Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s Black Blizzard is published by Drawn and Quarterly, but looks and feels unlike any of the author’s other works previously released by the publisher. The Push Man, Abandon the Old in Tokyo and Good-Bye were all stately hardcovers, elegant and thoughtfully designed, obviously worthy of the visionary comics they contained.
Tatsumi’s mammoth autobiography A Drifting Life was published in paperback (albeit one the size of a canned ham), but its rambling narrative and epic sweep demanded a different presentation than Tatsumi’s hardcover anthologies of short fiction.
Black Blizzard arrives garish and lurid, feeling cheap and disposable. There’s a
yellow ink applied around the edges of the book that makes it feel like the 75 cent paperbacks people read decades ago, the ones that today are piled up by their millions in used bookstores everywhere. That’s my initial impression of the presentation of Black Blizzard, and I am quite certain the publisher, Drawn and Quarterly, and the designer, Adrian Tomine, intended just that. For the comics within were created a half-century ago by a young manga-ka working at unbelievable speed (the book’s 128 pages were crafted in less than three weeks) for an audience of children buying books like this in the rental book market: garish, lurid; cheap, disposable.
I mean none of these adjectives in a perjorative sense. Like Tomine’s brilliant book design, they are rather intended to celebrate the look and feel of Tatsumi’s work in Black Blizzard. He wasn’t new to comics when he created this book in 1956; rather, he says in an interview with Tomine that this was his 18th such work. But Tatsumi was very far, indeed, from the mature and considered cartoonist he would become in his later years, with work such as that found in Drawn and Quarterly’s other Tatsumi releases.
Let me say that I have them all, and I love them all. I have been fairly eager in my efforts to seek out manga that suits my sensibilities; I have picked up issues of Shonen Jump, I have bought titles like Battle Royale, Oishinbo, 20th Century Boys and many others. I have tried very hard to find manga that speaks to me the way the very best North American comics and graphic novels have from time to time. I’ve liked some and loved a few, but no single manga-ka has caught my attention and fired my senses like Yoshihiro Tatsumi. His work crosses cultural and linguistic divides in a way no other Japanese comics creator has for me. The brutal honesty found in his three hardcover anthologies are unmatched in any comics I’ve read by any other creator, from any continent at all that you’d care to name. Tatsumi’s finest work is as good or better than that by the comics creators I admire most in the world, whether it’s Clowes, Crumb, Ware, or either Hernandez Brother (although he hews closest to Gilbert’s sensibilities if you ask me).
I say all this by way of explaining to you that I knew what I was getting into with Black Blizzard; I knew it was not a “mature” work, and I knew it would not be as “good” as, say, Abandon the Old in Tokyo. I’ve already seen reviews that have definitely cast it in a lesser light or found it wanting. And okay, I get it: Black Blizzard won’t change our world.
But that’s not the point. The point is, it changed Tatsumi’s; Black Blizzard is a landmark on the road to his journey from wannabe comics creator to one of the planet’s greatest living cartoonists. He admits in his interview with Tomine that this new release is “like exposing something shameful and private from [his] past.” And with Tatsumi’s monumental body of more mature and thoughtful work, I don’t doubt that that’s true. But as a record of an important stage of his development, as a key pre-historic relic of a very important part of comics history, Black Blizzard is invaluable.
I’m not saying it’s some boring and bad comic that we should all have on our shelves to prove how much we know about comics. In point of fact, Black Blizzard is a fast-paced and thrill-a-minute crime story about two desperate murderers brought together by circumstance, unaware of their shared secret history, and on a collision course that will allow only one of them to truly be free to enjoy the rest of his life, should he live long enough to do so. In their way stand cops in hard and fast pursuit, brutal cold and constant tension that builds and builds as the story is told.
Oh, to have been a child able to read such violent, pulpy and (yes) romantic fiction whenever I chose! No wonder manga built such a huge and loyal following in Japan over the decades it developed and grew into an unstoppable cultural force. I started reading comics in the early 1970s, and while Tatsumi was busy then crafting some of his greatest works, as a young child in North America I had Richie Rich. I had Archie. I had Spider-Man, but by Gerry Conway and Ross Andru, not Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. I had crap in 1972. In 1956, Tatsumi was giving young Japanese manga readers thrills, chills and the possibility of getting one’s hand hacked off by a desperate, wild-eyed killer with five notches already in his belt. Black Blizzard is occasionally awkward and not terribly well-drawn in places, I’ll give you that. But it’s sweaty, breakneck stuff that absolutely conveys its creator’s passion and desire to tell a thrilling story. Tatsumi says he didn’t get much reader reaction to it at the time, but I can tell you if I had read it when I was ten years old, it would have blown me away and made me love comics far more than Richie Rich and Cadbury’s tame and bland adventures ever could have done.
So yeah. Garish and cheap, lurid and even amateurishly drawn; Black Blizzard is all that. And I had one hell of a good time reading it, and I love how it’s presented and how its creator acknowledges all its flaws, and how its publisher and designer rightly celebrate those flaws and create a conduit through which all Tatsumi’s youthful vigor and muscular storytelling can awkwardly elbow its way through the dismissal of history and the wisdom of those who know there are far better comics than this. But be that as it may, there are also far, far worse comics than this, and there are far worse creative sins than the ones Tatsumi committed in creating Black Blizzard.