A seminal and mesmerizing collection

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The Swamp

By Yoshiharu Tsuge (Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly, 2020, 256 pp., $24.95, hard cover)

I first got an inkling that Montreal, Quebec publisher Drawn and Quarterly was releasing exciting new work by Asian Americans with the 2018 release of Rina Ayuyang’s “Blame This on the Boogie,” building on a list that included English translations/reprints of famous Japanese manga artists such as Shigeru Mizuki of Japan, but clearly I haven’t been paying attention.

The Swamp

A quick review of their catalog reveals a stunning selection of Asian and Asian Americans’ new comic books to complement an international list of some of the world’s best cartoonists.

“The Swamp,” by Yoshiharu Tsuge, is a collection of 11 stories created in the mid-60s and came as an absolute revelation to me. The brush and pen work is dramatic and evocative of a different era of Japan, one where samurai wearing topknots and hakama boldly command the room, ramshackle huts on the verge of collapse spell out the poverty and loneliness of the post-war culture, and strange tales of luck and deception leave the reader feeling a bit haunted. A suicide pact, a mysterious painting, a coveted old book, a secret in the cemetery are the poles Tsuge uses to wind his fables of internal conflict around, while leaving ample room for a languid pacing and evocative backdrops, from the lush and crowded swampland of the title story to the repressive heat of a crematorium furnace, to flood the page.

Tsuge’s stories are filled with Japanese of all ages, and another wonder of the artwork is the range of emotions that are evoked through his drawings.

The women, unfortunately, are frequently lusted after and abused, but they still possess a ferocity and resilience; many have complex and unresolved stories to tell.

The book includes an in-depth historical and biographical essay on Tsuge, written by manga expert Mitsuhiro Asakawa, that explains Japan’s manga industry in the post-war years, and how Tsuge, pioneered the deeply personal autobiographical comic book story format. Up until now, Tsuge has rarely had his work translated into English, and is relatively unknown outside Japan, where he is revered as hugely influential.

Apparently, “The Swamp” is the first volume in a seven-part series that Drawn and Quarterly plans to publish in the coming years. Now that I’ve had a taste of Tsuge’s mesmerizing storytelling and powerful lines, I await with bated breath, not just for the next installation of this pioneering artist’s work, but to see what else Drawn and Quarterly has lying in wait.

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