‘The Swamp’ is an intriguing slice of manga history


The Swamp

Yoshiharu Tsuge, 256 pgs, Drawn & Quarterly, drawnandquarterly.com, $29.95

As a long-time collector of manga, it’s always a delight to discover the medium’s earlier works, particularly the self-styled intellectuals of the Gekiga movement, often overlooked in the West. Drawn & Quarterly has made many efforts to change that, and this collection is a welcome addition. The Swamp collects several short stories by creator Yoshiharu Tsuge, originally published in Garo magazine throughout 1965-6. This volume marks the launch of a new series collecting his complete works, few of which have been released in English.

These stories mainly focus on the lives of ordinary Japanese citizens throughout the ages and across locales.

They range from quirky and humorous to bleak and even shocking, connected by an emphasis on poverty and desperation. In each story, ordinary people struggle to survive, make money, or just deal with the burdens assigned to them. You’ll find no giant robots or trans-forming superheroes here; Tsuge was “opposed, emotionally and physically, to drawing just for entertainment’s sake.” Instead, you will find snapshots of endangered Japanese customs and the anxiety of the descending modern era.

The protagonists here are profoundly flawed, and most end up going down a morally suspect or downright perplexing path to solve their problems. During “A Strange Letter,” a young man remarks, “Human beings sure are complicated… who knows why we do anything?” — an opinion that can be applied to nearly every character in the book. I still wonder why Tsuge’s characters made certain decisions, and why certain stories ended the way they did.

Tsuge’s designs clearly show the influence of his idol and the Godfather of Manga, Osamu Tezuka. The character faces are each fairly unique, even grotesque, unlike those seen in many modern and popular manga.

Meanwhile, the backgrounds frequently display elaborate inkwork and realistic detail; “The Secondhand Book” might be my favourite example of this.

All things considered, The Swamp is an intriguing and thought-provoking slice of manga history, and will seek out future collections of Yoshiharu Tsuge’s work.