A new graphic novel by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, “A Drifting Life,” is a semi-fictional autobiography of the post-World War 2 Japanese manga scene, and perhaps the thickest (856 pages) I have ever read. Bracketed between the end of World War II in 1945 and the Peace Treaty in 1960, this story is about Hiroshi Katsumi learning to become a manga artist, his early work in the magazine contests, working for a single publisher with shady business practices, working with other artists and multiple publishers as a collective of independent artists, misadventures with women, and a political awakening that redefines a young man. At times brutally honest, startling and revealing about the human condition, this book is a masterpiece.
Most artists internalized their fears regarding their work. Although Hiroshi has his doubts from time to time, all his fears were externalized by his older brother, Okimasa. They both aspired to be manga artists but the younger brother was more prolific and constantly refining his work more than his older brother, creating a tension between the two that range from mild verbal sparring to outright abuse. Hiroshi is constantly escaping to get away from his older brother by being a substitute basketball player at high school, working on his manga at his aunt’s place under the roar of American bombers flying out of the airport, or watching what would later become classic movies from America (Shane, Snow White, and Dumbo) and Japan (Seven Samurai and Godzilla) that would influenced his work. He later moves to Tokyo to live with other manga artists and find better business opportunities.
What I admired the most about Hiroshi is his willingness to keep working from project to project to create a critical body of work that enabled him to advance to the next level of his career. We see a steady progression from shorter lengths (four-panel on postcards) to telling longer stories (32-pages) to creating full-length books (128-pages), struggling and mastering each level along the way. He experimented with different techniques for storytelling and visual presentations from classic literature, hard-boiled detective mysteries, and movies to keep the stories fresh and interesting, and learned how to manage the business side with different artists, projects, and publishers. Being an artist is hard work. This book that took ten years to make clearly demonstrates that.
If you’re an aspiring manga artist or writer, and want to know how to successfully manage your career, this book is a must read.
NOTE: This blog post was first published on Once Upon An Albatross… blog.