While you may not know his name, you undoubtedly know the work of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), who, as Hokusai, created such classic work as the iconic woodblock print series “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.” But that could (and should) change thanks to Hokusai: A Graphic Biography (hardcover), a new biography written by Giuseppe Latanza and illustrated by Francesco Matteuzzi. In the following email interview — which was translated by Mauro Spagnol — Giuseppe and Francesco discuss how they came to make this visual biography, and what influenced their approach to it.
Francesco Matteuzzi (self-portrait), Giuseppe Latanza (self-portrait)
I’d like to start with you, Francesco: Who’s idea was it to do a graphic novel biography of Hokusai?
Francesco: I should say it has been my idea but it is not totally correct. I was fascinated by Hokusai since I was a child, and over the years I got to think, how it would have been, writing a graphic novel about his life, but I never really had the time (or the opportunity) to do it. When the time was right and I asked Studio Ram (that was also looking in doing a Hokusai graphic novel) we started working on this project.
What was it about Hokusai’s work and life that not only made you want to write this graphic novel biography, but also thought you’d be a good person to write it?
Francesco: I think having appreciated and studied Hokusai life and work was a good starting point. I also like challenges and to work on something that is outside my comfort zone. I am absolutely convinced that when an author writes something, his voice has to step aside and let the story flow. Hokusai story was a perfect example of this.
Once you signed on to write Hokusai: A Graphic Biography, how much research into his life did you have to do?
Francesco: I knew Hokusai already quite well, so it was more a selection of work than proper research to understand which aspects, anecdotes, and material to use and to write about and which leave aside.
Biographies can take a lot of different approaches. Some are academic and dense with facts, some take a more humorous approach, and so on. What approach did you take in Hokusai: A Graphic Biography?
Francesco: I wanted a story that was good to read. To tell facts in an interesting way, with some humor in it, so the reader can be interested in Hokusai and his work. It a very interesting job but also a great responsibility.
Now, Hokusai: A Graphic Biography is the fourth in publisher Laurence King’s Graphic Lives series after Paolo Parisi’s Basquiat: A Graphic Biography, Elisa Macellari’s Kusama: A Graphic Biography, and Onofio Catacchio’s Pollock Confidential: A Graphic Novel. Did you read any of those to get a sense of what to do, and what not to do, with Hokusai: A Graphic Biography?
Francesco: I read all three of them. I am interested to know what other authors do. Kusama wasn’t even out yet so I read it after my work on Hokusai. But I don’t think any of them had a direct influence on me. Indirectly? Probably.
What about other graphic novel biographies; were there any others that you read for inspiration and guidance?
Francesco: I read a lot of them, but more to understand who to tell a story rather than and inspiration. It was more helpful to use graphic novels and mangas and material dedicated to Hokusai and Japan
Now, Giuseppe, you do the art in Hokusai: A Graphic Biography. How did you come to be involved in this book?
Giuseppe: I previously collaborated with Francesco and Studio Ram on a weekly project for an Italian publisher which was abruptly interrupted. We promised that if the possibility arose, we’d work together again. One day I received a phone call from Marco Ficarra from Studio Ram; he asked me if I was interested in doing some sample drawing for a project on Hokusai. I said yes immediately, I wanted to used my style and adapt it to the ukiyo-e style of Hokusai, with tons of material. And a bit of manga and anime, too, to make more appealing to a young audience.
Aside from Hokusai, of course, are there any other artists that had a big influence on the art you did for Hokusai: A Graphic Biography?
Giuseppe: The only artist that has influenced me is Andrea Accardi, who at the moment is working on a project on Japan (what a coincidence), because his style is amazing. But in general I wanted to avoid too much external influence.
As I mentioned a moment ago, Hokusai: A Graphic Biography is the third Graphic Lives book from publisher Laurence King. Did you look at any of the previous installments before working on Hokusai: A Graphic Biography?
Giuseppe: I must admit that I did not look at Laurence King’s previous work until the very last month into this project. I was not told who might or might not publish Hokusai, and I was only informed when the work was done.
How about other graphic novel biographies; did you look at any others for ideas?
Giuseppe: As mentioned before, I tried not to be influenced too much because in my head I had already a clear idea on how to draw the book, with plenty of visual material from Hokusai. The only inspiration was Sarusuberi: Miss Hokusai [the anime adaptation of Hinako Sugiura’s manga series Miss Hokusai], which is about the life of Hokusai’s daughter.
Hollywood has a thing for comic book movies lately. Do you think Hokusai: A Graphic Biography could work as a movie?
Francesco: It could work. But each way of communicating something has its rules, and what works in a graphic novel might not in cinema. It would really depend on the screenplay.
It would also need to be an animation movie. To also see Giuseppe’ work.
Giuseppe: I think Hokusai’s life could be adapted into both a life action movie with Japanese actors — Hiroyuki Sanada, whom I like very much could be Hokusai — and as an animated movie. His life is fantastic something between true and exaggerated historic facts.
Finally, if someone enjoys Hokusai: A Graphic Biography, what graphic novel of someone else’s would you each suggest they read next?
Giuseppe: I would suggest to start with Miss Hokusai, to see how Hokusai and his art has influenced the life of others.
Francesco: If we’re staying on the topic of Japan, Japanese Notebooks by Igort or Voyage To Tokyo by Vincenzo Filosa. They are stunning books.