The Start Of Something Big : Tana Oshima’s “Pulp Friction”

I find it downright fascinating that Tana Oshima has gone back to press with her first self-published mini, Pulp Friction, not only because I’d never had the pleasure of reading it before, but because it frankly takes a certain amount of guts for an artist in any medium to draw attention to their “warts and all” earlier work at a point in their career ouevre when they’re in a really confident creative groove — and, as regular readers here already know, I think Oshima’s been in the midst of a very solid groove for some time now.  Which isn’t my roundabout way of saying that this debut effort is necessarily lacking, mind you — in fact, the “lower dose” of refinement with which she tackles subjects that are still very much at the heart of her ongoing artistic project lends this comic an extra degree of immediacy which more than makes up for what is absent in terms of tight focus. And on that note —

Relationships, specifically love in its various stages and manifestations, is the running theme of this book, and — like its title and logo — many of Oshima’s cursory examinations herein may be a bit too “on the nose” for those who appreciate subtlety and/or the art (and effort) of forming their own conclusions and interpretations of a cartoonist’s work, but at the same time she’s not out to hit you over the head with a hammer : on the contrary, most of these short strips and single-page comics (I counted 22 overall) occupy a kind of fascinating middle ground somewhere between laying all their cards on the table and being deliberately oblique. This is a rare thing to find, as artists generally gravitate toward either one polarity or the other, and as a result, any metaphorical “foothold” they establish under such conditions is going to be shaky by definition — but at the same time, it certainly makes for an intriguing balancing act to bear witness to.

And while we’re talking of cartooning, the fundamentals of what would come to be Oshima’s eventual “style” — wonderfully flexible as it is today — are all present and accounted for here, from the fine linework to the solid blocks of color to the geometric precision to the intentionally basic figure drawing, and while she’s clearly feeling her way forward with each of these elements, there is a sense of purpose implicit throughout, a feeling that she knows how and why she wants to draw the way she does, she’s just showing readers her process of arriving at that decision. This may be the kind of perspective one only gleans when exposed to Oshima’s later works first, but I’m not so sure — I’ve been around this small press and self-publishing scene a long time, and I like to think I can tell the difference between somebody who’s in the formative stages of finding their voice, and somebody who’s in the formative stages of establishing it. This ‘zine clearly points to the latter, and that’s a crucial distinction it has in its favor.

One thing that hasn’t changed in terms of Oshima’s overall approach, though, is her commitment to the quality of her physical product. Like all her minis, this is a richly-printed affair on high quality paper with sturdy cardstock covers, and for the organizationally-minded (which may just be a polite way of saying “anal retentive”), this slides into one’s longbox or onto one’s shelf right next to any other Tana Oshima comics perfectly. This kind of uniformity is definitely appreciated by this critic, who’s drowning in a sea of comics of every shape and size, but in the larger scheme of things it also means that she’s committed to exploring everything that can be done within a very specific dimensional construct. All of which makes things sound perhaps more “cosmic” than is my intent, but I assure you, it all makes perfect sense once you’ve got several of her publications in your hands.

The natural enough next question you probably (okay, possibly?) have then, is, if I had to guess : is this a good place to start if you’re new to Tana Oshima comics? And I have to confess I’m of two minds about that. On the one hand, it’s a more populist and accessible take on her absolutely singular approach to addressing certain of her core thematic concerns — loneliness, isolation, connection, trepidation, existential angst, compromising and/or subjugation of identity and agency, voluntarily or otherwise — and leans toward a light-hearted, occasionally downright humorous, exploration of them, but on the other it’s not exactly representative of her later, more considered (if sometimes bleak) and nuanced methodology and messaging. The answers come easy here, more often than not, and in that respect it’s perhaps best viewed as the evolutionary step that, hey, it just so happens to be.

What I do know for certain is this : as a bona fide and unabashed fan of Oshima’s comics, this is equally interesting for what it is and what it isn’t, for how it fits into her overall body of work and how it doesn’t, and as a skeletal roadmap that shows the directions she ended up taking, and those she steered clear of. I was transfixed by it for all these reasons and more, but I’m not certain Oshima herself would recommend this as a “jumping-on point” for readers new to her stuff. But what the hell do I know? I only work here.


Pulp Friction is available for $8.00 from Tana Oshima’s Bigcartel site at :

Review wrist check – today wasn’t technically the first day of fall, but it sure felt like it here in the Twin Cities, so it was goodbye to summer colors and hello to this dressier, more conservative combination of my Farer Universal “Stanhope” riding a Hirsch “Arne” strap from their “Performance” series in olive green.