1. Shigeru Sugiura’s The Last of the Mohicans: The Comeback Trail

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    This text is excerpted from Ryan Holmberg’s 60-page essay published in PictureBox's Last of the Mohicans, in stores now. 

    Shigeru Sugiura had passed into something like semi-retirement at the end of 1958. Born in 1908 and active as cartoonist since the early ‘30s, he had just rounded the age of 50 and was coming down from a decade of dizzyingly voluminous production. In some years his output approached five hundred pages, completed with only occasional help from assistants. He worked primarily for Shūeisha, which later made its mark as the publisher of the world’s best-selling Shōnen Jump (f. 1968), but already highly successful with comics in the ‘50s. Sugiura’s books, with print-runs in the many tens of thousands, and in one case crossing into six digits, were amongst the publisher’s – and the industry’s – top sellers. The original edition of The Last of the Mohicans was amongst them, selling some 70,000 copies over multiple printings. 

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    The Last of the Mohicans (Shūeisha, 1953), p. 20. 

    The story of the 1969 remake more or less follows those from the ‘50s. The invincible young ninja “Monkey-flying” Sasuke strolls along premodern Japan’s highways, defeating the enemies of his patron Sanada Yukimura through a series of ever more absurd magical tricks. What has really changed is the drawing. It has been jazzed up with a mix of Sugiura’s older humor cartooning style and detailed copies of stills from American movies and “ten-cent” comic books, in both cases mainly Westerns and sci-fi, and mainly from the ‘50s. The Cheyenne prepare to attack the Tokugawa. John Wayne and his Chisholm Trail riders have been recruited from Red River stills. The result, with its pasted-up look, bears a general resemblance to the era’s vanguard art: the collage-principles of theatre poster design, the intercutting of live action and pop culture stills in New Wave cinema, the pinboard aesthetic of early Pop Art. And it shared with them also a distinct nostalgia for the pop culture of the recent past, specifically that of the postwar ‘40s and ‘50s, which had been in Japan, as in Pop’s country of origin of England, strongly defined by the encounter with American mass entertainment and the country’s utopian visions of consumer culture. The influence of Americana on the original Sasuke was very small. But when Sugiura went to remake the manga at the height of Pop Art’s golden age, it was as if this ‘50s classic could only be retold through an encounter with that era’s dime comics and Hollywood movies.image

    Sarutobi Sasuke (Mushi Comics, 1969), p. 78.

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    Sarutobi Sasuke (Mushi Comics, 1969), p. 118.

    If Mushi Comics revived the sleeping giant, it was former fans that made him feel young again. The boys that had gorged themselves on Sugiura manga as schoolchildren were now young men in their twenties and thirties. Some of them had become prominent artists in their own right, some editors and writers. When they set out to refashion magazine publishing in their own image, they sent for the king entertainer of their youth. 

    Sugiura began to receive commissions from cool places. In 1970, Modern Comics (Gendai komikku), a manga magazine for young men, began serializing Sugiura’s Mifune, less a story and more a surrealistic montage of images, mainly movie stills and French and Japanese paintings from the early twentieth century, copied from the artist’s old scrapbooks, and reminiscent in style to the work of pop-surrealist painter Tateishi Tiger, once a child reader of Sugiura, now a personal friend. In 1971, Black Magazine (Kuro no techō), a heady literary and cultural periodical for the age of the lugubrious “cult film” and so-called “roman porno,” with special issues on subjects like humor noir, black magic,and the “aesthetics of rape,” hired Sugiura for a few joke strips, slightly dark, slightly dirty. In 1972, Akatsuka Fujio invited the sexagenarian to contribute to his own (short-lived) attempt at independent and experimental manga publishing, the monthly Manga No. 1, resulting in one remake of a work from the early ‘50s and an array of surrealistic ghost and monster comedies. And in 1973-74, the recently founded Treasure Island (Takarajima), a savvy pop culture magazine inspired partly by Rolling Stone, published by the same Shōbunsha that would put out Sugiura’s Mohicans, featured the artist’s characters on one of its covers and reprints of his manga in two of its issues.

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    Mifune (1970-74).

     

    “It seems like there is going to be a strange Sugiura boom,” worried childhood fan and manga artist Hayashi Seiichi in the pages of the alternative monthly Garo in 1970, a few months after SasukeHe proved to be right. In a few years time, the old man, once popular, was hip. A decade later in 1985, his work even appeared in RAW, New York’s famed avant-garde comics venue.

