As someone who strives to create stories, who has that as her dream, I love any tale of how a writer or artist got his start. It’s what gets me reading introductions to craft books like Bird by Bird over and over again, and convinces me to give up oh-so-valuable shelf space to tomes like A Drifting Life. Reading creators’ starts and struggles fuels me — and for that reason I loved Jiro Taniguchi’s tale of his beginnings, A Zoo in Winter.
The manga starts, of course, with the thing all creators seem to get in — a horrible, awful rut. Taniguchi (calling himself Hamaguchi in this story) isn’t working in the job he expected. Instead of designing fabrics, he packs up and delivers merchandise — a horrible boring job for someone who spends his free time drawing everything he sees.
Hamaguchi is jolted from his rut when he becomes accidentally involved in helping his boss’s daughter elope. With blame and suspicion slapped on him, he visits a friend, who introduces him to the manga artist Kondo Shiro. Hamagushi is immediately put to work on the manga, and with hardly a second to think about it becomes an assistant.
The opportunity to work towards his dream comes as a sudden chance — almost unrealistically. But all these things are chance; for myself, by chance I went to a school where by chance I had a children’s author for a teacher, who by chance also taught in an MFA program, where by chance I’ve met even more teachers, and fellow blossoming writers, who have helped me learn and grow. It may be luck, but these are also things that are too easy to let slide by. Hamaguchi could have easily let himself be overwhelmed by the sudden intense job, or feel unworthy, and simply run away — an opportunity lost, maybe to never come up again. A lot of these things happen by chance, but even if you’re lucky to have something set in front of you, you still need the sense to grab at it.
A little later we meet Hamaguchi’s older brother. Initially visiting for the purpose of seeing if his little brother’s doing all right (and to convince him to quit), it soon comes out that Hamaguchi’s brother wanted to be a painter, but gave up on it to take care of his family. As he watches the assistants work, his comments sound patronizing: “Doing what you love for work. Sounds idyllic!” Then we see that not only has he decided against talking Hamaguchi out of his career path, but as they sit with Kondo and fellow artist Kikuchi he wistfully says, “This is…freedom, isn’t it?…Living simply…in tune with your feelings. That’s happiness.” We get the sense of regret from Hamaguchi’s brother, which has now come to the forefront because his younger sibling is following the dream he abandoned before it even started. This makes me wonder, what if I hadn’t been able to start this path? What if I felt I had to give it up? Would the regret run deep inside of me, or would I be able to cover it up? Then there’s Hamaguchi’s reaction, which is never fully verbalized. His brother ditched his dream for him, but he’s pushing forward without a thought. Anything could be swimming through his head — guilt, uncertainty, anger, pity — feelings that could stop any artist in his tracks if he let himself think about them too much.
Another moment I whole-heartedly related to was the fit of jealousy from Hamaguchi when it looks like fellow assistant Fujita might get his own manga published. He’s struck with the realization that he’s been wasting his free time and allowed himself to fall behind his colleague. He gets the same kind of panic I feel when I realize a classmate of mine has been published, or that a writer younger than I am has a best-selling book. His envy makes him act a little unfairly to Fujita (he prematurely tells another assistant, even though he suspects this man won’t react well), but it also serves as his first motivation to make his own story. I’ve learned that you shouldn’t compare yourself to other writers — some write more quickly, some just have an easier time finding success. But that doesn’t mean I don’t, and whenever someone I know succeeds, no matter how sincere my compliments the little green monster that lives in my brain says, “Well, now isn’t it my turn yet?” Yet that jealousy and anxiety, when you calm down a bit, can be an amazingly goo motivator to get you off your butt.
A Zoo in Winter is truly a story of beginnings, as we don’t see how this artist eventually turns out (though his bibliography, and this MMF, speak favorably for him). But it shows all the rough points creators find for themselves — ruts, confusion, jealousy, guilt — the important things that ever writer or artist goes through prove that this is what they love, this is what they want. I know I’ve felt all these things and more — here’s hoping I can keep carrying through.
This post was written as a part of the Jiro Taniguchi Manga Moveable Feast hosted on Comics Worth Reading.