picto-fiction", "comix", "graphic novel", "sequential art". The term suggests something humorous and light-hearted. But it also has come to mean childish nonsense, especially of the spandex, masks, and capes-wearing variety. As creators became more artistically ambitious in the post-War era, there was the desire to distance themselves from the perceived limitations of "comics". They hoped the medium would one day be taken seriously as "literature" or "art". Meanwhile, a parallel development was also taking place in Japan. Manga was established as popular children's entertainment under the influence of the legendary Osamu Tezuka. But as the country prospered, manga creators would also push against industry restrictions. One of those people was Yoshihiro Tatsumi - the man credited for inventing the word "gekiga" ("dramatic pictures") in 1957 as an alternative to "manga" ("whimsical pictures"). His country has since come to recognize his contributions to the medium. But it wasn't until 2005 that there was a sustained effort to bring Tatsumi to the western world, initiated by alternative comics creator Adrian Tomine and publisher Drawn and Quarterly. Their first book was a collection of stories, originally published in 1969, entitled The Push Man and Other Stories. D&Q has since become the foremost purveyor of classic gekiga, with Tatsumi as its biggest star. Christopher Butcher has posted that The Push Man opened the floodgates for manga that "strove for realism, maturity, experimentation, seriousness, and to touch the human soul." - In short, Japanese alt-comics. What's interesting is that the seeds for this approach were already being sown more than forty years ago.
The sixteen short stories in this collection, mostly eight pages long, were produced for the magazine Gekiga-Young. According to Tatsumi, they were inspired by police reports and human interest stories found in newspapers. Their focus on the urban working-class reminds me of the stories in Will Eisner's groundbreaking graphic novel A Contract with God. Both are deeply interested in exploring the human condition through the experiences of social outcasts. But stylistically, they're far apart. Eisner still betrays his pulp influences: His caricature of familiar archetypes, the noir staging of panels, the preference for melodrama, and a morality that creeps in to punish the bad behavior of his characters. In contrast, Tatsumi is far less judgmental. There's plenty of vice to go around. But his stance seems more observational, as if trying to understand why people behave a certain way. While Eisner and Tatsumi eschew a more polished look for a style that's more organic and brush-like, Tatsumi's line is cleaner, and his pacing quicker and more economical in order to fit within the eight page count required by the magazine. For fans used to the more expansive layouts and copious emotional outpourings found in most commercial manga, this book will be quite the eye opener.
There is an underlying similarity to most of these stories. His protagonists are all similarly drawn as blank-faced, often mute, everymen. And I do mean men. The women function mostly as external agents who prompt a reaction from the male characters, which does date the material to some degree. Each tale begins with the main protagonist passively coping with the utter banality of his own existence. Tatsumi examines the dark side of the country's post-War boom by looking at the people who most of us generally choose to ignore: sanitation workers, factory workers, auto mechanics, pornographers, the unemployed, professional killers, or the eponymous "push man" who wedges passengers into crowded trains. All his antiheroes are impotent in various ways: sexually, financially, physically. As each struggles to solve their respective problems, circumstances hinder them or pull them down untill some snap in the process. In "Piranha", a man trying to please his wife deliberately hurts himself while at work in order to claim a one million yen insurance policy. When the money fails to improve their relationship, he mutilates her hand. "Test Tube" is about a sperm donor who fantasizes about a prospective client, only to be rejected by both the clinic and the woman. In "Black Smoke" an incinerator operator faced with the evidence of his wife's indiscretions leaves her after she falls asleep while a hot iron starts to burn some loose clothes. As he watches smoke rising from his house at a safe distance, he remarks "It’s a filthy city. Everything here is trash. Eventually someone’s gonna burn it."
But perhaps the best stories in the book are those in which Tatsumi is given more room for formal experimentation. "Who Are You?" is one man's meditation on his own powerlessness in the face of larger forces. Tatsumi's use of fragmented narrative generates a highly taut psychological drama that intersperses outside events with the man's own subjective perceptions of reality. In "My Hitler" a man obsesses over his inability to impregnate his wife, and worries about a giant rat invading his home. There are some beautiful sequences were he wanders the busy city streets which quickly dissolve into the rat-infested sewers beneath.
Given the generally bleak nature of his stories, it's important to acknowledge that Tatsumi's visuals avoid sensationalizing them. His characters are drawn so simply as to appear almost generic. But his cartoony style helps cushion the sometimes horrific imagery found inside. His linework is vibrant and imbues his backgrounds with a great deal of personality. The avoidance of unnecessary flourishes and straightforward panel layouts is the very embodiment of effective storytelling trumping virtuosic display. These stories demonstrate that Tatsumi was already a master of his craft in his early thirties. So it's gratifying that the success of The Push Man led to the publication of further collections of his work from D&Q.