In its own modest way, Tonoharu, a Xeric Award-winning debut graphic novel by Lars Martinson, is a case study in indie publishing. Despite the book’s Japanese title (it’s the name of the town where the story takes place), it owes nothing to the style or flavor of contemporary manga. Instead, Martinson’s densely textured, detailed drawings tell the story of a young English-language teacher struggling with loneliness and cultural alienation in rural Japan.

Tonoharu: Part One is the first of a projected four-volume series originally self-published by Martinson’s Pliant Press after he received a $10,000 Xeric Foundation Grant in September 2007—twice the amount typically given. The book will be distributed by Top Shelf Productions. The Xeric Foundation—founded in 1992 by Peter Laird, cocreator of the originally self-published Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—has given close to $2 million in grants that enable comics artists to self-publish their works.

Inspired by the self-published works of artists like Laird and Chris Ware, Martinson had long decided that self-publishing would also be his initial platform for a career drawing comics. “It’s not that I’m opposed to going through a publisher,” Martinson told PWCW. “It’s just that if I want to eke out a living doing this, I figured I should learn as much about the process as I could. If you self-publish, you have to do everything yourself. I wanted to get a kind of crash course in the whole book business, and using the Xeric grant, it didn’t really cost me anything but my time.”

Martinson also launched a Web site and blog, to document the process of creating and producing the book—detailing everything from decisions on trim size and cover design to information on Japanese culture—as well as his efforts to promote it online. “The Internet is the biggest aspect of my personal marketing efforts,” Martinson said. “I loved the idea of creating information that would help people decide to publish or self-publish or to decide to draw comics.”

Martinson approached noted indie publisher Top Shelf Productions to distribute the book. Along with other independent comics publishers like Jeff Mason’s Alternative Comics, Top Shelf has been offering distribution deals to selected Xeric grant winners since the late 1990s. “We’ve always felt it was important to work with the comics community at large and team up on projects we felt were really worthwhile,” Top Shelf publisher Chris Staros said.

From the moment he saw the book, Staros said he believed Tonoharu would be a good match with the Top Shelf list. “From the story to the art to the design and production values, Tonoharu is one of the most spectacular freshman efforts we’ve seen in years,” Staros said. “Lars jumped out [of] the gate fully formed.” Martinson pays Top Shelf a commission on sales, and Top Shelf will distribute to the book trade as well as offer the title at the 21 comics conventions Top Shelf attends each year.

Even as Tonoharu: Part One is just reaching bookstores nationwide, Martinson is moving into the next phase of his work. In February, he received the Mombusho Research Fellowship, a prestigious grant awarded by the Japanese government to promote graduate-level research. Martinson, whose own three-year stint as an English-language teacher in Japan as part of the JET Program (Japanese Exchange and Translation Program) served as the direct inspiration for Tonoharu, is already back in Japan and will study Japanese calligraphy and ink drawings for the next two years at Shikoku University.

At the same time, Martinson plans to continue work on Tonoharu. He’s already scripted and plotted out the final three parts of the series and has begun drawing Part Two, which he hopes to publish by 2009. In the meantime, he’s working to promote his book over the Internet and sending out press releases and review copies to branches of the JET Program, expatriate magazines and whoever else might be interested in his work.

Quoting Maus creator Art Spiegelman, Martinson said, “Comics is not a career, it’s a calling. And since I was fortunate—or cursed—to have that calling, I decided that I should really fight tooth and nail to make it happen.”