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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Pulp fiction raunch with a happy ending


BLACK BLIZZARD, by Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Translated by Akemi Wegmuller. Edited, designed and lettered by Adrian Tomine. Drawn & Quarterly, 131 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Yoshihiro Tatsumi was, when young, a fan of Mickey Spillane, the poor man's — the very poor man's — Raymond Chandler, and Spillane's fingerprints are all over "Black Blizzard," a page-turner in the best pulp style, published in 1956.

Like Spillane's fast-paced thrillers, "Black Blizzard" is a melodrama from start to finish. Star-crossed lovers share the pages with: a murder, a train crash, a pair of shackled criminals who flee into the mountains, a brutal father, a father who is not what he seems, a thug with a heart of gold, and, of course — how could it be otherwise? — a happy ending.

Tatsumi was just 21 when he wrote "Black Blizzard," but, with 17 book-length manuscripts as well as several volumes of short stories behind him, he was already a veteran and a professional. Perhaps that's what made it possible for him to whip off "Black Blizzard" in a mere 20 days. "I drew it all," he told Adrian Tomine, "in one continuous streak of productivity," and the burst of energy that compelled Tatsumi to complete "Black Blizzard" with such dispatch is the same energy that will propel readers through its pages, pages that, thanks to Tatsumi's skill, obscure the world outside. "Black Blizzard" does just what a pot-boiling, page-turner of a thriller is supposed to do: It enables us to escape.

How Tatsumi pulls this off is worth considering, because thrillers are usually driven by their plots, and Tatsumi's plot, it has to be said, is silly. Shackled crooks making a break for it and a love story? A train crash and a long-lost father? A murder and a golden-hearted thug? Any one — or perhaps two — of these devices would have satisfied most thriller writers.

Isn't Tatsumi laying it on a bit thick? The answer, of course, is yes, but just as opera is often saved from the silliness of its stories by the beauty of the music, so Tatsumi's silly story is saved by the artwork accompanying the words.

We see, for example, that it's not only our desire to know what will happen next that sends us speeding through the pages; it's also the diagonal slashes and the sense of motion they impart. These slashes, which Tatsumi worried might be "too rough," succeed in conveying the flight of the shackled crooks into the mountains, and also the movement of the wind and snow in the blizzard through which they struggle.

So viscerally do we feel the motion in these scenes that the stillness, too, is vivid when, for example, the escapees take shelter in a woodsman's cabin and movement and diagonals cease. The words, we remember, like those in opera, are only a small part of what gives comics their power.

Also mitigating the potentially off-putting excess of event is the elegance of the form into which Tatsumi shapes it. The story opens with a pianist hammering on a keyboard. (The sounds he is making include "plink," "plonk," "joom," and "jaaang": not, we are certain, music.) When a policeman enters the pianist's room, after a final "klaang," the pianist wails, "I killed someone! But it can't be . . . It can't be true."

The story jumps forward from there — shackles, train, flight — but then weaves backward again when the pianist, in a story within the forward thrust of the larger tale, recounts the events that lead up to his arrest, to the cacophony he was producing at the book's beginning. The juggling of time lines, the story told within the story, the elegance of the return, are so artfully done that the outlandishness of the plot is forgotten.

It is not the plot, therefore, but the things that Tatsumi does with it, and, especially, around it, that make "Black Blizzard" a success.

The relative insignificance of the story — even when it is as busy as the narrative of "Black Blizzard — points toward Tatsumi's later work, particularly his masterpiece, the autobiographical "A Drifting Life." In the more austere practice that characterizes this later work, Tatsumi demonstrates that less is, indeed, more. Early or late, baroque or austere, Tatsumi's work is always a wonder.

We look forward to seeing the next entry in "Drawn & Quarterly's" ongoing edition of his work.



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