Lars Martinson on Tonoharu

When I interview someone, typically I enter the process knowing that the person is far more informed than I am. Part of what draws me into interviewing most folks is the realization that here is someone I can learn a great deal from, or at least that’s how it works for the most part. Then there are interviews like this one, in which I become fairly well aware, fairly quickly, that the interview subject has a wealth of knowledge that has me scrambling to the New York Public Library website to keep up with the interview subject. Such is the case here, with Lars Martinson, creator of Tonoharu. Here’s the core info you need to know about the storyteller:

“Lars Martinson was born on Mother’s Day, 1977. He has met a princess, seen a five-legged cow, and eaten raw octopus eggs. From 2003 to 2006 he taught English in Fukuoka, Japan through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. In 2007 he received the prestigious Xeric Grant for his graphic novel Tonoharu: Part One.” He currently is in the midst of a two-year effort to study Calligraphy at Shikoku University in Japan and “is hard at work on the second part of the Tonoharu story.”

And here’s the essence of his current work:

“Daniel Wells begins a new life as an assistant junior high school teacher in the rural Japanese village of Tonoharu. Isolated from those around him by cultural and language barriers, he leads a monastic existence, peppered only by his inept pursuit of the company of a fellow American who lives a couple towns over. But contrary to appearances, Dan isn’t the only foreigner to call Tonoharu home. Across town, a group of wealthy European eccentrics are boarding in a one-time Buddhist temple, for reasons that remain obscure to their gossiping neighbors. ” (One last detail about the book? How well is it selling? Top Shelf has sold out of the first printing with a second printing on the way.)

Tim O’Shea: I found it interesting that you wrote recently in your blog: “Iris Murdoch once said ‘To be a good writer, you have to kill your babies’, and that’s what editing the text was like for me.” First off, I actually don’t think I’ve heard a graphic novelist reference Murdoch before, so I have to ask–what books or authors do you like?

Lars Martinson: I have to confess that I’ve never actually read any Murdoch; I heard the “kill your babies” quote years ago, and it stuck with me because I thought it was good advice and an apt description of the editing process. When I included it in a blog entry, I had to do an internet search to find out who to attribute it to.

But to answer your question, my favorite work of fiction is the four-volume Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, about a group of expats living in pre-WWII Egypt. A couple of the character names in Tonoharu were taken from that series. My favorite author in general is Knut Hamsun, a 19th century Norwegian novelist. I’ve read every English translation of his work that I’ve been able to get my hands on.

O’Shea: How did you come upon your “rule of thumb was to try to keep the number of words per panel under fifteen (or ideally, under ten)”?

Martinson: Right around the time I started editing Tonoharu, I was reading though English translations of the Japanese comic Sazae-san by Machiko Hasegawa. As I looked at the walls of text on the pages of Tonoharu, I remember being very impressed by how Hasegawa could relate so much with so few words. Only very, very rarely did she use more than ten words per balloon. Granted, Sazae-san is four-panel humor comic about daily family life, so Hasegawa didn’t have to service epic storylines or anything. But Sazae-san reminded me of the importance of economy, and how much fun it is to read a comic that has the right balance between words and pictures. In contrast, wordy comics take a real effort to read. Sometimes they’re good enough to be worth all that work, but in general I don’t think they play off the strengths of the medium.

O’Shea: In trying to be more economic with your dialogue, did you ever seek other people’s opinions in editing?

Martinson: I have a good friend who has a knack for cutting away the fat in writing, and his advice was very useful, particularly for the prologue, which was originally had about twice as text as the final version.

O’Shea: You said “virtually every face of every main character in Tonoharu: Part One was [redrawn] at least once, in some cases two or three times.” You mentioned that Tonoharu‘s protagonist, Daniel Wells, was the character you had the hardest time with. What qualities did you want to emphasize in Dan’s character design?

Martinson: “Still waters run deep” probably best sums up what I was trying to capture. I wanted Dan’s face to suggest a quiet, forgettable wallflower, but at the same time to hint at a deep underlying intensity.
Those two qualities proved hard to balance out, and for the longest time I couldn’t get it right. Long after I was happy with all the other character designs, I was still working on Dan. I finally arrived at something I was satisfied with after drawing him literally hundreds of times, but by that point, the Dan from the beginning of the book looked like a completely different from the Dan at the end of the book, hence the need for heavy graphical edits.

O’Shea: I’m struck at the dip pen nuances to your art–when did you first get interested in experimenting with dip pen work–is there any dip pen artist in particular that sparked your interest in the medium?

Martinson: The first “alternative” cartoonist that I ever became interested in was Jim Woodring; his pen work is really incredible. Other than that, I’ve always really admired the crosshatch illustrations you sometimes find in books from the nineteenth century, which I assume were done with a dip pen? Maybe I’m just showing my ignorance here…
As time goes on though, I find myself more drawn to the brush rather than the dip pen; it’s not quite as precise and takes a lot more time to learn to use effectively, but the results you can achieve are really incredible.

O’Shea: Speaking of that, you’re currently studying ink brush techniques in Japan. How have your studies influenced your artwork–or is it too early in the process to assess?

Martinson: I’ve only been here for about four months now, so I’d say it’s still a little too early to draw any firm conclusions. But I will say in passing though that just as economy is important for the text in comics, the same can be said about the line work. I think my drawings tend to be too busy, and hope my studies here will help me get better at distilling my line work down to just the essentials.

O’Shea: As interest in Tonoharu has grown, have you seen an uptick in the essential prologue to the book, Young Men of a Certain Mind?

Martinson: Not really, but I’m probably mostly to blame for that. The ad for Young Men of a Certain Mind the back flap of the dust jacket for Tonoharu: Part One directs people to my “business” website ( to order the book, but as of right now the only working Paypal link to buy the book is through my personal website/blog ( Updating the Pliant Press website to include a working Paypal link is high on my list of things I should have done ages ago.

O’Shea: When do you expect to release Tonoharu: Part Two?

Martinson: I’m shooting for the second half of 2009, but to be honest I’m not 100% sure that will happen. I wish I could get it done sooner, or in the very least offer a concrete release date. But I’m currently juggling grad school & publishing duties in addition to work on Part Two, so for now, there are just too many variables for me to say for sure. But my blog will have any significant updates regarding Tonoharu: Part Two’s release, so interested parties can check that out.

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