So, I laid-off this "column" for awhile because basically comics people are super-soft babies that gets all scared and upset about any kind of negative criticism unless it's about how Marvel sucks or it's agreeable feminist/racial criticism about Storm (disagreeable feminist/racial criticism, we're all about though), but David picked up an old-ass copy of Hugo Pratt's Corto Maltese last week (and I, some ripped to shreds copies of Kamandi) and was talking about how awfully made the thing was and it got me thinking about the low standards of so many of the 70s and 80s reprints--a radically pragmatic attempt to get this brilliant work out, quality and context be damned.
My first thought was a general frustration with the way comics were archived or reproduced in the past and then, my second thought, was a kind of nightmare flash through my brain of brand new "reissues" of Pratt's work from Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly in big, hardback style with nice graphic design and I thought, "give me this ass copy from 1981 any day..." and not because of some curmudgeonly want for the work to remain obscure or inaccessible but because so much of the time, the work's context is not only changed--context of art will always change--but dramatically shifted not by critical voices reevaluating the work, but by publisher and editor concerns about how to brand and sell the shit. Specifically, it was the Drawn & Quarterly reissues of Tatsumi's work that fit this frustration well.
The act of reissuing is a mix of hubris, fan boy excitement gone wrong in the best and worst way, and opportunism. On one hand, it's really cool to know that Tatsumi's work is now sitting at the shelves of Barnes & Noble for any and everybody to pick up and it boils down to a rather small and independent company putting it out because they really liked it and the popularity of Manga might sell some copies, but on the other hand, there's an uncomfortable sense of imperialistic takeover there too.
The reissue of the work's nice, but why must it get forced through a kind of twee, minimalist style of design as if its the same as the "comix" they release? What could Adrian Tomine, who makes Clowes-derivative comics (minus the all important irony) and draws sad bastard indie fucks contribute to Good-Bye & Other Stories than his name? Whether it's intended or not, there's a line being drawn, then connected between say Tatsumi's "Just a Man", which details a man's ineffable contempt for his wife and child and Tomine's "my girlfriend's mean to me but I'm a dick, oh it's so complicated this world" storytelling. Look at the Catalan Communications version from the early 80s and the recent reissue of Good-Bye:
The biggest contrast is the complete lack of subtlety in the new version, a sexually aggressive image clouded by some "hip" graphic design versus the original which simply illustrates a Geisha, back partially turned in front of a black background. It's not that the latter is somehow any less of a manipulation or closer or even more "pure" to Tatsumi's vision--if anything, it's the opposIte as Tatsumi's had something to do with the D & Q reissues--but there's something less intrusive, less subjectivized about the Catalan edition.
Vertical's reissues of the work of Osamu Tezuka are even more interesting because the design isn't terrible or as obvious, and the act of reissuing stuff like Apollo's Song, MW,or Dororo, hasn't recontextualized the work for the The New York Times crowd only (if you looked hard enough, Tatsumi's work was available), but made the creator of Astro Boy's weirder, more "mature" work really easily available for the first time. But there's still something nagging in the cover design, from the Urban Outfitter all-over print hoodie garbage of Dororo to the Manga-Chris Ware sense for the others. It doesn't fit the comics at all and it's sort of hoodwinking more conventional Manga fans who'll expect something a different than inside, and as I said, aligning the work with American "comix" which for the most part, are lighter than these guys uh, grappling with their country being bombed to shits and then rebuilt by the same dudes and all that--a sub-rant could be made about how saying these works are the "grandfather" to modern alternative comix negates their politicism, particularly a politicism that's rooted in the United States committing acts of horror and continues a trend of wiping American hands clean of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but this shit's long already...
So look, I get it. The goal here's to make these works as appealing as possible and therefore, sell more copies which helps the company (and the creator) so that more weird, cool old comics can be put out. I'm just not sure this kind of design really works because a book made in Wes Anderson hues that'll appeal to people who listen to stuff like The Shins will probably be a little disappointed by Tatsumi or Tezuka's work.
And in a lot of ways, if they aren't disappointed, it's in part coming from the fact that Vertical's design recontextualized it and so, they see it in the cartoon cutesy darkness of Wes Anderson or Neutral Milk Hotel or something when what Tezuka (or Tatsumi) are dealing with is simply, heavier and way darker. Less a retreat into retro that paradoxically, pulls out some immediate emotions or just something about living in America in modern times, but narratives that are wrestling around with Japan's odd history--post-WWII Japan under the eye of America specifically--and of course, the dropping of the Atomic bomb. As I said before, to try to even suggest some connection between the work of more recent "alternative comix" and the work of these guys is not only offensive because it's dead wrong, but because it's lessening the depth and breadth of the work by suggesting its an earlier version for what's going on now.
Tomine can cite the influence of Tatsumi on his work but if it influenced it, he grossly misread one of his comic art heroes. And that his way of paying homage is by kinda sorta recontextualizing dude's work is depressing. Perhaps, an easy example for us all to get behind is the Chip Kidd Bat-Manga controversy in which Kidd slapped together a bunch of incomplete Japanese Batman comics from the 60s, didn't put the artist's name on the front, and released the thing.
That all my examples are Japanese artists being pilfered by Americans wasn't intentional nor do I think it's a form of racism--more like mannered xenophobia, once Moebius comics get reissued in America wholesale, the same thing'll happen--but the main issue here's the obsessive desire, even by those you'd assume to be more "respectable" than bigger, dumber companies, to force others' work into their own expectations and comfort zone.