see, and give one a tactile sense of the life he has experienced. So the fact that the book really does drift, that Tatsumi has no grand statement to make (except perhaps at the very end), is not a criticism at all, merely an observation; perhaps a suitably passive one to match the author's viewpoint for much of the story told here.

As a reader born in North America and steeped in its mostly intellectually arrested comics-creating traditions, I guess I am programmed to look for the grand point, the big theme. So I admit that I spent much of my time reading A Drifting Life in perhaps the wrong mindset. Either because of a lack of knowledge of what came after the point the story stops, or maybe even differences in cultural cues I should have picked up on, the book really does feel like it just stops rather than reaching any real kind of climax or conclusion.

There's a moment of, let's say, energy near the end, followed by a strange epilogue and a final panel and statement that were more baffling than anything else. And yet despite that, I am glad I read it and think anyone interested in Manga, Tatsumi or artcomix should read A Drifting Life and will likely find it rewarding and enriching, as I did. It's possible an interview with Tatsumi (as his other works released by Drawn and Quarterly have included) might have provided better context with which to comprehend and absorb what Tatsumi shows us (and for that I highly recommend Jog's review), but you know what? It's his life, and this is how he wanted us to learn about it. It drifts, but it is profoundly worthwhile, and you ought to read it.

Buy A Drifting Life from amazon.com.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The One Thing You Should Do Today -- If your comic shop is carrying it, please buy A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi. If your shop is not carrying it, please buy it from Amazon.com or anywhere you can find it. It is amazing and beautiful and you'll be glad you did. And don't just take my word for it, trust Tom.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

Your Essential Monday Morning Read -- There's no better way to start off your morning, your week, and your year than reading Christopher Butcher's Future of Manga essay. Butcher looks at where Manga sales are at right now, in both mainstream bookstores and the Direct Market of superhero convenience shops comic book stores, and looks ahead not only at what he expects in 2009, but how the system can be improved for all concerned.

Fact: Many comic book stores could substantially improve their bottom line by wisely developing or improving their stock of Manga. If you own a comic book store, chances are that there is a Borders or Barnes and Noble near you that is selling tons of comics (Japanese comics, yes, but so what?) right out from under your nose. It continues to boggle my mind why any canny businessperson would want to leave money on the table like that, but you don't have to visit too many comic book stores to see that that is exactly what is happening.

Anyway, go read Butcher on this. It's fascinating reading and an easy-to-digest prescription for a better comic book industry in North America. Will comic book stores swallow their medicine? Probably not, but I'm betting some of the smart ones will read Butcher's thoughts and at least start to see where their stores -- and their financial bottom line -- could be improved in the year ahead. In the end, it's a win-win for everybody from Manga publishers, to Diamond, to superhero fans whose stores would be on more solid ground with a better chance of surviving and maybe even thriving in the future.

And think, all they have to do is sell comics.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Alive -- I love the surge in comics reading that has happened in North America as a result of the manga revolution, but I have to admit that few multi-volume series have personally engaged me as a reader over the long haul. Probably the longest I stuck by a particular series was Battle Royale. I loved the first volume of Battle Royale, and bought maybe the first eight or nine volumes. But I loved the concept enough to want to see the film (both the manga and the movie were inspired by an original novel, I believe), and when a friend sent me the movie on DVD, I was thrilled. I enjoyed the hell out of the (demented and wild) movie, but it compromised my ability to be patient through the eventual 14 or 15 volumes of the manga series (I "knew how it ended," basically), and I dropped the title from my pull list. Bad critic; bad, bad.

My taste in manga seems to run more to short stories and single volumes. If you were to ask me what the most essential manga in my graphic novel library is, I'd immediately say the works of Yoshihiro Tatsumi collected by Drawn and Quarterly, The Push Man and Other Stories and Abandon the Old in Tokyo. Those aren't generally the manga I see teenagers gobbling down in the stacks at my local bookstores, but Tatsumi and I are both older than they are. I bet eventually some of them will see the same depth and power in his stuff that I do, weaned as they have been on an international and cosmopolitan worldview of comics (something I am glad, indeed, to have lived long enough to see come to pass).

Alive is a new series written by Tadashi Kawashima with art by Adachitoka; it's published by Del Ray Manga, and it reminded me a bit of Battle Royale: Both series feature likable teenage protagonists revolting against an insane, deadly set of circumstances. Alive is more humanistic in its approach, though. It takes less glee in the gore, and therefore the violence it does contain seems somehow more consequential.

There's the usual teasing sexuality, one panty shot being oddly intersected with a moment of horrific despair, and another moment in which a sister flashes her brother, to apparently bring him out of a funk (and apparently it works). I don't know that I'll ever fully understand the differences in our two cultures, not that I am casting aspersions one way or the other. I just thought it was worth noting -- the feeling of not quite being in a world you understand is inherent in even the most pedestrian of manga, and I'm not altogether certain that isn't one of its appeals, if not one of its greatest strengths.

The world (not just Japan, that's clearly spelled out) has been caught up in the grip of what some believe is a "suicide virus" (the term is in big bold letters on the back cover, so, this is not a spoiler), causing some people to just suddenly off themselves for no apparent reason. The strangeness of this turn of events is brilliantly captured in the extended sequence depicting the first suicide we see. The tone of the scene is both sublime and horrible at the same time, wondrously captured through words and pictures.

Another sequence stands out in my mind as one of the best in the book, and its one that takes full advantage of manga's ability to parse out a single moment over the course of many pages. The protagonist, Taisuke, attempts a rooftop rescue of a beautiful young girl as his actions are contrasted with his older sister witnessing a separate suicide attempt. It's a brilliantly-paced sequence that had me in a completely arrested state of suspense.

There are a couple of genuinely eerie scenes depicting the apparent initiation into the suicidal state of mind that is enveloping the world's peoples, moments that force you to stop reading as time stops for the characters involved.

Alive is pulpy stuff, with the feel of a story that is meant for serialization. I'm okay with that, though. It's off to a compelling start, and I want to read the rest of the story. Then I'll find out if there's a movie.

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