When I sat down with the comic illustrator Suzy Amakane, the first thing he did was pull a postcard out of his backpack and contemplate being blacklisted by Disney.
On the postcard was a remake of Roy Lichtenstein’s first remake, his first pop art painting, “Look Mickey.” While the original shows Donald Duck hooking his own coattails on a fishing pole, Amakane switches the roles. In his painting, Mickey snags himself with the pole while Donald snickers behind him (I think, but wouldn’t Mickey feel a hook in his bottom?). The scene is from a Tokyo exhibition he did in 2008 about pop art parodies. Only a skilled satirist parodies parody—but, as Amakane admires Lichtenstein, he does so respectfully, even reverently. He laughed that, since he does a lot of commercial work, he has killed his chances of ever collaborating with Disney.
Amakane is no stranger to rejection. He was turned away by magazines for his thick brushstrokes early in his career; his spoofy, bizarre and raunchy images could offend or unsettle. But Amakane knows this when he paints. The weird, grotesque or perverse art of his idols are similarly self-aware, drawing tens of thousands of admirers.
I met him at a chocolate store to talk about his art. He brought a little black backpack. He pulled an impossible number of artifacts: after the postcard, a thick, tattered manga book called “A Salaried Man” he made in college (his sotsusei, or senior project), then an issue of “Takarajima” (his big break), then “NURI-COMIX,” a manga collection released much later in his career (a retrospective). In the 1980s, Amakane created nuri comic, which resembles traditional manga in the form of a painted strip, allowing us to see the strokes, the physical work of illustration. He described the approach as analog. “Analog has a human essence,” he said, “and that essence comes out naturally when I paint.”
Amakane approaches his own art with a muffled laugh, or maybe it’s a snort, or a big laugh. The chocolate store was fancy; there were French chocolate-making diplomas on the wall and the coffee came with macarons (macarons!). I expected a man as self-important as our meeting place. His “analog” approach—hand-painting most of the strips—is labor. He showed me one painting I thought was digital because it looked like a pixelated screen. He painstakingly painted each little square. Regardless, he reminded me that it’s actually all for fun, and praised other artists like Lichtenstein, King Terry, Takashi Nemoto, Gary Panter and Keith Haring.
Amakane didn’t hesitate to beat himself up or show boyish reverence for his idols, which stunned me a little. His list of clientele is long and varied, but even his colorful, caustic commercial works betray more confidence and assurance than I saw in the man himself. Despite the great pains he takes in his work and his extensive knowledge of pop culture , he remains reverent, always an admirer.
Despite his expertise, he described himself in art school as a “haguremono,” a stray. Then in the middle of his college career, the heta-uma movement was born. Little Amakane breathed a sigh of relief. This could be an option; this could be his calling.
Heta-uma means “bad-good,” or “unskilled-skilled.” People say Teruhiko Yumura, alias King Terry, created the heta-uma style. With his scrawling lines, crude collage and erotic tastes, he made something more subversive than pop art in England and the United States. He not only parodied popular culture, but also broke artistic rules of conduct; Western pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol had polish, but Amakane didn’t concern himself with traditional drawing conventions. He illustrated for “Garo,” an alternative manga anthology maga- zine, which is defunct but now the stuff of legend among manga fans, disseminated on Internet threads. “Garo” boomed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, coeval with, or even reason for, the emergence of heta-uma. But, as Amakane said, there are many different types of heta-uma. Although King Terry’s “Garo” covers originated the modern type and the name “bad-good,” purposeful perversity in art dates back centuries, to medieval Zen paintings that are laughably ugly.
Prettiness or pleasantness does not make for the beauty of an artwork. The beautiful thing, or the repulsive thing, about an artwork is its self-assuredness, or lack thereof. How confident is the piece? How forceful is the presence of the artist and, in turn, the humanity of the piece? If every stroke or line or pixel seems a conscious choice, the work is captivating—even the disorder of Pollockian paintings seems purposeful. Even if a piece looks disordered, bizarre or disgusting, it is nice to look at as long as it seems self-aware. Everyone knows King Terry’s beach erotica, the “Garo” cover of an octopus with wavering lines. Takashi Nemoto’s drawings are gross. The subject matter is not pleasant, nor is the illustration traditionally good, but their art is so confident and forceful it suggests that they know it. They transfer ideas onto a surface with resolve and a cool head.
This amazes me—and Amakane, too. He told me about a “Garo” manga by King Terry and Shigesato Itoi back in the boom era, when he was in college: “I thought it was astounding. It was different from other manga up to that point. I looked forward to it every issue. Totally different from regular manga.”
Every time Amakane showed me his work, I was taken aback by his skill; his reverence for others reminded me that he is a person. It was the goal of the heta-uma artists to resist the polish of most (accepted) art, cultivating soul and humanity in their pieces. Amakane adds humanity through hand-painted “analog” comics, as well as his seething satire and and, of course, his humility. When I bid him goodbye, he was buying his wife chocolates.