    Then his production cut back sharply, with just a smattering of short manga and album and product designs before his death on April 23, 2000. He was 92.

    As innovative during his comeback as he was, Sugiura also seems to have been a bit at sea. “I have completely lost interest in children’s comics,” he wrote in 1974, in a blurb at the back of Sugiura’s Mohicans. “I think I would like to draw an absurd ‘gag nonsense’ thing for young adults. I cannot quite put it into words, but the idea is a manga set in a totally unrecognizable time and place, with no attachment to any specific period, time, or region, with a story involving lots of strange people, monsters, and ghosts running around like mad… That’s the idea anyway, but … it’s not going so well …”

    The ellipses notwithstanding, such manga he did make, and had been doing so for a couple of years. They were monstrosities born of nostalgia, inspired by the aforementioned scrapbooks the artist had been assembling since his youth. The earliest scrapbooks contain reproductions of the kind of artwork Sugiura had been interested in as a young man in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s: canvases by painters like Maurice Utrillo, Henri Rousseau, and Kumaoka Yoshihiko. In subsequent volumes, the balance shifts to American comic books, picked up from used booksellers in the late ‘40s and ‘50s after being dumped on the Japanese market by American G.I.s. These clippings, and presumably a stash of intact magazines, had served as the artist’s idea bank since at least the early ‘50s. It was to them that he returned to rejuvenate himself in the late ‘60s.

    Characters, vehicles, landscapes, and even whole compositions from Star Spangled Comics, All Star Western, Tarzan, and Challengers of the Unknown (to name just a few) are copied almost as-is in his manga, and not necessarily in ones that match the genre of their sources. One can almost see the trajectory of the artist’s postwar career in the transformations of single groupings of motifs. For example, since his childhood Sugiura had liked Tarzan, as mentioned in “Silent Movies.” There are some jungle and safari strips by him, and a few Boy Tarzan ones, before and immediately after the war. Naturally, Jesse Marsh’s art for Tarzan caught his eye. Raging pagan priestesses and Bara, Tarzan’s antelope steed, make perfect sense in Sugiura’s lost world adventure Flying Saucer Z (Enban Z,1952-53). But appropriations from the same source had to be modified or generalized for use in the original edition of Mohicans, created soon after: Bara has been replaced by a moose, Tarzan by a surprised David Gamut. Identical and similar landscapes reappear in the 1969 Sasuke, sitting on the page in a disconnected fashion and paired with wisecracking cartoon characters to further emphasize their alien origins. It was but a single step into the ‘70s and non-narrative collage. The scrapbooks were making Sugiura’s work a pastiche of scattered memories, where once assimilation had reigned.

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    Jesse Marsh, Tarzan, no. 17 (September-October 1951)

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    The Last of the Mohicans (Shūeisha, 1953), p. 60.

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    Jesse Marsh, Tarzan, no. 17 (September-October 1951), compare with p. 58.

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    Sarutobi Sasuke (Mushi Comics, 1969), p. 125.

    The major exception was Sugiura’s Mohicans. In 1973, the publisher Shōbunsha approached the artist to do a book. Inevitably they chose to revive another megahit from the ‘50s. Naturally perhaps, given the publisher, which was publishing a number of books in these years on American society and pop culture, including, in the very same year as Mohicans,a collection of Ono Kōsei’s writings on American comics – they chose one of the artist’s most “American” of works. Sugiura’s Mohicans too would be more than a remake. But unlike Sasuke,this parade through the past was focused. There are Marsh’s imagined African landscapes again, backing La Carabine Kid and the gang as they escape from Glens Falls (p. 58). But not slapped on as they appeared in Sasuke in 1969. They are smoothly melded into Sugiura’s idea of the American wilderness, as they had been back in 1953.

    image Jesse Marsh, Tarzan, no. 17 (September-October 1951), compare with p. 58.

    Distinct but integrated, this one part is typical of the whole. As such the work goes against the entropic narratives and pasted-up compositions that had become the artist’s working norm. The book is tighter and with momentum greater than anything else Sugiura produced in the ‘70s, more sharply drawn and dramatic than anything he produced in the ‘50s. If previous revivalist works, despite their experimentalism, had been coated in a slight film of dust, this time the aging artist reemerged from the past as if having been dipped in the fountain of youth.

    Why should that have been the case? What was it about Mohicans that inspired a different and more vigorous approach?

Notes

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