Though he’s been writing and drawing graphic novels for forty years, Italian author and artist Igort has only had a couple of his books published in the U.S. Which is a real shame because he’s clearly a unique talent, both literally and visually. In honor of his book Japanese Notebooks: A Journey To The Empire Of Signs (hardcover, digital) being released here in the colonies, I spoke to him about how it came together, his plans for a cinematic adaptation, and why you won’t see his name in the credits of a Spider-Man comic anytime soon.
So, what is Japanese Notebooks about?
It’s a book about Japanese culture. That tell the story of a cartoonist working for the biggest manga publisher in the golden age of Japanese comics. A real story of someone living and working in Japan. It can be seen as a memoir, a travel book, an essay about Japanese culture and a drawn reportage. I love comics language, and I guess its potentiality as a medium are for the moment barely explored. I hope to give my contribution to expand these potentialities.
When did you decide to write this book, and what prompted that decision?
I was working on another book and, as often happens, there are pauses requested to make the ideas grow. And since I was publishing on Facebook some drawings and notes taken from my Japanese diaries, I started noticing that there was a certain interest in the situations I was depicting.
It all started in this way, very natural, and not projected at all. Unexpected, in a way.
Prior to Japanese Notebooks, you published The Ukrainian And Russian Notebooks: Life And Death Under Soviet Rule. But in writing and drawing Japanese Notebooks, did you figure anything out that, in retrospect, would’ve made The Ukrainian And Russian Notebooks better? Or maybe easier?
Never thought this way. A book is a book that has its own inner balance.
What writers do you feel were the biggest influences on Japanese Notebooks, both in terms of what you wrote and how you wrote it? And I don’t mean just comic book writers, but other kinds of writers as well?
After forty years publishing my books I hope to have my own voice. I don’t look for inspiration in someone else voice.
How about the art, what artists, comic book or otherwise, do you see as being the biggest influences on the art of Japanese Notebooks?
Japanese Notebooks is a graphic exploration of Japanese tradition starting from the oldest woodblock print up to the last anime produced. Passing though the menko tradition — the old cards — and manga.
Speaking of the art, the people in Japanese Notebooks are real people. Do you show them pictures of how you’ve drawn them in the book, maybe to get their approval?
Nope. I did not show their portraits before.
As you undoubtedly know, movies based on comic books are a big deal these days, though mostly ones with superheroes. Has there been any interest in adapting Japanese Notebooks into a movie or TV show?
I am working on a movie adaptation of the Japanese Notebooks. It will be both animation and documentary.
In Japanese Notebooks, you meet with Hayao Miyazaki [director of such animes as Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle]. Did you talk to him about wanting to do Japanese Notebooks as an animated movie?
Miyazaki asked me why I did not work in animation. He thinks that my work could fit in an animated movie. My only fear is that animation is much longer than my usual work and a totally different field. I like to work in a team, but only if the team is a little one, something that is not very easy to have [in animation]. Now the project to create a mixed media team could be a good compromise, maybe.
As I mentioned earlier, movies based on superhero comics are a big thing these days. Do you have any interest in doing a superhero comic, either with your own superhero or someone else’s?
I am not so interested nowadays. Once I had a childish obsession for Batman. Or Daredevil. Now I am old for all this. Who knows.
Japanese Notebooks is the second of your books to be released in the U.S. in as many years. But it and The Ukrainian And Russian Notebooks are, as far as I know, the only ones available here…
Actually, Fantagraphics published Baobab: Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3, while Drawn And Quarterly put out 5 Is The Perfect Number. I guess other books of mine are going to be published in the next years.
Okay, cool. That answers the question I was going to ask. So if someone enjoys Japanese Notebooks, what graphic novel of yours would you suggest they read next and why?
Baobab is a long story that take place in Japan. I think it could be interesting for a Japanese Notebooks reader.