The Push Man and Other Stories
By Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Translated by Yuji Oniki
Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly Publications
ISBN 1-896597-85-8, 207 pp, $19.95
Comic books are now respected enough that one sees fewer comments by reviewers who claim they don't usually read comics but are willing to praise a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi or Daniel Clowes because of its similarity to literature.
Articles of this sort are patronizing in too many ways to detail here, but one might note that it is difficult to imagine a comic artist pleased to learn his or her work is excellent not on its own terms, as a comic book, but because it approaches what novelists have long been doing. In fact, when comics are successful, it is not because they have moved sufficiently close to literature, but because they are sufficiently good as comics, and as a result of that excellence, offer us pleasure commensurate with the delight we derive from any successful art.
One hopes, therefore, we can soon dispense with the term graphic novel, the pretentious euphemism used by some to finesse the fact that they are reading--and reveling in!--comic books.
The comics collected in Yoshihiro Tatsumi's "The Push Man and Other Stories," mostly eight-page vignettes originally written in 1969 for a young men's magazine called Gekiga-Young, are examples of works that share certain qualities with literature but are, in part because they are comics, significantly different. Tatsumi's vision of urban life is as dark as Bukowski's, his concern with the working poor reminiscent of Raymond Carver's and his portrait of a city as elliptical as Joyce's, but his comics provide an experience distinct from the work of these authors.
The form Tatsumi is working with is, for example, stricter. The eight-page length was, of course, dictated by editors at Gekiga-Young, but formal constraint, whatever its source, in compelling artists to eliminate fat, often gives rise to excellent work, and this is the case here. The limits imposed on Tatsumi's art are appropriate because many of his tales depict the limits life imposes, not only on the lower working class but also on all of us, and also illustrate the eagerness with which we embrace those limits to our freedom. The constricted form Tatsumi was working with, therefore, suits perfectly his characters' constricted lives.
In a tale called "Piranha," for example, a factory worker, denigrated by his bar-hostess girlfriend for not being able to raise the million yen she needs to start her own business, finds a way to get it: He sticks his arm into the drill press at which he works and then collects the insurance payout. The hostess is delighted and tells him not to worry about the amputation, that she will take care of him, but her solicitude is short-lived.
Some of the few words in this story appear on a sign we see the protagonist reading at the end: "WORKERS WANTED / SHEET METAL PLANT / WE HIRE THE DISABLED." The final frame shows him entering the plant, and his return to the factory returns us to the first scenes of the tale, the worker moving, wide-eyed and robotic, amid hellish noise ("KTUNNK KTUNNK ... RRRRRRRRRRRRR"). The disabled worker enjoys his freedom for less than two of the story's eight pages.
Similarly, in "Pimp," the title character grows increasingly dissatisfied with his status as a kept man. Like the factory worker, he takes a decisive step, fleeing with a woman other than the one he is dependent on. Before he goes, he frees the canary that had shared the apartment with him and the woman who kept him. That woman comes home and finds a note that reads "Farewell." As she finishes reading it, the bird returns and reenters its cage. She listens to its chirping and seems to understand: "I see ?Yeah, I understand ?/ It's hard to leave / A place you've grown / so accustomed to." One guesses how the story will end.
It is not only the strict form Tatsumi was working with that sets these comics apart from literature. Also important is the element that sets all comics apart from most literature: the pictures and their arrangement on the page.
Adrian Tomine, in his excellent introduction, remarks on how Tatsumi uses "slightly cartoony characters within realistic backgrounds," and feels that in so doing Tatsumi is capable of "communicating a sense of place and emotion that more photorealistic comics couldn't approach." This is possible because Tatsumi's characters, since they don't look much like anyone, instead look a little like everyone, and these sad trapped everymen become a mirror from which we can't avert our gaze. One is eager to peer again into Tatsumi's compelling glass.
TATSUMI'S PUSH MAN in the ASAHI SHIMBUN
The Push Man and Other Stories