Tana Oshima’s “Nabokova” : As Dense As A Russian Novel, But Nowhere Near As Long

There’s beauty in simplicity, as the cover of Tana Oshima’s newest self-published mini, Nabokova, clearly demonstrates. It’s stark, perhaps even spartan, but deeply communicative and precisely thought through. It imparts its message with crystal clarity and nothing by way of fuss or muss.

But there’s beauty in complexity, too, and this comic is also proof positive of that, as we’ll get to shortly. And trust me — this really only scratches the surface of the contradictions and conundrums contained herein. Bring your hardhat, folks — this one takes some real work.

On a purely physical level, this is a book that exemplifies the kind of quality artistry and craftsmanship we’ve come to expect from Oshima in fairly short order — printed in rich colors and varying tones and gradations (blue being dominant in all things — okay, almost all things) on high-quality paper between heavy cardstock covers and exquisitely drawn, it’s an object you’ll enjoy holding in your hands as much as looking at, but please do take not :  it’s a whole heck of a lot heavier than it looks and feels.

Obviously, Russian literature has been a source of inspiration for Oshima throughout her brief-but-frankly-brilliant cartooning career, but here its influence is felt in everything from the self-chosen name of our ostensible “heroine” ( a term I use, I assure you, very loosely) to the richly oblique (again with the contradictions) symbolism of the world it takes place in to the internalized struggles that make up the narrative and thematic backbone of the strips themselves. And as far as those strips go —

The connections between them are in no way hidden, but neither are they spelled out plainly. I said bring a hardhat — you might want to pack a lunch, too. Oshima mines every panel for more conceptual density than you’d think her frequently-austere imagery would provide for, but the deeper you dig, the deeper still you usually find yourself needing to go. Cliches like “lots to unpack” (or, hey, “pack a lunch”) don’t even begin to cut it here. Literary references, visual metaphors, and text that can be read and interpreted in any number of ways are all par for the course on these pages, and understanding of this book is both earned and absolutely unique to each reader. That may make it sound like a chore — which, fair enough, it is — but it’s an immensely rewarding and satisfying one, and Oshima pays you back commensurate with the amount of effort you put in.

And that may actually represent the richest contradiction in a comic that’s packed to the seams with them (starting with a protagonist that’s in no way “likeable,” but almost undeniably lovable, and building out in all directions from there) : at the end of the day, for all its depth, all its nuance, all its allegory and intimation, all its mystery,  the core philosophical conceit animating anything and everything contained within Nabokova‘s multitudes is a disarmingly simple one : the more you give, the more you get back in return. To say anything more would be to say too much — get this comic now and get to work.

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Nabokova is available for $8.00 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/nabakova.html

And while you’re running around the internet looking for cool shit, please take a moment to consider subscribing to my Patreon, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants ad ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. The link for that is https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

“I’m Very Interested In The Margins” : The Four Color Apocalypse Interview With Tana Oshima

One the most intriguing new voices to emerge in cartooning over the past year has been Tana Oshima, and after reviewing her self-published minis VagabondFilthy, and Masquerade in recent weeks, I wanted to reach out to Tana herself and allow her to “have her say” in regards to her own work rather than subjecting you all to more of my blathering about it. Without further ado, then, here she is on her life, her work, her influences, and her aims, interspersed with images from two works in progress :  a short-form work entitled Nabokova, and a full-length graphic memoir.

4CA : By way of introduction to readers who may not be familiar with your work, what is your artistic background? Did you attend art school, or are you entirely self-taught?

TO : I didn’t attend art school. I was in Spain back then, and you had to pass an exam to get in the public school of Fine Arts. I was unprepared and untalented and failed the exam. I didn’t know how to paint or draw well. There are many self-taught artists out there who are incredible at drawing and painting, but that’s not my case. I still don’t know how to draw without reference. I don’t know how to draw a car or a horse or most of the human gestures. And I have very limited technique. In my works, I just draw what I can draw. 

4CA : What made you decide on comics as your medium of choice? Have they always been of interest to you, or did you try your hand elsewhere first? If so, do you continue to work in other media to this day?

