Yoshihiro Tatsumi is the father of the graphic novel. He took his passion for Japan’s daily children’s cartoons (Manga) and used it as a vehicle to tell gritty, poetic, stories that attracted adult readers.
He called his new art form Gekiga and it became explosively popular in Japan throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Thirty years later Gekiga, Tatsumi’s idea of a graphic novel, would become popular in Europe and America.
In the 800-plus page autobiographical graphic novel, A Drifting Life, Tatsumi explains how he created Gekiga and the obstacles he faced while he changed the face of the publishing industry in Japan.
Tatsumi was 10 years old when Japan lost World War II. He grew up poor, his older brother was desperately sick, and his father was a perennial business failure. Tatsumi, named Hiroshi in the book, found excitement, humor, and fast thrills in the daily comic strips that ran in newspapers, magazines, and books. He spent the entirety of his free time copying the comics he liked and sending his original ideas to cartoon contests and publishers. By high school Tatsumi was published in many comic books and had even completed two-book length comics.
Tatsumi failed at getting into college because he was too focused on drawing comics and earning the respect of his idols in the industry. While his friends began their studies, Tatsumi started to sell his work in order to support himself and his family.
In these formative years Tatsumi wasn’t happy mimicking the trends and styles of other magna artists. Further, he didn’t enjoy seeing his work fall under the children-aimed label of ‘manga’ since it trivialized his work and discouraged adult readers from developing an interest. He wanted to define himself and reach a new audience.
Tatsumi began to insert adult plots into his comics and borrow camera angles and cinematic tricks employed by directors like Hitchcock and Kurosawa. Later he would draw a great deal of inspiration from the pulp-fiction writer Mickey Spillane, the progenitor of hard-boiled prose (“I walked and I smoked and I flipped the spent butts ahead of me and watched them arch to the pavement and fizzle out with one last wink.”)
His comic innovations became widely popular in comic rental stores that charged customers by the hour to read the merchandise. He mastered the art of the high-impact short story and began composing serious full-length graphic novels. The energy and creativity of his work attracted fellow magna artists who began to emulate his work and bring in their own influences. Geika, the graphic novel movement, was born.
Tatsumi’s story can be read as a classic sweat-to-spoils story, but it is more nuanced than that. He wasn’t simply trying to reach a new market and find a bigger paycheck; he was looking for the best way to translate his imagination and interests to readers. It’s really a story about a kid trying to learn how to use his creative energy.
The entirety of A Drifting Life is focused on Tatsumi’s relationship with his work. The highs he gets from creating, the lows he feels when he can’t write, and the anger he experiences when he gets lazy. It’s about the quest for new ideas and the ingenuity it takes to turn them into sellable concepts. Tatsumi tells us about the back-breaking work involved in shaping a dream into the confines of a money-making industry.
It’s essential to remember that Tatsumi wasn’t simply the creator of a good idea; he was also its primary pusher, salesman, accountant, and secretary. Tatsumi gives us a simply drawn account of the work and the skills necessary to take an idea and mold it into a reality that you can be proud of. Tatsumi concludes that he has always made demands of his dreams and it’s the reason he has achieved his success.
Buy the book here: A Drifting Life
Picture: Yoshihiro Tatsumi Drawing, Credit: The Doodlers