Lauderdale cartoonist releases self-published graphic novel

“My name is Lars Martinson. I was born in Minnesota in 1977. I am currently in the midst of a foolhardy attempt to eke out a living as a cartoonist.”

With that introduction on his Web site, Lauderdale illustrator and writer Lars Martinson establishes a persona that readers will get to know intimately when they encounter the first volume of his self-published, four-part graphic novel series called “Tonoharu,” a full-length illustrated book about the adventures, alienation and introspection of a young American man living in Japan.

The book will be available in May in local bookstores. Martinson spoke about the trials of the creative process, the challenges of self-publishing, and his joy at having completed what is an impressive novel seasoned with insight and intricate illustration.

“It might be kind of about me,” Martinson said wryly about “Tonoharu.” He moved back to the Twin Cities a year ago after having spent three years teaching with the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) program, an experience that he began to put into words and drawings while still overseas.

“I first went to Japan at age 16 on a high school exchange program,” he said. “It really made my love for other cultures flourish. Right when I was wrapping up college, a friend of mine went to Japan with JET. I liked that idea — to contribute to international understanding.”

Martinson lived frugally in Japan and has been surviving for the past year on his savings while working on the novel. He majored in graphic design at the University of North Dakota, but says he always knew that what he really wanted to do professionally was work as a cartoonist.

“The three years I spent with the JET program were the most meaningful of my life,” he said. “But it goes without saying that if you take an American and put him in rural Japan, there will be culture shock and alienation.”

Those reactions are what inspired “Tonoharu.” The book is named after a small town near where Martinson stayed.

“I’ve discovered when talking to people who haven’t lived in a foreign land that they don’t have the frame of reference I do,” he said. “I wanted to continue talking about Japan long after people were tired of hearing about it. I wanted to write this and make it more visceral, so people could identify with the characters.”

Martinson described the creative process as “long and painful,” the current chapter of “Tonoharu” having taken almost four years to complete. The book includes text and illustrations, which Martinson created with brush and dip pen. The final effect is reminiscent of Victorian illustrations — detailed and precise.

Not only was the project stylistically difficult and time consuming but Martinson handled all the work himself — no help from a publisher or production company. It was particularly rewarding, then, when he received a Xeric grant for comic book self-publishers last fall.

Xeric was founded by Peter Laird, one of the creators of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a self-published comic that made its two creators wealthy. The Xeric Foundation gives grants to comics organizations and self-publishing comics artists.

“I was a fan of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a kid,” said Martinson, “and I liked how it raised interest in alternative comics. I always had in the back of my mind that I would apply for a grant at some point, and this was the right time because I knew ‘Tonoharu’ would be really expensive.”

With the grant to aid him, Martinson was able to concentrate on an aspect of his book quite different from any artistic work: publishing and distribution.

“There’s a stigma against self-publishers, especially in comics,” he said. “Top Shelf Production, a comic publisher, would have been willing to publish me, but I wanted to learn the ins and outs of the business. Plus, for alternative comics the margins are pretty thin, so anything you farm out is money out of your pocket.”

Despite difficulties, Martinson has secured national distribution for his novel. And with the completion of the first part, he’s looking ahead to the next chapter of his story.

“Part one doesn’t have the closure you’d expect from a whole book, which the other parts will continue,” he said. “My goal with part one was to introduce the main characters and what it’s like to live in a foreign country — talking about food, a sense of what living and working abroad is like. I’m excited about part two and feel it’s coming along really well.”

Martinson already has his next graphic novel in mind, but he has to finish “Tonoharu” first. “I have a good 10 years of comics floating around in my mind,” he said.

In the meantime, he will be heading back to Japan to live in Tokushima City and study calligraphy at Shikoku University, having recently won a scholarship sponsored by the Japanese government.

“Japanese calligraphy is done exclusively with brush,” he said, “like I used in ‘Tonoharu.’ I think most comics these days are terrible. If you look at newspaper comics from the 20s — Crazy Cats, Annie — they’re beautiful technically. They could take up a whole newspaper page and had a lot of heart.”

Martinson hopes to be able to contribute artistically to modern comics, and his studies at Shikoku are a step in that direction.

“Tonoharu” will be available at Micawber’s.