TO : I was a writer before I became a “drawer”. I love writing and I think it’s what I do best, if anything, though I still find it really, really hard to do it well (definitely not in English, which is frustrating because I live in an English-speaking country). It’s funny because for years I did both things separately —writing for newspapers and magazines, and then drawing in my spare time and writing a lot of fiction that remains unpublished. I hadn’t thought of making comics until a friend of mine told me I should try to blend those two “skills”. I remember telling her: “Oh I’m too lazy to make comics.” But then I tried making one, and loved it. That was in 2013 or 2014. I think comics are potentially a “whole” art form, a very rich art form because it requires a careful handling of two very powerful languages, the linguistic and the visual. It activates different parts of your brain when you’re making them.

At the beginning I had some trouble integrating the words in my comics. It felt like I was using words just as a narration tool and I wasn’t happy with that. I wanted words to be heavily charged with meaning, and, if possible, tell their own story, slightly independent from the images, overlapping with the images. It took some time until I learned how to balance that out. Words, when combined in certain ways, have a fascinating, multilayered complexity; that’s the magic of writing. You can achieve that multidimensionality with images too, but I have yet to explore that.

I’ve done some painting in the past, but mostly mere exercises for beginners. I have many limitations right now, in terms of time, space and money. So I stick to the fastest, the smallest and the cheapest medium and materials.

4CA : As I see it, the immigrant experience is a near-constant theme in your work : your stories consistently, and quite literally, reflect the “stranger in a strange land” perspective. Is this a result of your own family experience?

TO : Yes, it’s the result of my own experience. My experience hasn’t always been that of an immigrant (although I am now an immigrant, I guess), but they both have many things in common. My sense of perpetual foreignness comes at an almost exclusively existential level, as a result of not belonging anywhere. This lack of sense of belonging hasn’t been a choice for me. It’s not something I’d brag about; it’s a feeling I don’t like and it’s a manifestation, I think, of how the world works. The need people have to trace borders, to identify with homogeneous groups and so-called nations, to reinforce otherness and others’ strangeness, those are things that have occupied my mind since I was very young. 

4CA :  Following on from that, alienation and isolation are also part and parcel of the life of your recurring protagonist. Without wishing to get too personal, is hew viewpoint intrinsically linked to your own? To what degree does she function as a stand-in for her author?

TO : Most of my characters have a lot of autobiographical elements. The isolation you mention is the existential loneliness that comes from not belonging, not having a place you can call yours or a place that others identify as yours. I can try to convince myself that I am from a certain place, that I won’t really belong as long as the people from that place don’t consider me one of them.

I was born in Japan but was never considered Japanese because my mother is Spanish. So I was born a foreigner in my own country, so to speak. Being mixed at the time in Japan was very stigmatized, especially if you had Western blood, because they could see it right away. We had to leave Japan because of that, and we landed in Peru. I was a child, so I thought “If I’m not good enough for Japan, I might be good enough for Peru”. But it didn’t turn out that way. I was still a foreigner, and I was an Asian in another very racist country. I spent the rest of my childhood and adolescence between Argentina, Spain, Japan and France and changed schools 11 times, so I was always the foreigner, the stranger. But I feel privileged and lucky and grateful for the life I’ve had so far and the people I’ve met and this unusual sense of freedom that comes with loneliness.

As for my life in the US, which I elaborate to some degree in “Filthy”, it’s more about surviving here while not being American enough. I love the diversity in America and the fact that there are so many immigrants and foreigners, but you still need to have a certain amount of “American-ness” to blend in. It’s natural, we humans do that. We’re all ethnocentric. America is a super-superpower and that impacts our daily lives and the way Americans see themselves, even in the most progressive and open minds. On a practical level, I can see that not having graduated from an American university (or any other school that has a place in the American social imaginary), or not being an English native speaker are circumstances that place you at the bottom of the line. I’m not sure that happens all the way around, if an American tried to find a job in a foreign country. (Americans tend to be seen as valuable assets elsewhere, I think. You guys have the most powerful passport in the world!). So, as a foreigner, you know that what you bring is more or less useless here when it comes to finding a job, which is key to survival. But art is different. Art knows no borders. Or maybe it does, but those borders are of a very different nature. I shouldn’t be complaining anyway. It’s a minor struggle in my case. For one thing, I can always leave. But it’s a real, serious struggle for many other people.

