Adrian Tomine would like to apologize, on behalf of America, to fellow comic-book artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi — grandfather of alternative manga — for the fact that Tatsumi’s first experience of the United States is the San Diego Comicon. Tatsumi is 71, a reserved, almost shy man, and Comicon is a massive, chaotic commercial mega-event, where a hundred thousand geeked-out fans collide with the artists they worship. Today is the calm before the storm. Sitting together around a sleek wood conference table located deep within the UCLA Hammer Museum in Westwood, where he and Tatsumi are set to give a pre-Comicon lecture, the two look more like grandfather and grandson than artists working a continent and a generation apart. Tomine waits patiently while the older gentleman’s interpreter translates the apology. Tatsumi laughs. He doesn’t speak English. Tomine doesn’t speak Japanese. Their art is the only unfiltered connection between them.
Tatsumi’s Abandon the Old in Tokyo, the second in a multivolume series of collected stories edited by Tomine, comes out this summer. While the other comics artists of his day spun childish fantasies, Tatsumi drew mundane daily life: sex, violence, the anonymous man lost in a sea of faces. “I was a fan of Tatsumi’s work back when I was a teenager, when I was doing this stuff,” Tomine says, gently touching an early zine of his I’ve brought along, a battered copy of Optic Nerve Issue No. 5, given to me by a high school friend in 1993, when Tomine was still producing the comic as a folded 8½-by-11, photocopied, hand-stapled pamphlet. “I’d always wanted to see his work translated into English. I kept waiting around for someone else to do it. No one ever did.” So, a few years ago, he hired a friend to do the translations, then took the work to his publisher. About the everyday disappointments and triumphs of the humble Japanese laborer, Tatsumi’s stories exist in that wondrous, delicate place where sad meets funny, where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Comic-book artists in Japan, Tatsumi is saying, are workers for hire. He would often be asked to draw 50 pages a night. (Tomine draws at the speed of one page per week.) Neither of them can remember details about the characters they draw — there are so many — except that they are all rendered in a realist style. Which is to say that they are conceived by a personality, in Tomine’s words, “torn between sympathy and misanthropy.” In Tomine’s “Summer Blonde,” a reclusive young man falls for a pretty blond girl and watches her from afar — only to discover that she is sleeping with his extroverted, womanizing neighbor. The situation goes awry and ends with the young man and the girl, both single and frustrated, pressed side by side in a crowded subway train. “If you want, I can try to find another place to stand,” the man says. “I don’t blame you if . . . I mean I’m sure you really . . . hate me.”
“Yeah,” the girl sighs. “But no more than anyone else.”
They are me and you and everyone we know whittled down to the barest essentials.
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Then there’s the diarrhea. In “Occupied,” done by Tatsumi when he was 35 — about the same age Tomine is now — a struggling children’s comic-book artist (of course) gets fired from his job and plummets headlong into midlife crisis. But while on the toilet, he finds unexpected inspiration in perverted graffiti scrawled on the bathroom wall. “I had to draw! I had to draw!” the guy says. “I was overcome with the desire to draw.” That, Tatsumi and Tomine agree, is what cartooning is like. Something you have to knock out of your system in a bad way, something that consumes you so completely while you’re making it, but that you can’t bear to look at when you’re done.
At dusk, I find Mrs. Tatsumi in the Hammer’s atrium. She pats the empty space next to her on the marble slab, motioning for me to sit. A small crowd is gathering: slender art-school girls with gamine haircuts, nerdy college boys in glasses. “Adrian always draws an audience,” someone says.
Tatsumi talks in the lecture hall about drawing and Japan in the 1940s. “I feel as if I had no choice in the matter,” he says. “The level of poverty in Japan was quite severe. If I was to take up music, I would have to purchase instruments. To me, it seemed the most reasonable thing to create comics, because all you needed was a pen and paper.” Because Tatsumi is an old man now, he cannot help but think about love. Death and love. And because Tatsumi is Tatsumi, the story he’s drawing at the moment — a woman searching for her dead lover — is dark. But not without hope: Japanese myth holds that when a person dies, he or she comes back as someone’s soul mate.
His other project, a narrative he’s been working on for 11 years, part one of an autobiography, is almost finished. Part two, he quips, will depend on how much longer he lives. The sea of faces chuckle appreciatively, and Tatsumi smiles his knowing smile.