There is a bracing passage in editor Mitsuhiro Asakawa's long supplementary text in the back of this much-awaited book, where he identifies Manga shugi, a periodical which debuted in March of 1967, as Japan's first such publication devoted entirely to comics criticism - and, it turns out, this first issue of the first comics criticism periodical in Japan was focused on the works of Yoshiharu Tsuge. In other words, at the very moment comics criticism in Japan began to exist as an organized thing in popular print, Tsuge was there. His work is not just canon; it is canon from the birth of canon, and now, after many years of allusion and citation, the comics themselves are beginning to appear in general English translation.
But if you are the type to feel intimidation in the face of new, great works, you may yet sigh with relief upon seeing what's waiting in The Swamp. Of the 11 stories included, 4 are straightforward period tales -- redolent perhaps of the early mission of Garo magazine as political education for young people, headlined by the proletarian historical dramas of Sanpei Shirato -- and 4 are re-drawings of stories from Tsuge's voluminous preceding catalog of rental manga work: the 'immature' works implied by this book's subtitle. That leaves 3 stories which might be considered 'characteristically' Tsuge, and I think that balance actually makes the book pretty interesting. If this is not a collection that speaks immediately of Tsuge as what the critic Domingos Isabelinho once called "the only genius in the history of comics," its chronological organization offers a nonetheless worthwhile look at an artist refining himself in face of uncertainty.
First up are the four period tales, which represent Tsuge's earliest contributions to Garo in 1965 and early 1966; Shirato had admired some of Tsuge's rental manga work, and a notice was placed in one of the magazine's early issues urging the artist to contact them. The results are not generally considered among Tsuge's notable pieces in the English-language commentary I've encountered, but I quite enjoyed their easygoing and melancholic observational sense.
You can read one of these, "The Phony Warrior", in its entirety online, courtesy of The Paris Review. Initially, it is easy to see why this would not necessarily rank among the notable Tsuge works - it is a comic that tells you exactly what it is about, while the better Tsuge works occupy a potent and mysterious, subjective space. But pay attention to the narrator: a samurai in the historical sense, which is to say an occupant of a particular caste, with no especial skills. He is interested in sharing his leisure time at the hot springs with another samurai, and quickly becomes transfixed by his new companion, who appears to be the legendary Musashi Miyamoto: he of actual, extraordinary swordsmanship. Alas, this is not Musashi -- probably not even a samurai -- but a class interloper who pretends to be the great man as a means of coaxing cash out of awed onlookers. Our narrator, however, is unusually wise: as a man without talent, he understands that this stranger truly does have an extraordinary aptitude for swordplay, albeit one who has been forced by the necessity of survival to grow against those limitations into a shape that, in an instant, can be dismissed as disreputable by nobler onlookers.
Asakawa, in his essay, suggests this story represents Tsuge's anxieties about making comics in the Shirato mold - I'll leave such biographical criticism to the experts, but it is undoubtedly about making art; most of these period comics are. One, "An Unusual Painting", is explicitly about the subjectivity of viewing art, and the pleasant folly of using it as a guide to life, but even the tiny vignette of "Watermelon Sake" -- in which a pair of jobless drunks verily invent watermelon sake -- captures an ecstatic process of creation. It also assures us, in a bleakly funny concluding caption, that absolutely no financial benefit will come to these men from their creation, which is not so far removed from the portraits of futile work in Tsuge's The Man Without Talent, his 1985-86 career capstone serial, recently published in translation by New York Review Comics; here we see those concerns in a winsome and bouncing form.
After that, we encounter characteristic works such as "The Swamp" and "Chirpy" - if you are the type of filthy villain who has dared look at illegal 'scanlations' online in the past decade, these stories alone in the book will not be unfamiliar to you, although even the virtuous among us may have heard them critically discussed. Ryan Holmberg, the translator of this collection (and its co-editor, and an additional contributor to the Asakawa essay), analyzed "The Swamp" itself in his catalog essay for Garo Manga: The First Decade, 1964-1973, a 2010 exhibition at the Center for Book Arts in New York. Concerning a young hunter whose wounding of a goose leads him into the home of a young woman who keeps a snake in a cage, one which creeps out at night to pleasurably choke her neck, leading the man to choke her neck, culminating in his release into the wilderness to fire his gun again, "The Swamp" disregards the direct storytelling of Tsuge's preceding comics entirely in favor of a desirous humidity the characters flatly talk around - words are dull thoughts, drawings are the realm of voluptuous feeling.
