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Manga on Manga: Thinking about Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life in the Comp Class

posted: 10.30.12 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander


As a writing program administrator, I spend precious little time actually teaching first-year students, and instead have shifted much of my professional energy to teaching teachers, faculty development, and designing and assessing curricula.  I compensate by fantasizing about courses I would like to teach, and my blog this week is about just such a fantasy course.  Inevitably, some graphic component seeps its way into my pedagogical fantasies, and this week is no different as my current fantasy takes its inspiration from Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s amazing pseudo-memoir A Drifting Life.

In an earlier blog, I wrote about Tatsumi’s development of gekiga, a grittier, more adult version of manga.  Collections of his work translated into English in the last several years include the remarkable Push Man and Other Stories, which bring together several of Tatsumi’s “shorts”—startling and provocative slices of post-war Tokyo life, full of economic desperation, difficult family situations, lovelorn lives, and erotic dysfunction.  Tatsumi inspired other manga artists, including the grandfather of manga, Osamu Tezuka, to explore more adult themes and content in their work and helped establish manga as a medium not just for kids, but as a venue through which more “graphic” subjects might be rendered and considered.

Originally published in Japan in 2008 and released in the US by Drawn and Quarterly in 2009, A Drifting Life is a large volume “memoir,” depicting in somewhat fictionalized form Tatsumi’s coming of age in post-war Japan and his early love of manga, which he steadily turns into an artistic career.  The book lovingly details the different kinds of manga that Tatsumi read as a youngster, as well as his initial attempts to imitate the artists he loved.  We see him struggling with mastering elements of plot (for adventure-oriented manga) and then steadily developing his own particular style and thematic concerns.  Tatsumi excels at exploring how his narrator (ostensibly based on himself) must deal with the pressures to conform to publishing demands, which often required that manga artists produce page and page of original material on a weekly basis.  Still, Tatsumi has his own vision, and negotiating that vision with fan expectations as well as the economic realities of publishing in post-war Japan is at the heart of this memoir. [read more]

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