4CA :  There is also a surreal or dream-like flavor to much of your work. Do your ideas literally come to you in dreams?

TO : Haha no, not really. Not while I’m sleeping at least. I’m just trying to stay away as much as I can from “literality.” I like it more when reality is inspired, or inferred, rather than told. I tend to think that there’s more reality in a poem than in a history book. I’m not sure how to define reality anyway.

4CA :  I’ve noticed recurring imagery features in all your stories to date, particularly those black and white tubes. Are they indicative of anything specific? When did you first start “seeing” them in your mind’s eye?

TO : Those tubes are part of my daily landscape ever since I moved to NYC. I’m surrounded by them, and I see beauty in them. They are charged with meaning. They come from the underground and they somehow connect different worlds. They represent some sort of hardship and adversity that comes from living in a big city, but I also turned them into symbols of the “underworld”, which can be the unconscious, or the margins. I’m very interested in the margins as a place, as a mental, societal and existential space where people end up for a variety of circumstances. Not a nice place to be in.

4CA :  To date, all of your work has been self-published. Do you find that a taxing experience, or do you appreciate the absolute freedom it offers? Maybe both?

TO : I love the absolute freedom of the self-publishing act. I hope I can self-publish forever. And I am lucky to be in the US because here you have distributors like Domino Books and a real, however small, independent comics market. But I also need to make more money and I’ll look for different ways to increase my earnings while making comics. I know, it sounds like a joke. Probably an oxymoron. 

4CA :  Picking up on that, do you have aspirations to work with any larger publishers in the future? Are you readying any “pitches” for strips or books?

TO : I would like to work with publishers to reach more people, maybe, or a more diverse pool of readers. I make comics primarily to communicate with people, so yeah I’d like to reach more of them. Doesn’t have to be a lot of them. I know there’s a lot of romanticism surrounding the self-publishing world and I agree that it’s great, and I love the informality and the independence of it, but I also need to ensure myself a place. My priority right now is to make a living in this country, in this expensive city, which is of course the priority for most of us living here. Another great thing, though, about self-publishing is that I publish in Spanish too whenever I can afford it. Most of my readers in Spanish are Miami-based Cubans, and I love that. They are very communicative.

4CA :  So far the mini-comic has been your format of choice. Do you see any longer-form works in your future, perhaps even a graphic novel?

TO : I recently started working on a graphic memoir. It only covers my childhood years in Peru. There was a war situation there, a conflict between the army and the Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla that became very violent. We were in a permanent state of emergency, under the martial law. There was a curfew, violence, and much, much misery. There was an apartheid-like situation against the Quechua and Aimara peoples, who are the majority of the Peruvian population. I’d never seen anything like what I saw in Peru at that time, and have never seen it later in life. Those people were pushed to the furthermost limits of the human psyche. And that was happening in front of my eyes. So I thought I’d tell this story in comics format, but I’m having some conflicting feelings with the non-fiction aspect, as I mentioned before, and with the fact that the story is so racially charged. I want to keep it as poetic, as non-political as possible, and that’s challenging for a memoir of this kind, at least for me.

4CA :  Any particular artistic influences you’d care to give a “shout-out” to while you have the chance?

TO : The main influences that I’m aware of are, I think, Richard Brautigan, Merleau-Ponty and David Lynch. And probably books I read during the past years. Visually speaking, I think Chagall can be my main influence. And, again, David Lynch. And maybe some manga and Ukiyoe, too, tangentially. I feel like I haven’t read enough comics (except for manga, growing up) so I’m trying to catch up now. 

4CA : Process question : what are your drawing implements of choice? Do you draw on paper, or a tablet?

TO : I draw on paper. I don’t have a tablet and it’s a pain in the ass to draw on my computer. I then color it with markers or crayons or just black ink. But I often color digitally just because it’s the cheapest, the fastest, and the smallest way to do it. 