Holmberg interpreted the story as gendered by both period and geography: the man is urbanized in dress, while the woman represents the feminized countryside, which seeks to capture, cage the autonomous modern male with sexual wiles akin to ancient tales of bewitching ghosts. Indeed, any attempt to comprehend a desirous woman is rendered as futile as chatting with a downpour in Tsuge's piece; a woman who fucks is basically a type of yōkai, with the male led irrationally along a burn at logic's horizon. But I depart from Holmberg insofar as he suggests this encounter is elliptic; I read it as cyclical. Pull out your copy of RAW Vol. 2 No. 2 (1990), and check out Tsuge's later story "Oba's Electroplate Factory" - there, a boy works a tiring and dangerous manufacturing job for the widowed wife of the factory owner. A strapping soldier enters the picture, and the boy does not, cannot understand when the older woman and the younger man run away, leaving him alone. No matter - his naïveté compels him to continue the dangerous work of the factory, which he barely understands.
I similarly read the male figure in "The Swamp" as an inexperienced boy, firing off his gun just prior to the beginning of the story and failing to kill his prey; this summons the woman, who initiates him into the terror of sex, a thing he cannot yet comprehend. Look at the image above, at his shock when the woman moans! Shaken by the experience, the boy ventures back out into the wilderness, but he is compelled to pull it out again, to recreate the circumstances that began the story, that led him to the woman. Like the boy in "Oba's Electroplate Factory", he must continue the work. A concluding splash page depicts the second shot, a splendid and primal image that I can't help but feel is more effective with the original sound effect:
That razor-sharp ZUDOOON ascends like a bolt shot into the eye of heaven, while the galumphing B and Os of the English KBOOOM makes it seem the poor kid is firing smoke from his barrel. The book itself does not credit anybody with this replacement job, although it appears from social media that the cartoonist Anna Haifisch drew the font for the English lettering. I suppose Drawn & Quarterly feels that Japanese sound effects would distract or confuse those readers they are courting with this release: not manga maniacs, but general indie comics readers, or those interested in 'quality' graphic novels who aren't going to look at more than a few comics in 2020. Granted, just five years ago, Tsuge's brother Tadao had his own D&Q collection, Trash Market, reoriented to read from left to right, so we are working on an evolutionary continuum - speaking of artistry grown in peculiar directions to meet the demands of commerce!
"Chirpy" is altogether more prosaic in its concerns - a cartoonist is in a relationship with a hostess, who must work a lot because he doesn't bring in any money. This is a more experienced man, whose fear is cuckholdery at the hands of his lover's customers; sexual affections now are mediated by that virility endowed by economic success. One day, the woman brings home a java sparrow for the apartment, which delights them both - the academic Tom Gill has suggested the sparrow is a symbolic child for the two, perhaps a substitute for one they cannot really afford to have. Certainly the bird focuses the woman's affections, and the man is delighted too... until he accidentally kills the poor thing while using it as reference for drawing a picture of it. Tsuge then plays a bit of a formal game - the artist's drawing of the bird looks exactly like Tsuge's drawing of the real, live bird, and the artist's drawing temporarily manages to fool the woman. Yet all it takes is a sharp breeze to reveal this subterfuge, and the manga artist stands exposed as nothing but a fraudulent provider, offering fake life, and fake happiness.
There is some interesting comparison to be made between these works and those later in the book: the four re-drawings of older rental manga stories. As Asakawa points out, Tsuge was not immediately a popular contributor to Garo; in fact, reactions were negative enough that he planned to quit comics entirely, though two of our old friends from the annals of Drawn & Quarterly's manga translations would soon intervene: Shigeru Mizuki, who employed Tsuge at his studio, and Yoshihiro Tatsumi, who encouraged Tsuge to revisit the old rental manga stories, almost as a form of rehabilitation. These concluding four stories, then, are a holographic representation of Tsuge's pre-Garo work: thousands of pages of genre comics, which Asakawa characterizes in his essay as frequently derivative, if sometimes inspired (many illustrations are provided). Of the four re-draws, three are crime comics ladled heavily with guilt, but I am going to focus on "The Ninjess" - a ninja comic first drawn in 1961, and re-drawn in 1966.
