Despite the dominance of Japanese manga on comics worldwide, Americans can still take pride in having planted the initial seeds. Osamu Tezuka was inspired by early readings of Carl Barks, and issues of MAD left behind by U.S. servicemen fell into the hands of Tiger Tateishi. Whatever satire of American life registered I could not hazard to guess, as the comics Tateishi went on to make would most resemble, in content if not form, the drawings of Sergio Aragonés, which would begin appearing in the margins of MAD at around the same time as Tateishi began drawing his work.
The strips in Cheat Sheets take up one or two pages. Certain strips have each panel presenting the broad horizontal vista of a tapestry, thick with detail and what we recognize as correct perspective on initial exposure. The tapestry, presenting a single image rich with narrative, is upended by Tateishi’s comic strip form: one can take their time reading a story into a detailed picture, but then the next panel, which the reader might expect to advance the narrative, derails it. Entire worlds are established so that the reader can see that what unfolds is not at all what was expected. In finely detailed images, Tateishi presents what are, blessedly, the dumbest kind of jokes, the “anything can happen in a comic strip” pleasures you get from a Bushmiller Nancy gag. The things you see defy description when rendered in words, because the storytelling betrays any assumptions of stability an initial panel instilled. Often the jokes are about comic strip language: the repeated figures in a single panel meant to indicate that a character is running at high speed become their own independent entities and fall into the water while the man at the front, who made the jump, arrives on the other side. The reader appraises the scene presented by one image, only to have what follows upend the visual information given. It’s all in service of silliness, powered by the idea that the chaotic trickster spirit of unpredictability is what animates humor, and the reader attempting to understand and impose order on what they see only makes them the straight man the cartoonist pulls the rug out from under.
The book itself is presented without any kind of text providing historical context. It’s a stripped-down package, where the front cover presents a page like any other, a one-page strip without adornment, while the title of the book and its author are relayed via the spine and back cover. The presentation is typical of Nieves, the Swiss art zine publisher that co-published this book with 50 Watts. For a long time one of the great blogs of the internet, cataloging the most beautiful books from around the world, 50 Watts recently launched an online store and small publishing concern. They also distribute a Japanese-language edition of another Tateishi book, Moon Trax, which covers similar visual terrain, but in fully painted color, and positions itself as something related to science fiction.
Working in black & white here, his intent is clearly related to the comic strip form. These are gag strips that delight in drawing, defined by the logic that the line drawn on the page could turn into something else just as easily. The teeth in a dog’s mouth could stretch their shape until there is no face, no dog, left to recognize. The cartooned figures, while not given names due to the strips’ wordlessness, are recognizable archetypes. The characters are monks, little kids: people who gain a power from perception or sense of play, who can put themselves into a headspace where delight can be taken in sudden terror being momentary. Animals are onlookers, arriving in the last panel, their neutral bafflement a clue to how the reader should approach the punchline. We should read these strips in a zen of not-knowing. There are bits here that seem like there might be something I am not getting, but this is likely a case of overthinking things that are pretty straightforward in the pleasure of images unfolding, and may lack deeper meaning.
Twice we get comics that begin with the moon splitting itself up to reveal its interior is made of fruit, filling up the sky, and the final panel reveals that a man has simply fallen asleep, dreaming a reverie after eating that fruit. It seems less like the point of the joke is to make you think, “Oh yes, that feeling when you eat a lot of fruit,” but to appreciate the scenery, the sleeping man, the onlooking animal. Elsewhere we get presentations of those psychedelic comics classic sequences: characters hallucinating, the zoom in to a something small to reveal another world that functions like the macrocosm surrounding it. But in a world without dialogue, it is the the sequences without human figures that most unnerve in their vision, presenting an overwhelming tactility, a detail that becomes unearthly, in hatching of shadows and textures of the unrecognizable. There is very rarely visual noise, only a density of signal that can be stared into and studied. One page ends with every enclosed space in the foreground becoming a window showing the sunset in miniature. It is a strange virtuosity, that calls your attention to it so that once compelled, you can be absorbed in its unfathomable depths.
The friendliest texture is the little curlicues of wind or dustclouds, always differing from one another, that show the artist’s hand at its loosest. The conclusions reached are nonsense. There is something childlike at play, in case you couldn’t figure that out from the author giving himself the pseudonym Tiger, and drawing tigers all the time. 50 Watts’ previous publication of Tateishi’s work, the 1984 children’s book A Tiger in the Land of Dreams, features the creature prominently as well. Visually, the tiger is known by the stripes on its fur, so amenable to inking. In a scientific sense, a tiger is defined by its status as a feline. Domesticated cats are creatures so indifferent to their owners they become an ideal companion, and the larger variety have a ferocity to them that is nonetheless a form of play. It is a force to be reckoned with, even in its gentle moments.
In one Cheat Sheets strip, the tiger appears in a monk’s breath, a visual metaphor for a forceful spirit in conflict with another’s, which is drawn as a dragon. It concludes with two tongues twisted around each other, having wrestled the other to exhaustion. It recalls Jan Švankmajer’s animated short Dimensions of Dialogue, which it prefigures. Another page where the moon, first glanced in the distance outside a window in the first panel, moves closer in the second panel, only to crash into the window and disrupt the room in the third, reminds me of nothing so much as Milo Manara’s tribute to the victims of 9/11, with the inadvertent joke of Manara’s tasteless implication replaced by deliberately using the background material to disrupt the action unfolding in front of the proscenium. It is only an explicit statement of something implicit elsewhere: The moment of impact is when something lurking inside the paper hits you and rearranges the world.
In terms of manga reprinted for the American market, one might recommend these strips to fans of Maki Sasaki or Shigeru Sugiura, although I think Tateishi’s nonsense is far more approachable. Like Abner Dean, Tateishi is someone whose work I first encountered on an internet where images could easily be shared, that blew my mind with how out of time they seemed. Here is a psychedelia looking for a good time outside the constraints of language. I’m also reminded of that Ad Reinhardt cartoon where the painting reprimands its mocking observer, "What do you represent?" if only for its concluding commentary, reminding the reader: you, sir, are a space too.
In a Tateishi comic, a shape or an animal, is merely the line that defines it. It can be translucent, and rearranged. Even the horizon line can be pulled like a piece of string. To exist on the image plane is to be subject to being rearranged, discombobulated. The world of drawing can be redrawn. It is a game of a particular sort: wherever there are rules, someone can cheat, and at the end of the day—which might well be one of those sunsets where the sun rolls off like a gear—Tiger Tateishi wins.