Guest contributor Miguel Cima, director/host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics, begins a new series of essays looking at what makes comics so great, and what’s holding them back.
I spend an awful lot of time and money getting to know comics I don’t know. I look outside of the mainstream to find hidden gems in this new Golden Age of American cartooning, digging into the small print runs of so many indy creators and small publishers. And of course, I always look beyond American borders as well. Logically, one of my first stops when leaving stateside comics traditions would be Japan. Manga is still by far the hugest market for comics on the globe, beating the tar out of the US market – about 5-7 times larger, depending on the year. But for some reason, I’ve always found it tough to get into Manga. For a while, it was a translation issue. Mass publication of Japanese comics into English wasn’t exactly commonplace when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. More available as I grew into my 20’s and 30’s, I just never found a lot of the content palatable. Young gals flashing short skirts fighting rapist demons seemed kind of creepy. And the goofy robot stuff just didn’t do it for me. It’s hard sometimes to sever aesthetic expectations, but I always do try. Fortunately, I think I have found my gateway drug to Japanese sequential art and it’s called gekiga.
Translated literally into “dramatic pictures,” gekiga is the Japanese version of what we might call “alternative comics” in America. Only gekiga has a far richer and older history than the more recent wave of “serious” comics which came of age in the last 30 years – think Love & Rockets, Eightball, Palookaville, etc. The gekiga movement became robust in the ’60s and ’70s, and even at their peak, the alternative explosion never found nearly as many readers here at home as dramatic works did in the Land of the Rising Sun. Far from the convoluted mythologies and weird technophile bent of so much classical Manga, gekiga brings us some down-to-earth humanity which serves wonderfully to expand on my menu of great comic works. Luckily, there’s been something of a tear lately in bringing translated versions of some of the best stuff from the genre to English readers, and I’d like to share some of them with you here.
Leading the way for me has been an effort by the Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly who has been putting out various works by the great Yoshihiro Tatsumi – who was the guy who in fact coined the term “gekiga” in 1957. They’ve published various collections of his short stories, including The Push Man and Good-Bye. Populating these volumes are some of the most harrowing tales of human isolation, desire and loss I’ve ever read. Anyone serious about drama, this is your place. It’s as if John Cassavettes was doing comics, or maybe Lena Wertmüller. But if you really need a thick volume to chew on, try Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life – his epic 900-page omnibus autobiography, concentrating largely on his struggles to define a comic style in his early days, as well as an incredibly revealing look at his own perceived human weaknesses. Besides being great artwork and solid storytelling, this book also encapsulates a good chunk of the history of gekiga to boot.
Another book published by D&Q is the powerful Onward Towards Our Nobel Deaths. This one comes from Shigeru Mizuki, who is actually best-known in Japan for his legendary yokai books about the rich mythology of demons and monsters from local folklore. In this volume, Mizuki draws from his experience in WWII as a soldier in the Imperial Army. This compelling work draws you into the day-to-day horrors of an abused, underfed and outnumbered platoon facing the subjugation of a marital culture which has little regard for enlisted men. Treated as so much fodder, Mizuki dares us to look away as we are engrossed in the insanity not only of war, but also of a cultish warrior tradition which favored suicide over surrender. As if to counter the seriousness of this work, Mizuki is also the subject of a top-rated soap opera TV show in Japan based on the autobiography of his wife detailing their marriage.
But perhaps my favorite gekiga reading to date comes to me from a publisher I only had the pleasure of getting to know at last year’s Comic-con, Vertical, Inc. And once again, this work comes from a guy best known for more traditional manga – the granddaddy of them all, Osamu Tezuka. This is the guy best known in America for Astro Boy. He’s a true legend in Japan, spanning not only the world of comics, but anime as well. A prolific pioneer, he was Japan’s answer to Eisner, Kirby & Lee and Walt Disney all rolled into one. And while there’s all sorts of genres in his purported 700,000-plus pages of comics, the one that caught my eye was called Ayako. This heavy tome reads like a postwar version of Anna Karenina. Just as worthy of Tolstoy’s humanity and sensitivity, Ayako is the tale of an aristocratic family trying desperately to hang on to its wealth, holdings and prestige during a turbulent and unsure time – all the while spending an incredible amount of time and resources hiding a VERY salacious family secret. I can’t say too much more without spoiling the surprises within, but this volume combines the human insight of the Russian masters, with a chapter-to-chapter structure worthy of Dickens. To say the least, this one is a page-turner, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Tezuka uses his mastery here to look into the ugliest aspects of human behavior as practiced by some very depraved people, all the while cuttingly criticizing class structure and the petty concerns of the upper-crust. I was truly stunned by this one.
I’m hardly an expert now in gekiga, but I am certainly an enthusiastic convert. If you’re into great American creators like Carol Tyler and Craig Thompson, then do yourself a favor and cross the Pacific for a whole new world of discovery. I have to wonder – was gekiga an inspiration to many of our revered modern masters here at home? The tradition was so strong for so long before the alternative movement here at home, it wouldn’t surprise me. In any case, dramatic comics works are still far behind in terms of finding wide audiences in the US. We are still far too distracted by superheroes to take comics seriously. If the day were to come that sequential art were held in as high esteem as cinema is, whatever popular awards TV show that would become the Oscars of comics would be giving top prize to all sorts of gekiga – at least if they followed the Hollywood pattern of favoring strong dramatic works. But I’m not really being fair: these gekiga works are far superior to the sorts of films that win those awards, regardless of a common genre. Any serious dramatist would have a lot more to learn from these guys, by far.
Argentinean-born New Yorker and NYU film school graduate Miguel Cima is a veteran of film, television and music. He has worked for such companies as Warner Bros., Dreamworks and MTV. An avid comic book collector since he could read, Miguel began writing stories in 4th grade and has not slowed down since. He is a world traveler, accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comics creator. He is the writer, director and host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics. Follow Dig Comics on Facebook. Read Miguel’s comic book recommendations.