The book starts in 1948 where the author is 13 years old and embarking on single panels of manga and sending it into magazines, and finishes in 1960 when the author is 25 and a successful author of manga and a new style he created, "gekiga". The book is autobiographical, taking in details of Tatsumi's (renamed Katsumi HIroshi in the book) home life, his ill brother, his philandering father, his dedicated mother, and moving him through high school becoming progressively interested and committed to manga, until he becomes a full time manga artist and writer. The cultural and political history of Japan is documented as well but the main focus is on the development of manga in this postwar era and how it developed over these years.
This is the best book I've read all year, comic books or otherwise, for so many reasons. The story is so well written and drawn throughout. We see Tatsumi's self doubt and determination to become a strong artist throughout and his admiration of artists he met when he started, particularly the superb Tezuka Osamu, but you can't help but notice Tatsumi today has surpassed Tezuka in skill to a whole new level. He writes ironically about attempting long works (48 pages! he gasps) all the while the reader is holding in their hands an 834 page book.
And its not at all a struggle to read through all 834 pages. The story is so compelling that by the end I could genuinely read another 800 pages. The story of the manga artists is well told with its highs, betrayals, sense of adventure, creation, and originality all done by guys in their early 20s.
Tatsumi does seem to "drift" into manga. While he wanted to become an artist in high school he quickly becomes a known name and ends up moving from Osaka to Tokyo and then becoming a contributing artist to half a dozen magazines, producing books, editing short story collections, editing magazines, and then starting the "gekiga" movement singlehandedly - he's only 25 years old by the end of the book!
Its such a great comic book and deserves to be up there alongside "Maus" and "Watchmen" as one of the masterpieces of the genre. It's certainly Tatsumi's masterpiece. I also recommend getting the recently republished "Black Blizzard", one of Tatsumi's best loved books, and one of his works he writes about creating in "A Drifting Life" so its good to read alongside this book. Even if you're not a comic book fan this is a great book and one of the highlights of 2009 publishing.
A virtuoso piece, a career best, a true masterpiece from one of the best comic book writer/artists that ever lived, I can't recommend this highly enough.