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Lars Martinson

American cartoonist Lars Martinson has a long history with Japan, having lived here as a high school exchange student, a JET Programme assistant English teacher, and a calligraphy student at Shikoku University. This experience comes across on the pages of his graphic novel, Tonoharu, which follows the lives of several foreigners living in Fukuoka. Readers may recognize local landmarks in the panels of Part One and the recently-published Part Two of Tonoharu, and identify with the protagonist’s fumbling attempts to acclimatize to life in Japan. Lars was inspired by a variety of sources, including wood block artists like Katsushika Hokusai and Western indie cartoonists like Chris Ware, as well as 19th century book designs, all of which comes across in this gorgeously crafted book. In this installment of Tonoharu, main character Dan Wells reaches out to his Japanese co-workers, allowing Lars to explore the nuances of intercultural communication–and perhaps workplace romance, too.

You’ve visited more than fifteen countries. What makes Japan unique among them?
When I was 16 I lived with a host family in Nagoya for a summer vacation exchange. It was my first major trip abroad, and it served as the perfect introduction to international travel. It was different enough from the States to feel exotic and exciting, thus inspiring me to want to travel more. But at the same time I never felt unsafe, and didn’t have to worry about being hassled or ripped off. This quality of being exotic yet accessible is unique to Japan, at least in my experience.

Why were you initially drawn to Japan and the JET Programme?
Like many a young nerd, my introduction to Japan came from comics and cartoons. This was back in the early nineties, before “manga” and “anime” were household words, and before you could buy them in normal stores. Back then you had to go to seedy comic book stores or get bootleg tapes from friends, so it had a very black market-type feel.
My high school trip to Japan was a truly profound experience, and inspired me to explore other cultures. I lived in Thailand and Norway as an exchange student, and visited a bunch of other countries as a tourist. But Japan has always held a special place in my heart, and I knew I wanted to get back there eventually. After I graduated from college, a friend introduced me to the JET Program. It was the opportunity I had been waiting for.

A common theme of orientation for new JETs is dealing with culture shock. Dan, in Tonoharu, certainly appears to go through this–his confusion and uncertainty in an unfamiliar milieu is evident on every page. Did you experience this? Can you remember any particular experiences that caused culture shock for you?
Offhand I can’t remember any specific experiences; for me, culture shock manifests more as the accumulative effect of a bunch of little things. Many of these occurred early in the experience, before I had a firm grasp of the language. Nothing is more alienating than when the whole room bursts out in laughter, and you have no idea what the joke is.

Where did you live in Fukuoka?
I was on the Nishitetsu Kaizuka line. I lived in Mitoma, and worked a town over in Shingu. The namesake for the series, Tonoharu, was two towns in the opposite direction.

Do readers notice references to Fukuoka in Tonoharu? (I was pleased to identify several familiar spots, such as the big TV in Tenjin station that seems to serve as a meeting point for everyone.)
They do, especially in the second book, which has fewer scenes out in the country and more scenes in Fukuoka City proper. I’ve gotten several e-mails from current and former Fukuoka residents, and they always appreciate the Hakata references.

Do you ever come back to the area?
From 2008 to 2010 I was back in Japan studying shodo [calligraphy] at Shikoku University, so I had a chance to visit Fukuoka then. It was great to get back to my old haunts and see old friends (and eat tonkotsu ramen and Kitakitsune soft cream). I’m hoping to make it back again this year, if circumstance allows.

What were some of the best aspects of being on JET?
For me, it was the elementary school classes. I planned all the lessons pretty much single-handedly, so once I got the hang of it, it was gratifying to see how excited the kids were about learning English, and how much they retained. And of course their enthusiasm is off the charts, which was a refreshing change from junior high kids, who are much more self-conscious and quiet.

Dan experiences a disorientation that was very familiar to me as a foreigner in Japan–even finding a light bulb to replace the burned-out one in his apartment is a challenge. Do you have any advice for how foreigners might acclimate themselves to Japan, especially those who struggle with the language barrier?
Jumping in headfirst and using Japanese from the get-go is key. This requires a certain amount of humility, as you have to accept that you’ll make a million mistakes and sound like a moron sometimes. But I think that’s okay. The purpose of language is to communicate, so it’s better to say “Yesterday I go store”, and at least communicate something than it is to be paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake and not saying anything at all. And of course the more you practice, the better your Japanese gets, and the more meaningful the experience as a whole becomes.

Can you tell us about some cartoonists you admire or who have influenced you?
Most of my influences come from the world of Western independent comics. Cartoonists Chris Ware, Seth, and Jason are big influences. Outside of the world of comics I’ve recently come to appreciate 19th century Japanese wood block prints, in particular those of Katsushika Hokusai.


Tonoharu is called a graphic novel. Do you distinguish between graphic novels, comic books, and manga?
The terms used to describe comics are clumsy and imprecise, so definitions differ depending on who you talk to. But generally speaking, “comic books” usually refer to 24 or 32-page stapled booklets, “graphic novels“ describe longer, book-length work, and “manga” refers to comics of Japanese origin. But as I say, the terms are fairly imprecise. It’s sort of ironic that “comic books” are neither books or (necessarily) comical, and that “graphic novels” can be non-fictional. But oh well, what can you do.