"The Ninjess" is a treat for anyone who wants to see Yoshiharu Tsuge handing out the rawbone gore, but the story's sensation runs deeper than that. A ninja is sent to assassinate a powerful and wealthy tactician, who commands an extensive guard in his nearly impregnable estate. The ninja fails, and in capture is revealed to be a woman; the powerful man takes her as a lover, easily repelling any further attempts by her to murder him. But as years pass, and intrigues come and go, it soon becomes clear that the ninjess is not so much incompetent as playing a very long game, one she will inevitably win through her superhuman concentration at the task at hand, while the wealthy man, though immensely resourceful, is still just a sentimental human.
Is the Ninjess really so different from the desirous woman in "The Swamp", or the hostess in "Chirpy", who holds all the economic power, and is the focus of the narrator's paranoia? Women are not always frightful powers in these comics -- one of the period comics, "Destiny", has a stock virtuous wife standing astride its parable of impoverished samurai dying in the face of a harder, amoral merchant class, while "A Strange Letter", another of the rental comic re-draws, casts a shopgirl as a benevolent, romantic force -- but in observing Tsuge's evolution as an artist, we might see how the advances he brought to comics reinforced this masculine awe of the woman-as-dervish. The Ninjess is a genre character, operating to some extent by the dictates of the plot and story expectations - ninja are cunning, and so she must be. In pioneering inconclusive and frequently autobiographical comics, Tsuge's own perspective renders these women almost opaque, underlining the impossibility of understanding or reconciling with others through the force of his all-consuming perspective. Which is to say, for comics to advance to a place where they can represent an uncompromising personal expression, they were made to adopt a certain narrowing of focus, away from the marketable broad impressions of people, and toward a notion of people as half-glimpsed or feverishly misunderstood, that bias of the narrator become the fabric of reality.
And when an artist becomes revered, these qualities can harden into devices. In his own essay at the back of The Man Without Talent, Holmberg notes that the great popularity of that serial inspired a collection of homages, The Bible of Nowhere Man, on the topic of becoming purposefully unproductive in society. But these tributes were simplistic, by Holmberg's estimation: "no one but Tsuge seems to have noticed that, especially in a profoundly patriarchal society like Japan, wives and children could suffer dearly if husbands decided to drop out." The heroic and iconoclastic traits of the work remain celebrated, while the frailty at the center of the project is swept away - such is the lot of canon.
You may have noticed that I skipped one of the three characteristic works - I'd wanted to save "Mushroom Hunting" for the end. First published in April of 1966, the story marked the first of Tsuge's Garo works completed while in the employ of the Mizuki studio; in fact, Mizuki's own story for that issue of Garo had run short, so Tsuge quickly put "Mushroom Hunting" together in collaboration with another artist at the studio, Yoshikazu (Shōichi) Kitagawa (one of the rental manga re-draws, "Handcuffs", is also a collaboration, written by the aforementioned Tadao Tsuge). Working for Mizuki seems to have profoundly affected Tsuge's drawing, which immediately becomes both fuller in terms of background detail, and also more dramatic, with characters posing expressively in lavish shadow - probably, the genre licks of the rental manga stuff further encouraged this development, and eventually the relationship between character and background would reach the overwhelming menace of "Screw Style" in 1968.
But "Mushroom Hunting" is meditative, very observed. Be it working with another artist or working very quickly, Tsuge seems most interested here in the depictive qualities of comics. There are several distinct approaches to rain in this comic, ranging from broken vertical lines pouring down dabs of white against the ink black of night, to the tiny postage-stamp image of isolated drops seen above, which is rain coming off red pines in the distance, only partially illuminated by light. Unlike anything else in this book, the story is one of sheer anticipation: a boy can't want to go mushroom hunting with the grandpa, and he can't get the night to pass quick enough. Eventually, he squirrels himself inside of a grandfather clock, to sleep near the heartbeat of time itself. Again, we sense Tsuge in the boy, but his naïveté is sweet now. All the subjectivity of the comic is the palpable joy of putting it together - that this happens briefly in the middle of the book, like a spark, is our reminder that art and history is rarely neat.