4CA : Lastly, the floor is yours. Anything you’d like the world — or the tiny corner of it that reads this site, at any rate — to know about Tana Oshima that we haven’t covered already?

TO : I have two kids.

Thank you, Tana! For more information about her ‘zines and comics, please check out https://dostoievskiswife.bigcartel.com/

Also, this interview — and everything else around these parts, truth be told — is “brought to you” by my Patreon page, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Lately, in fact, it’s been a lot of politics. You patronage there not only keeps things going, it also ensures a steady supply of free content both here and at my trashfilmguru movie site. I recently lowered the minimum monthly “subscription” price to a dollar, and given that there’s a bunch of stuff up on there already, trust me when I say you’re sure to get great value for your money, and needless to say — but I’m saying it anyway — I’d be very gratified to have your support.

Oh, and I suppose a link would come in handy. Here you go :https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

A Tana Oshima Double-Bill : “Masquerade”

There’s a particular line in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell that has always stuck with me : Netley, who’s assisting the Moore/Campbell iteration of Jack The Ripper, Sir William Withey Gull, with his monstrous work is having an entirely understandable existential freak-out and says “I don’t know where I am anymore,” to which Gull replies that they are in a “radiant abyss where men meet themselves.”

I suppose that must be true. When you do something that’s so far beyond the pale, so undeniably evil, then you’re forced to confront yourself , to acknowledge what you’re capable of, to either live with it or go completely insane — maybe both.

In more recent years, another diamond-sharp Moore line that resonated deeply came in his superb Lovecraftian masterpiece done with artist Jacen Burrows, Providence, which at one of its most harrowing points shows its protagonist, Robert Black, sexually assaulting a young girl — only it’s Black’s mind in the girl’s body, and the mind of an ancient, parasitic, brain-swapping occultist inside Black. His body is literally raping “him,” and the attacker inhabiting it tells Black that under such consciousness-shredding circumstances, “one begins to question the very phenomenon of identity itself.”

A lot of my friends in the “indie” comics scene give me shit for reading Alan Moore stuff — a lot of my friends are depriving themselves of some of the best, most powerful work out there.

I have no idea whether or not Tana Oshima reads Moore — her four-panel grids and first-person “internal monologue” narration are reminiscent of Moore and Maark Beyer’s The Bowing Machine story from Raw volume two, number three, but those are tropes utilized by any number of cartoonists in any number of comics — yet in her forthcoming self-published mini, Masquerade (handsomely presented on heavy “construction”-type paper between card-stock covers in blueish grays and grayish blues, yellow-greens and green-yellows) she addresses, in the space of just 16 pages, both themes presented so starkly in those Moore quotes, yet does so in a manner entirely, and wonderfully, all her own.

Taking the form of a either a dream or, maybe even more intriguingly, a waking dream, Oshima here — by means of her stand-in protagonist — encounters faceless figures, a physically-empty-but-conceptually-packed farmhouse, and other random strangenesses that all seem to reflect buried, or at the very least obfuscated, aspects of herself. I think.

Alienation is a constant in Oshima’s work, but herein the alienation is fully internalized, the various scenarios depicted suffused with surrealism and in no way tied to anything like consensus “reality.” Always apart, always alone, always a step or more removed from “the flow,” here she takes advantage of the physical and metaphorical distance between herself and others to forge new connections-at-a-remove with shadowy, masked, or shadowy and masked phantoms, all of which tell her more about herself than they do about themselves — leading one to actively wonder whether or not they even “exist” outside her own mind.

There’s even more than a not-so-simple examination of identity going on here, though — Oshima is also, by means of the farmhouse, examining whether or not the act of making art can possibly bridge and/or resolve the gulf between herself and her understanding of herself. Does creativity bring her closer to the answers she seeks? Does it at least offer a way to express her questions? Don’t expect a resolution, of course, but —

Maybe?

There’s an intriguing epilogue that sees both the tone and style of the writing change, and the art shift to a “reverse-negative” black and white that takes things in new and unexpected directions, perhaps, but also introduces familiar Oshima elements, such as the tubular pipes/potential portals, that have made their presence more felt than known in her other comics. Could she, then, have come all this way — only to end up looking at herself from the other side of a mirror?

