Capturing Reality in Cartoons

Good-Bye  I’ve just been crying over the new collection of Yoshihiro Tatsumi stories. It’s called Good-Bye – nine unflinching, realistic portraits of postwar Japan told in the style of my childhood comic books. All I did was open the lovely new book from Drawn and Quarterly and read the first page of the first story. It slightly confused me, and I felt compelled to read the next page, and then the next. Five pages later I realized I had no intention of going back to work, and sank down into my reading chair for wallop after wallop of thrilling art-plus-words storytelling.

Every reading group will have one or two members reluctant to take the plunge into graphic storytelling – as though enjoying the comic book format were somehow betraying the necessary rigors of verbal literature. I was one of those objectors.

My introduction to the art of graphic storytelling came in a moment of open-mindedness, as I looked at the second frame of Marjane Satrapi’s PersepolisPersepolis  What caused the lightbulb to blink on in my head was Satrapi’s playful use of the cartoon framing device. She tells us the little girl on the left of the group photo is herself, but the figure on the end is mostly cut off. She’s not much more than an arm and a hand. Like a little epiphany, the humor of that placement opened up the staggering possibilities of non-verbal storytelling in graphic art.

Maus  I was somehow left untouched by my few forays into Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning Maus, a comic book based on his parents survival of the Holocaust. Who knows why a reader connects with some books, and not others? Persepolis, on the other hand, worked immediately. It was a shock, an introduction, and a preconception-breaking example of mixing several arts together and coming up with something new. From then on I was open to an exciting new art form.

Rutu Modan’s superb Exit Wounds  Exit Wounds – a love story that arises from a terrorist bombing in Tel-Aviv – and Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie’s delightful Aya,  Aya a problem comedy about a teenage girl growing up in Ivory Coast, both demonstrate a capacity for contemporary relevance and plot complexity in a film-like series of visual sequences. The two books each end with a gasp. As does the New York Times Best Book of the Year, Alison Bechdel’s Fun HomeFun Home  which tells the story of her father’s death with a dazzling flurry of literary references and a Proust-like circuitous plot that builds with musical intensity to an emotional peak in the last frame.

I’ve been converted. I’m used to graphic brilliance and non-verbal plot points and the sheer emotional punch that good graphic art can deliver. I just don’t expect the horrors of Hiroshima, not to mention prostitution and cross-dressing, to be sensitively dealt with in comic book art from over thirty years ago. Yet that’s exactly what Tatsumi does. He was a pioneer in graphic realism. His heroes are poor everymen, his situations the grinding trials of everyday life. This new collection features a couple of real masterpieces.

The opening story, “Hell,” is the one that unglued me. A reporter to Hiroshima after the war finds an image of a woman and her son scorched into a wall, and his photo of that hideous reminder launches a media phenomena veering farther and farther away from the surprising truth. “Woman in the Mirror” tells the story of Ikeuchi, the effeminate boy who can’t play football and dresses in his sisters’ clothes, recounted with an astonishingly modern understanding. “Life is So Sad” chronicles the life of a faithful bar hostess whose brutal husband in prison is convinced is being unfaithful. And the final, title story, “Good-Bye,” is the cynical story of streetwalker Mariko’s savage revenge on her needy, hypocritical father.

Tatsumi’s embrace of life’s small defeats and darknesses was ahead of its time, and over thirty years later his graphic short stories deliver a shudder of recognition in their frank, honest humanity. For meaty summer fare that’s easy to finish and yet provocative enough to fill a reading group meeting, any club with an open-minded attitude toward graphic novels and an interest in Japan should jump on Tatsumi’s Good-Bye.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

1 Comment on "Capturing Reality in Cartoons"

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  1. syndicator@gmail.com' Robert says:

    Realism in comics is up to the creator…but good seeing in so many different releases. It’s been done for years in the actual Marvel Comics genre though. Cartoonists looking to pperfect a style will always refer to sources like these. Very enjoyable read. Thanks . . . . .

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