On Editing Yoshihiro Tatsumi : Interview with Adrian Tomine

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The recent canonization of Yoshihiro Tatsumi and the reception of his comics in the Anglophone world is intimately linked to Adrian Tomine. Since the early 2000s, the cartoonist and illustrator has edited, in collaboration with Drawn and Quarterly, the English translations of Tatsumi's works, from his early graphic novels to his short stories from the 60s and 70s to his latest productions. If Tomine is above all known for his own comics, he tried to avoid putting himself at the forefront of these editions. Looking back on this experience, he shares some of the choices and decisions that guided his editorial and design work on Tatsumi's comics.

Benoît Crucifix : To start off, I would like to know a bit more about the origins of the Drawn and Quarterly translations of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s works. You mention in the introduction to The Push Man and Other Stories that you had been trying to get Tatsumi’s works translated into English for quite a while, an attempt that was boosted when you met him in Japan in 2003. But how did things happen before that ? Were there already any plans with D+Q ? What sort of obstacles did you meet ?

Adrian Tomine : There’s not much more to the back story. I proposed the idea to D+Q, they agreed, and then I met Tatsumi in Japan and eventually he consented. As far as I know, there were no plans to translated Tatsumi’s work at D+Q until I brought the material to them. I think Chris Oliveros was familiar with some of Tatsumi’s work, and he liked it, but I don’t know that they were planning on any kind of translation project. I think the only real significant obstacle, and it wasn’t even an obstacle for that long, was just getting Tatsumi to trust us. If he wasn’t open to the idea, the project would’ve died right there.

Benoît Crucifix : More generally, how did the editorial process go for the various books ? How did you decide on the material to publish, in which order, how to segment, and so on ?

Adrian Tomine : We decided early on to work chronologically, starting with what I thought was one of his best years. For each subsequent volume, Tatsumi’s agent would send us a stack of xeroxes from the next year, and I would go through a long process of selecting stories, usually in discussion with Chris Oliveros.

Benoît Crucifix : How is this collaborative, editorial activity different from the ‘lonely’ process of cartooning ?

Adrian Tomine : It was still a fairly solitary endeavor, mostly just me sitting at my desk, but it was a completely different job from my usual one of creating comics. I think it was much more important that I was a fan of Tatsumi’s work than the fact that I was also a cartoonist.

Benoît Crucifix : More particularly, I was also wondering about lay-outing and designing the books. There are three distinct designs used for the English editions of Tatsumi’s works, differentiating between his recent work (A Drifting Life and Fallen Words), the three short stories collections collecting material form the 60s and 70s, and finally the early graphic novel Black Blizzard. Could you explain the general design choices you have made as well as the rationale behind each design ?

Adrian Tomine : At first, I thought we would only be doing the old, retrospective books. I wanted a design that would possibly reach a wider audience than just fans of old manga, but which would still place Tatsumi’s artwork front and center. I’ve seen some editions of this material in other languages and they almost always color the artwork on the cover, which to me seems incongruous with the artwork inside. Then when we decided to publish some of Tatsumi’s present-day work, I felt like it should be distinguished from the old stuff, especially since we weren’t going to publish A Drifting Life in hardcover. So I think the layouts and fonts were a little more modern looking, but again, Tatsumi’s black and white drawings were the focus. And with Black Blizzard, I thought of it as it’s own thing, not exactly of a piece with the chronological hardcovers or the new books, and I felt a pulp-y, crime paperback sort of look would be appropriate. In this case, I actually had some color artwork to play with, so that’s why the cover image is so colorful.

Benoît Crucifix : There is also a specific dynamic involved when, as a cartoonist, you design someone else’s books. The stakes have been very well identified by Seth, when talking about his design for the John Stanley Library : “The truth is, when I design something it really is too much about me. I’m responding to Stanley with the love of another artist. I’m trying to create a package for him that is a tribute to him. It’s not really how designers classically work.  I think the best graphic designers try to remove themselves from the picture and create a package that is suited to the work being packaged. I don’t really think that way–I can’t keep myself out of the process. My designs end up having a bit too much of me still in the picture.”[1] Where do you situate yourself in your designs of Tatsumi’s books ?