The implication is there. The hard-and-fast “answer” is not. But I’m not so sure it really matters. One way or another, in Masquerade, Tana Oshima goes everywhere by going nowhere, meets herself by never leaving herself, and finds herself — exactly where she started? Or, perhaps more accurately, where she has been all along.

But that still doesn’t mean that she knows where — or who — she is. Apart from being one of the most compelling contemporary cartoonists around, of course.

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Austin English should have this comic up for sale soon at the Domino Books online store. Check for updates at http://www.dominobooks.org/store.html

For more about Tana Oshima’s other comics and ‘zines, visit https://dostoievskiswife.bigcartel.com/

Please consider supporting my work by joining my Patreon. I recently lowered the price to a dollar, and you get exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings from yours truly on the worlds of comic, films, television, literature, and politics. Lately, in fact, it’s been a lot of politics.

Oh, and here’s a link for that, too :https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

 

 

A Tana Oshima Double-Bill : “Filthy”

For some cartoonists, 16 pages is all it takes to fully transport readers into a new and unfamiliar frame of mind that they come to know as intimately as their own (for good, ill, or both) by the time it’s over.

Well, okay, maybe for one cartoonist — that cartoonist being the remarkable Tana Oshima.

I raved about one of Oshima’s previous self-published efforts, Vagabond, on this very site in the none-too-distant past, but now she has two new minis soon to be released, both boasting superb production values (heavy-duty paper between thick, card-stock covers) and yours truly is genuinely honored to provide you, dear reader, with advance reviews of both. Filthy is the logical of the two (the other being Masquerade) to start with in that it both expands upon and, remarkably, deepens themes that carry over from Vagabond — namely the alienation, isolation, and de facto ostracization (is that even a word?) that are, depressingly, part and parcel of the immigrant experience — but does so in a manner more surreal, lyrical, and visually poetic than its predecessor.

Stop and consider that for a minute if you would, please, because Vagabond was already one of the “more surreal, lyrical, and visually poetic” comics in recent years.

Our unnamed protagonist this time out (although one, as always, in safe to infer it’s more or less Oshima herself) inhabits a shifting physical landscape that retains an aura of squalor and borderline-hopelessness whether it’s “presently” constituted as a motel, a movie theater, or an elaborate rocketship-style construct, and I put quotation marks around “presently” quite deliberately : time, you see, moves differently in an Oshima comic, and tends to circle back on itself rather than simply “progress” — which is probably a purely academic concern anyway given that the motel, the movie theater, and the rocketship-style construct are all, as it turns out, the same place.

Which, trust me, only sounds confusing — the dream-like character of this story actually makes a highly intuitive type of sense, and contains enough recognizable “real-world” elements for just about anyone to relate to it immediately. Struggles with hygiene, intimacy (with both others and oneself), gainful employment, affordable housing, and crushing student debt are a sad reality for millions, and while only some people are confronted with all these challenges at the same time, reading about a person facing them concurrently doesn’t feel so much like a case of “piling on” as it does an honest accounting of the lives of millions that we at least know about, maybe even know personally.

Sparse and expressive imagery complements the fluid-but-austere internal monologue that makes up the entirety of the narrative for a very holistic piece of sequential-art storytelling here, and the blue-gray tones Oshima contrasts her economically-deployed black lines with gives this “world” a feeling that’s appropriately bleak, but not without its charms. Rather, I suspect, much like the day-to-day lives of far too many “twenty-somethings” to count. Yes, elements of the fantastic abound herein — those tubes Oshima populates her strips with sure do bring to mind Jeff Nicholson’s criminally under-appreciated Through The Habitrails — but they feel like they “belong,” whereas the protagonist/authorial stand-in herself frequently doesn’t.

Which, of course, is the point — it could probably even be argued that it’s the entire point. And no one communicates the perspective of the genuine “outsider” with more sympathy and authenticity these days than Tana Oshima. Filthy represents the purest distillation of her ongoing artistic project to date and is not to be missed under any circumstances.

