The Swamp is a collection of manga short stories by Yoshiharu Tsuge presented by Drawn+Quarterly that illustrates a missing link in the evolution of Japanese graphic narrative to the diverse medium it is today. In our modern era of specialized genres and subgenres for just about any reading interest, it is often difficult to think of manga being at one point much in the same. However, coming through the 1950s, manga was limited to largely kids’ funnies and adventure stories. Just as Superman developed out of detective mysteries that dominated American comics, manga would grow into new genres with deeper meanings all their own. Instrumental to that change was the work of Yoshiharu Tsuge.
An essay by Mitsuhio Asakawa at the close of the book gives a glimpse into Tsuge’s life and influences. Born in 1937, Tsuge lost his father at an early age and grew up in poverty in war-torn Japan. He joined the workforce after elementary school to help support the family, eventually finding positions where he could practice his art. Tsuge became enamored with the world of manga, especially the work of Osamu Tezuka. He soon was doing his own strips for magazines and gradually moving to bigger work. Still, poverty plagued him as he did not fit in with the other artists in the growing manga community. Tsuge treated his work as art.
Fellow artist Sanpei Shirato called Tsuge “the epitome of the fine artist type.” He said that Tsuge “maintains his creativity by repeatedly disgorging his self,” even though it meant “taking personal, emotional responsibility for the value and reception of any one work.” Tsuge did make ends meet by taking on projects such as redrawing pages for Mizuki’s Kitaro publications, but his own work carried a depth and reality rarely seen in other manga. D+Q’s first Tsuge collection shows eleven of his works from 1965 and 1966, hinting at the future of manga to come in the later era of gekiga (dark, more adult) manga.
Many of Tsuge’s stories highlights the surreal side of reality. Poverty is a major theme, reflecting on Tsuge’s own experiences struggling with money while his girlfriend brings home a pet bird in “Chirpy” as well as “The Secondhand Book,” a tale right out of O. Henry with its surprising kindness. “Handcuffs” begins like an adventure manga normal for the day with a policeman pursuing a criminal deep into the mountains, but it ends with a twist worthy of EC’s Tales from the Crypt. Other stories in the collection focus on the adventurous samurai era of medieval Japan, which dominated manga for years. Just as with his modern works, Tsuge gives twists all his own, including “The Phony Warrior” in which a man bearing a strong resemblance to a famous samurai uses that to his advantage to survive.
In addition to its display of the evolution of storytelling in manga, Tsuge’s visual art shows the deepening complexity of the new era. Like Mizuki, Tsuge will give straightforward designs to characters and substantial detail to settings, especially in establishment. At times he gives intricate detail to the woodgrain in walls and others does not even show the floor in the same panel, presenting a dreamlike quality to his art that focuses the eye on the subtle things we so often miss in our world around us.