About a dozen years ago, while I was on a business trip to the Bay Area, the cartoonist Adrian Tomine asked if we could meet to discuss an idea he had of publishing the work of an obscure, mostly forgotten Japanese cartoonist named Yoshihiro Tatsumi. At that point, only one collection of Tatsumi’s comics had been translated and published in English, and that edition, from 1987, wasn’t produced in the best of circumstances: it was a bootleg, published without Tatsumi’s permission, featuring poorly reproduced artwork and somewhat stilted dialogue as a result of a subpar translation. And yet somehow that lone volume managed to find its way to Sacramento in the late 1980s, into the hands of then-fourteen-year-old Adrian Tomine at precisely the moment when his own sensibility as a cartoonist was beginning to take form.
During our meeting, Adrian showed me this book, as well as many more untranslated pages that he had managed to track down. It didn’t take much (if any) convincing on his part: I was immediately impressed with Tatsumi’s stark artwork, and there was a definite appeal in the narrative representation of the dark underside of late sixties Tokyo. Drawn & Quarterly managed to secure the rights and commission proper translations, which led to the publication of several volumes of Tatsumi’s short stories, with Adrian working very closely on every aspect—as editor, designer, and even letterer of the series.
We were little surprised when the series received immediate acclaim. After all, the everyday realism portrayed in Tatsumi’s comics has a particular affinity with literary graphic novels of North America, with one important exception: Tatsumi’s comics (which he called gekiga, meaning “dramatic pictures”) predated any similar material being produced here by at least a couple of decades. The stories in these volumes were originally written and drawn in the late sixties and early seventies, at a time in North America when, with a few exceptions in the underground, there was almost no interest beyond the formula-driven fare of dopey superhero comic books.
If Tatsumi’s story ended here, it would have been impressive. Isn’t it enough to be considered a pioneer in the medium you’ve devoted your life to? But what happened next was something that neither Adrian nor anyone at D+Q could have anticipated. Word came to us in early 2006 that Tatsumi, who was then over seventy, was well on his way to completing an 840-page memoir, written and drawn in comics form. A Drifting Life covered the formative years of his life as a manga-ka in 1950s Japan, and when it was published in English, in 2009, it brought Tatsumi new levels of recognition, with awards (Japan’s Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize and two Eisners) and a spot on the New York Times best-seller list. Tatsumi was a guest of honor at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival that year, where he had an onstage discussion with Adrian Tomine in front of a large audience and where he signed copies of A Drifting Life for hundreds of fans over the course of the weekend.
I met Tatsumi a second, and last, time in Tokyo in November 2012. I was waiting at a restaurant when he arrived with a box that seemed a little too large and unwieldy for a seventy-seven-year-old man to lug through the city. He opened the box and pulled out approximately two hundred pages of original artwork, all early pencil drafts for a second volume of his memoir, A Drifting Life. I had heard inklings that he was at work on a follow-up, but this was the first I’d seen of it. What struck me about our meeting was that he was very enthused about this new work, and he watched closely as I perused each page, hoping that I liked what I saw. Over the course of the next two years, I checked in with Tatsumi regularly, each time politely asking when this final volume of the memoir would be completed. He granted us the rights to publish a twenty-page excerpt in Drawn & Quarterly’s twenty-fifth-anniversary book, but sadly it is still unclear if he was able to finish the book or if there are completed chapters beyond this excerpt.
It’s obligatory to eulogize the recently departed by saying that they were gracious and humble, but with Tatsumi it was true. He was modest above all and insisted, even having received so many accolades, that he was just a regular person.
It’s been ten years since we first published Tatsumi’s work, and it’s been an honor to have represented him for this period. And we are especially grateful to Adrian Tomine, without whose ongoing efforts Tatsumi’s gekiga may have never been translated and published in North America.
Chris Oliveros is the publisher and editor in chief of Drawn & Quarterly.