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Austin English should have this one up for sale on his Domino Books site fairly soon. Check for updates at http://www.dominobooks.org/store.htm

Find out more about Tana Oshima’s other comics and ‘zines at https://dostoievskiswife.bigcartel.com/

Please support me on Patreon , as well — I’ve recently lowered the price to a buck a month, and you get three pieces of exclusive writing every week on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Lately, in fact, it’s been a lot of politics. I’d very much appreciate having your support and promise you great value for your money.

Oh, here’s a link for that, too :https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Tana Oshima’s “Vagabond” Heart

Here’s the thing — most “indie” comics creators, and even most “indie” comics readers, fancy themselves as “outsiders,” to one degree or another. Not only do we work on, or take pleasure from, an art form that is on the “margins,” but one that is on the very margins of those margins, divorced entirely from the industry that most people think of when they even do think of comics in the first place. When the small press and self-publishers are your “bag,” then you are, by both definition and default, “way out there.”

I think that sometimes we romanticize this “outsider” status, as well — I mean, we probably have to since none of us are in it for the money. We speak a secret language known only to us, one loaded with references and terminology those squares out there in the “straight world” could never understand. We’re interested in, writing about, making, or otherwise involved with a “scene” that is well and truly our own. I’m proud of how inclusive that “scene” has become in recent years, but who are we kidding? It’ll always be exclusive simply in terms of sheer numbers — because they’re so small. There’s no secret handshake or anything, it’s true, but there’s no real need for one : only a small handful of people will ever be into this stuff.

And yeah, that’s cool — it means we’re all automatically part of a community of like-minded cartoonists, readers, or both. We tend to “get” where out “fellow travelers” are coming from. We have different tastes, sure, but we’re all absolutely committed to a medium very few will ever bother to concern themselves with. And yeah, sue me, I think that’s pretty great.

It’s one thing not to fit in by choice, though, and another thing altogether to never even be given the option to do so.

In the 12 densely-packed pages of her 2019 self-published comics ‘zine Vagabond, Tana Oshima composes a kind of visual poetic monologue that cuts to the heart of not belonging, of knowing that one has and will never belong, of finding oneself on the other side of a societal firewall that won’t let her belong.

Whether or not she wants to “fit in” is almost immaterial — the point, eloquently expressed herein, is that she’s not allowed to.And I’m sorry, but there’s something fucked up about that.

As an exploration of imposed loneliness, Vagabond is almost without equal in terms of its impact — an economy of quickly-scrawled lines lends visual immediacy and balance to words that are obviously chosen with care and precision and that even employ, by accident or design, a kind of measured tempo and meter, the cumulative effect being that both visual and narrative “languages” coalesce into an organic whole that is certainly unique to Oshima’s own experience and perspective, but one that holds within it, and consequently expresses, something universally understood and felt. We’ve all “been there” so to speak — but we haven’t all lived there, as Oshima does. As she’s forced to.

Recurring motifs drawn directly from her subconscious accentuate her full-time “Exile On Main Street” reality, even if they may seem unreal on their face, but go with the flow here : you needn’t be an immigrant, a child of immigrants, or even within a few generations of immigrants to feel your way through Vagabond — you simply need to be open-minded and open-hearted enough to listen to a voice that too frequently goes unheard, one as valid as anyone else’s but very (hell, depressingly) often overlooked for the sake of a kind of monolithic commitment to convenience and to not being bothered. If this comic upsets you, seriously — get over your privilege, get over yourself, and get real. Tana Oshima keeps it real from first page to last, and has crafted one of the finest comics in years.

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You already know where you can get this, don’t you? Domino Books, of course, where it sells for $8. Here’s a link :http://dominobooks.org/vagabond.html

Also, this review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon page, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Lately, in fact, it’s been a lot of politics. Your patronage there not only keeps things going, it also ensures a steady supply of free content both here and at my trashfilmguru movie site. Needless to say, I’d be very gratified to have your support, so if you’re feeling generous (not that it costs very much), please take a moment to check it out at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse