Sunday, June 28, 2009

Adrian Tomine: Old and New

Reviewed are two recent re-releases from Drawn & Quarterly by Adrian Tomine: a new edition of 32 STORIES (a collection of the original OPTIC NERVE minicomics) and a paperback edition of SHORTCOMINGS (his most recent work).

It was a pleasure to compare the early and latest strips from Adrian Tomine, whose sheer ambition as a writer is a wonder to behold. In many ways, Tomine is the epitome of the neurotic, self-conscious, loner cartoonist stereotype. It's why so many comics fans give him so much grief: he takes himself and his work very seriously, making him an easy target for mockery. There's also the charge that he writes too much about the lives of so-called "hipsters" and/or too-obvious character stand-ins for himself, dipping into self-indulgence. I find these charges to be nonsensical, given that most of his strips featuring thinly-disguised stand-in characters are brutally self-deprecatory. None of his stories do anything to glorify the lives of hipsters. Indeed, what Tomine is the master of is distancing character from reader. Like his biggest influence, Dan Clowes, Tomine actively creates antipathy between reader and protagonist. He plays this antipathy for acidic laughs, especially in SHORTCOMINGS. Tomine's constant flattening of affect (both in word and image) creates a weird tension on the page where lust, guilt and jealousy are bubbling under. His greatest skill is making the reader want to read a story where virtually every character is awful yet totally believable.

Tomine's work is about authenticity and the way people desperately avoid authentic speech and action. The artist's eye and pen are harsh judges of inauthentic action, especially in himself. That shows in his harsh assessment of 32 STORIES, a new edition of his minicomic version of OPTIC NERVE. Tomine goes into great detail as to his reluctance to have this material reprinted because of its rawness, but relented if it could be reprinted in its original format. He didn't pretend that this approach was any less self-aggrandizing (coming in a fancy box and even featuring the Optic Nerve sticker from #4), but he did think it was a more honest approach--warts 'n all. Tomine's demolition of his own author's statement from 1995 is hilarious, as he calls himself out for copying Dan Clowes and David Mazzucchelli, being vain and having no sense of humor about himself. To that end, he reprinted an embarrassing photo of himself from his high school yearbook that someone tried to humiliate him with on the web a few years ago.

What stands out about these seven minicomics was his astounding ambition as an artist at a very young age, having published the first when he was sixteen. His earliest strips were crude but bursting with energy, dealing with small and often brutal moments. While the sort of emotional distancing that Tomine would make his trademark was present, these stories frequently had a visceral quality that would fade as his line became more sophisticated. They felt a bit like Tomine going through his R.Crumb/Julie Doucet underground phase. Still, his early autobio was frequently hilarious, especially when he started grappling with the idea of reporting "truth" in these stories. Early on, it became quite clear that, like many authors, Tomine revealed more of his true self through fictional characters than his own autobio persona.

Indeed, that latter persona was as deliberate and artificial a creation as any of his fictional characters. His character Amy was a combination of extrapolating the life of someone he saw at a bookstore and his own yearnings as a loner. His own self-caricature had an appropriately blank expression, his eyes always obscured by his glasses. That figure was an apt representation of the impotence he felt in expressing his rage; "Adrian Quits His Job" featured him apparently screaming at his own boss, his face dissolving in a bit of Ralph Steadman-esque scribble, until we see that such an expression of anger was simply a fantasy.

The fifth issue saw him start to move into his mature style, and the sixth issue featured two significant stories in "Smoke" and "Leather Jacket"--distilled but restrained expressions of despair and freedom with regard to relationships. The seventh and last issue saw him go into full-on Clowes mode in terms of both line and narrative style, but the best story was "Happy Anniversary", the kind of examination of a doomed relationship that would become Tomine's trademark.

Fast-forwarding to SHORTCOMINGS, we find Tomine's line and voice honed to a razor's edge. By this time, he had shed the slickness that had started to infect his work around the time of OPTIC NERVE #7, simplying and clarifying it while at the same time adding a level of sophistication in his character expressiveness and understanding of gesture and body language. Indeed, a big part of the storytelling in this book consists of body language belying actual speech, especially on the part of the putative protagonist of the book, Ben Tanaka. The story finds the stuck-in-his-ways Ben taking his girlfriend Miko for granted and not-so-secretly pining for sexual encounters with white women--his forbidden fruit.

The character of Ben is an obvious Tomine stand-in (they even share the same allergies down to olive bark), but it's a stand-in that feels almost like self-flagellation--or perhaps self-exorcism. It's a character that's a mass of insecurity, self-hatred, wheel-spinning and paranoia. His intelligence and lack of tolerance for fakeness in others (especially with regard to race) is constantly undermined by his relentless negativity and blindness to his own hypocrisy. With Tanaka, we get a character who engages in arguments with his girlfriend that have an almost painful verisimilitude, gets off hilarious and vicious one-liners but winds up being the butt of a particularly nasty joke, courtesy of fate.

The central conflict of the book is really Ben's conflict with himself and lack of willingness to embrace or even approach change. He doesn't want his girlfriend to explore her racial identity; he doesn't want his best friend to move to New York; he doesn't want to think about why he's managing a movie theatre instead of taking a hard look at his life. He not only doesn't want to think about the mire that his life has become, he wants everyone in it to stay mired with him. It's not til he comes to the final punchline of the book that he faces up to this fact, not allowing his best friend to speak ill of his now ex-girlfriend, saying "We all have our reasons".

What makes this book more than just a nuanced look at the end of a relationship is Tomine's fearless handling of race. He zeroes in on stereotypes, forbidden fantasies and desires publicly denied. Tomine plays these for awkward, uncomfortable laughs in brilliant scene after brilliant scene. His control both over his line and over character dialogue & interaction gives his comics a powerful tension between restraint and boiling-over passions. SHORTCOMINGS is proof positive that Tomine found his voice as one of the best naturalistic, slice-of-life cartoonists in comics. He's not a brilliant formalist, but rather sticks to his strengths and has refined them to a level that make every page and panel pleasurable to simply look at without reading dialogue.


  1. nice review!i really liked it. i love tomine's work except summer blonde which i think was a step back for him. i'm happy he's back in form with shortcomings.

  2. thanks for the kind words! Shortcomings is really, really funny.

  3. This is a very nice review. I enjoyed reading it.