Adrian Tomine : I think Seth’s words are very honest, and I’m sure that there’s some amount of my own artistic style and personality that unavoidably affects the Tatsumi books. But unlike Seth, I actually made a concerted effort to minimize this. I didn’t want to contribute any of my own drawing or lettering to the covers, and I only used my lettering for the translated dialogue because most of the pre-existing alternatives were horrible. Overall, I just knew that for this project, I wanted to be as unobtrusive a presence as possible. Of course, it goes without saying that Seth is a much more successful, sought-after book designer than I am, so I’ve probably been too strict in my thinking about this stuff !

Benoît Crucifix : Your work is published in France with Cornélius, that has also put out translations of Tatsumi’s comics. Were you somehow involved in that project ?

Adrian Tomine : No, but it is nice that Tatsumi and I are “label mates” in France as well. I only began working with Cornélius this year.

Benoît Crucifix : Let’s get to Tatsumi’s actual work. The D+Q reprints have been quite instrumental in adding his work to the pantheon of comics and today, he is renowned worldwide, with several awards — and one Harvey award for Abandon the Old in Tokyo. In the early 2000s, however, Tatsumi was still pretty much obscure. Besides your personal connection to his work, why do you think it was important to reprint his gekiga ?

Adrian Tomine : I began the project purely for a selfish reason : I wanted to read more of Tatsumi’s stories. I’m not at all a historian with regards to Japanese comics, and I’m reluctant to make any claims about Tatsumi’s place in comics history. I just know that his work resonated with me in a way that other comics from Japan hadn’t, and I’m very glad that he found a broader readership.

Benoît Crucifix : In the introduction to The Push Man, you describe how discovering that single English translation of Tatsumi’s book felt like “a refreshing, eye-opening rebellion against everything I’d come to expect from comics” — something that also tuned with other alternative works you were discovering about at the time : Love and Rockets, RAW, etc. If Tatsumi’s gekiga tuned in with a kind of ‘alternative’ sensibility in comics that you were looking for at the time, was it also somehow different from it ? How did you relate it to the North-American alternative material ?

Adrian Tomine : I didn’t really differentiate. I can remember reading the unauthorized translation of Tatsumi’s work at the same time as Gilbert Hernandez’s early stories, and feeling a similar mix of awe, discomfort, and joy.

Benoît Crucifix : How did working on those reprints, designing and lettering them change your appreciation of Tatsumi’s works ?

Adrian Tomine : The process forced me to give the work a closer read than most comics. It was a very deep engagement with the work, sometimes as literal as zooming in on a detail of a panel and working with that on the computer, and also just fretting and struggling with tiny choices in the translation. I learned from and came to appreciate so many facets of Tatsumi’s writing and drawing, but I never felt like the work ever lost it’s mystery. I think that might point to what connects him the most with my favorite cartoonists : that the process and method behind his storytelling was always idiosyncratic and unpredictable, and in everything he did, there was this overwhelming sense of the artist’s personality or worldview.

Benoît Crucifix : How did editing these translations impact on your own writing ? Not so much in the sense of a direct influence, but how did it make you reflect on your own cartooning practice ?

Adrian Tomine : I’m not sure there was a conscious connection in that regard. If someone with a more objective eye than mine can point to some sort of influence, I wouldn’t deny it, but I don’t think there was a moment where I looked up from the translation work and was like, “Ah, now I have to try that same thing !”

Benoît Crucifix : The story “Intruders” is dedicated to Yoshihiro Tatsumi, who had passed away only a few months before the publication of Optic Nerve no. 14. Thematically, and also stylistically, the story does have a gekiga feel to it. In interviews, you’ve stressed how your first comics would be very much derivative of the works that inspired you, as the Hernandez brothers and Daniel Clowes. Did you ever tried to imitate Tatsumi’s style ? Could we see the “Intruders” story as a friendly confrontation with your own admiration for his work ?

Adrian Tomine : No, I think by the time I was working on “Intruders” I’d learned what a treacherous path it is for me to consciously imitate someone else’s work. I think I have a natural gift for imitation and unoriginality, and if I gave myself that permission again, I would go back to being just as derivative as I have been of Dan and Jaime. I had actually already completed the story when Tatsumi passed away, but I think it does show some thematic connections to his early stories, and I wanted to honor him in some small way.

[Interview conducted by e-mail in March 2016]


  1. Tom Spurgeon, “CR Sunday Interview : Seth,” The Comics Reporter, June 7, 2009.
Entretien par in April 2016