Lars Martinson is the author of Tonoharu and Young Men of a Certain Mind. While neither is autobiographical in the strictest sense, both draw from his experiences living and working in Japan as a teacher and as an artist. Martinson was a member of the JET program where he served as an assistant language teacher from 2003-2006. Shortly after returning home in 2007 he received a Xeric Grant which allowed him to craft the first volume of Tonoharu.
Lars Returned to Japan in 2008 to study calligraphy and the skill is showcased in the detailed linework and backgrounds that typify his work. Top Shelf recently published a softcover edition of the first volume of Tonoharu. The final volume is expected to be published sometime next year. He was kind enough to give me some of his time via email from his new home and workplace in Kyoto, Japan.
Perhaps its only fair to open the interview of someone who has experienced and depicted the life of an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) in Japan with an autobiographical introduction. What did an early self-introduction lesson consist of for you and was it as strenuous for you as for your protagonist in Tonoharu?
My name is Lars Martinson. There are four people in my family: my father, my mother, my sister, and me. I’m from America. I like to draw comics. Thank you. That’s my elementary school self-intro in a nutshell.
From there I usually talk a little about my home state. In my earliest attempts, I mentioned that Minnesota is where Bob Dylan was born, and that Post-It notes were invented there. Shockingly, trivia about office supplies and folk singers failed to captivate my audience of Japanese 10-year-olds. Through trial and error I discovered they were more interested in hearing that Snoopy is from Minnesota, or that Minnesota has a mall with an indoor roller coaster. Tailoring the lesson for the audience was a learning experience for me as much as it was for them. Teaching for the first time is stressful for pretty much anyone I think, and I was no exception. I still remember the mixture of excitement and dread as I walked to that first class.
It’s a completely different experience. When I lived out in the country, I rarely even saw another foreigner. Where I live in Kyoto now, I know two foreigners who live in my apartment building alone. So there’s a much better support network, living in a city. That said, living out in the country forces you to interact with the local population, rather than just surrounding yourself in a cocoon of your home culture, so it offers more potential for a more “authentic” experience. Both settings have their own advantages and disadvantages.
You have now been to Manga conventions in the states and in Japan. How similar are they in terms of convention atmosphere or culture? What have your experiences generally been like?
I’ve only done one convention in Japan, the International Manga Festival in Tokyo, so it’s probably a bit early to draw firm conclusions. But to generalize, in America people seem a bit more willing to pick up your books and flip through them, and ask you questions about your work. (Although maybe the Japanese convention-goers were more timid because I’m a foreigner and they weren’t sure if I could speak Japanese or not, who knows.) That said, my sales at the show in Tokyo were the best I have ever had, even though all my work is in English. I’ve signed up for another convention in Osaka this May so we’ll see how that goes.
Is the protagonist of Tonoharu really moved by interpretive dance or was it a well-placed raindrop after all?
I’ll never tell!
One of my regrets about Tonoharu is that it (apparently) paints an oppressively bleak portrait of life abroad. I knew as I was writing it that it had a melancholic tone, but many people who read it seem to assume my life in Japan was godawful, and that certainly wasn’t the case at all. In fact, it was one of the most profound experiences of my life. Japan feels like a second home to me now, so for me wanting to come back here feels like wanting to go home for Christmas. I’d be very happy if I were able to divide my time between Japan and the U.S. in the years to come.
Can you comment on Top Shelf’s acquisition by IDW? Has it at all changed plans for your publication of Tonoharu Volume Three?
Honestly I haven’t really talked with anyone from Top Shelf about it. I heard about it the same way everyone else did, when they sent out the press release. As I understand it, Top Shelf will be honoring all of the agreements they made prior to their acquisition, so I would imagine it won’t change anything (hopefully).
How did you decide on a balance between fiction and biography for your work? Can we expect more fantastical elements in Volume Three?
Weirdly, I think sometimes fiction actually allows you to be more honest than autobiography, because it gives you plausible deniability. Like, you don’t have to worry about the repercussions of portraying people in a bad light or whatever, which allows you to be less diplomatic and more honest/interesting. Sometimes when I read autobiographical comics I feel like I’m reading a sanitized version of their lives; like they never portray themselves cursing their spouse under their breath or lusting after someone else because they know the parties involved will be reading their comics later on.
All that said, Tonoharu is not just thinly-veiled autobio (as many people seem to assume). It was certainly informed by my own experiences, but I was not trying to recreate my exact experience in comic form or anything. As for the “fantastical elements,” Tonoharu: Part Three has them in roughly the same proportion as the first two volumes.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0980102367][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0980102332]