How did you develop your artistic style? Do you experiment with different styles in works outside of Tonoharu?
I’ve been drawing comics since middle school, and have experimented with dozens of styles. When I first started out, practically every comic I did was in a different style. It was more through the process of elimination than anything else that I ended up with the style I use today. But even now it’s still evolving. The crosshatching in Tonoharu takes way, way too long, so I’m thinking once the series is done, I’m going to phase the crosshatching out and experiment with grey ink washes for the backgrounds.

Other than current and former JETs, who do you think the audience is for Tonoharu?
I never really thought about demographics when I was working on it. One of the things I’m trying to accomplish with Tonoharu is to create a realistic account of what it’s like for a Westerner to live in rural Japan. So I suppose my audience would be anyone who’d be interested in a story like that.

Since it’s written in English, I assume your book is targeting non-Japanese, but what sorts of reactions to Tonoharu do you get from Japanese readers?
Most Japanese people have never read a non-Japanese comic. The Japanese comics market is huge, but it’s not terribly diverse. Manga tends not to stray too far from a few established templates. So “boys comics” all tend to look the same, and all “girls comics” sort of look the same, and so on. And in terms of format, almost all manga is in black and white, and roughly the same size. Tonoharu doesn’t really fit into any of those molds. So the initial reaction Japanese people have to my work tends to be surprise, because it doesn’t really conform to Japanese expectations of the medium.

How did you make your decision to self-publish?
Self-published books are generally associated with poor quality. There’s an assumption that people go the self-publishing route only because they can’t get a “real” publisher. I’ll admit that a lot of self-publishers probably fall into this camp, but others choose to self-publish as a legitimate business decision. By assuming the role of the publisher, a self-publisher can keep both the author’s and the publisher’s share of the profits. This is especially important in the world of American indie comics, where the size of the pie is pretty small to begin with.

The design of your books–from the covers to the paper to the ink–is such high quality. How did you decide on this?
These days most books are produced as cheaply as possible, and it shows. If you go back and look at books from the nineteenth century, they’re really gorgeous; they’re satisfying not only for the content, but as objects as well. One thing that’s important to remember about comics is the original drawings themselves are not the work of art; the final, printed book is. So it was really important to me that the book itself be a satisfying object, in addition to (hopefully) being satisfying in terms of content.

What about the colors–the blues in particular seem unusual?
I knew early on that I wanted to do something more vibrant than just black and white. Full color was absolutely out of the question because of the cost, so I decided to go with a two-color book. I experimented with a bunch of different colors, and found that blue worked the best.

Tell us a bit about your process–do you sketch from photos, from memory, on the spot in actual locations in Japan?
I want to capture Japanese scenery as accurately as possible, so I almost always work from reference photos. When I lived in Japan I’d often go out and scout locations, and then take pictures of whatever I needed reference for. Since I’m living in the States now, I rely heavily on internet image searches.

Why did you decide to divide Tonoharu into four parts?
My original plan was to release Tonoharu all at once, in one big volume. But after “Part One” took me four years to complete, I realized I just couldn’t afford to keep working on the book without some money coming in. So the decision to split it into four volumes was motivated not by artistic factors, but by cold economic realities.

What are your goals for parts 3 and 4 of Tonoharu? Could you give us a sneak preview of what might happen in the story in the coming books?
With each volume I’m trying to explore a different facet of the experience of living abroad. The first part focused on the sense of isolation, and the second with the relationships that develop. The third and fourth volumes will explore other aspects of the experience (sorry, that’s as much as I want to give away at present).



How has studying calligraphy in Japan influenced your cartooning?
It has had a tremendous effect. To my mind, East Asian calligraphy is the world’s most sophisticated inking tradition. I think that cartoonists and illustrators of all stripes could benefit from studying it. I’m working on a graphic novel about East Asian calligraphy on the side; it’ll probably be my next project after Tonoharu is done.

Did you experience any “reverse culture shock” or new insights into American culture upon returning to the States?
They aren’t profound or anything, but there are two things that always surprise me whenever I get back to the States. The first is how wide suburban streets are. They’re like four-lane highways, with two of the lanes reserved for parking (even though everyone in suburbia has a driveway). The second thing is how huge the large sodas are at the movie theatres. They’re like buckets.

Do you have any advice for aspiring cartoonists?
Obviously it’s the creative impulse that inspires any artist, but I would warn aspiring cartoonist not to neglect the logistic side of things. They should start cultivating good business habits right away. Learn about personal finance and money management, save receipts and keep records, create and maintain a website, network, all that good stuff. There’s very little money to be made in comics (especially in indie comics), so it’s all the more important to stay on top of the financial side of things.

In Japan: 5 years
Hometown: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Identity: Cartoonist and author
Interview by Alanna Schubach

Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn146, Feb. 2011)

Fukuoka City
Published: Feb 1, 2011 / Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017

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