Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #118 by Drew Barth

Swamps & Things

Swamps are, for the most part, points of transformation. There is that disgust of the slime that permeates the water and trees. Nothing comes out of a swamp the same as when it came in. Just look at Swamp Thing. Or “The Swamp” episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Or the short story collection The Swamp by Yoshiharu Tsuge. While its titular story is relatively short, this idea of transformation persists throughout the eleven stories of The Swamp as readers can go in with an expectation of 60s manga and leave with a completely different perception at the end.

All of the manga in Tsuge’s collection center on rather small acts: a trip to the hot springs, putting sake in a watermelon, finding a strange scroll, going hunting, etc. But in a testament to Tsuge’s skill as a mangaka, each of these relatively small moments become something tremendous. A trip to the hot springs becomes a run-in with Miyamoto Mushashi (until it isn’t); the watermelon sake disappears from history; a scroll becomes a map to strange kinds of fortune; clipping the wings of a swan on a hunting trip leads a hunter to a small home in a swamp. Over and over again these short works levy our own expectations against us—we want to hear about the success two friends have in creating watermelon sake or how a map leads to untold riches for a down on his luck ronin. But Tsuge continually twists his stories away from what we would want, but still finds some kind of happiness in the end.

What’s most significant about this collection of short manga is the fact that this is the first time we’ve had Tsuge’s works available in English. The fact that a creator as significant as Tsuge, credited as one of the chief figures in the development of gekiga—a style of dramatic comics centered on more adult themes—has yet to be officially published in English is staggering. It only cements how amazing it is to have a collection of his work in hand after all this time as many of these stories were first published in the mid-60s. Much like a creator like Osamu Tezuka, Tsuge’s work was foundational for what manga could become with its more adult oriented themes—much like America’s own development of underground comix around the same time. Having Tsuge’s work available now helps us to draw that historical link between where manga had started to what it would eventually become.

With publishers like Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics translating and publishing many of these essential comics from around the world, we’re finally able to get a more complete view of comics throughout the modern era. Comic’s history doesn’t begin and end with a handful of creators and publishers in America, France, and Japan—it is much broader than we could have imagined. And as we’re filling in these gaps with works from Yoshiharu Tsuge, I can only hope that we can really transform what we know about comics globally.

Get excited. Get more from your comics.

Drew Barth at Miami Book Fair in 2019.

Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.