Friday, October 9, 2020

Good Grief, Adrian Tomine!

Adrian Tomine's comics are not warm and empathetic. The characters in them are mean, petty, spiteful, and self-destructive. Tomine generates a lot of comedy using this formula, but it can make them a difficult read, especially since the characters who aren't his obvious stand-ins are often paper-thin. While the situations in his previous book, Killing And Dying, were extremely clever, there was something that felt off about the characterizations. There were times it felt like he as reaching for something beyond his grasp as a storyteller. 

At heart, Tomine is a humorist. While he specializes in cringe humor, his work is at its best when he's the target of his jokes. In his newest book, The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Cartoonist, Tomine unleashes a torrent of humiliations, self-owns, social awkwardness, and a profound lack of perspective on the reader, with each scenario funnier than the next. It's very much in the vein of Charles Schulz' Peanuts, with Tomine casting himself as a Charlie Brown character who desperately wishes he was Linus instead. Linus is pathologically anxious, but he's also introspective, kind, and even possesses a certain cool. Charlie Brown is a try-hard who keeps raging at his failures but doesn't stop trying, no matter how Sisyphean his task might seem. Charlie Brown is also socially inept, especially with regard to romance.

Tomine traces the key humiliations of his life from childhood to the present, often focusing on his career. Going from doing mini-comics as a teenager to getting signed as a pillar of Drawn & Quarterly to achieving international success, acclaim, and attention does absolutely nothing for his self-esteem. Appearing on NPR's Fresh Air program is something cartoonists can only dream of and he knows it, but all he can think about is how dumb his voice sounded on the show. It's like if Charlie Brown wound up becoming a pitcher in the majors and hated himself for saying something dumb on a SportsCenter interview. Objective success and failure have little to do with one's self-image, and all Tomine can think of is his life-long social awkwardness.

That awkwardness settles around the cartoonist's lament: when they are at a signing or a show, all they can think about is how much they want to be alone. When they are back in their hotel room, all they can think about is their crippling loneliness. The title of the book is a funny allusion to the film about a rebellious student who strikes out at authority (The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Runner). He's cool and a badass. Tomine's character is neither cool nor a badass, so that title is yet another bit of self-deprecation, as his loneliness isn't the pose of a disgruntled teen, but that of someone desperate to be accepted and loved.

To be clear, this book isn't a humblebrag or an attempt to be self-deprecating in order to get the audience's sympathy. It's a series of acknowledged self-owns, much like when he published an embarrassing photo of himself from high school because it had been making the rounds in order to make fun of him. There's something about his success as a "literary cartoonist" that enrages certain corners of the comics world that works to diminish his skill and storytelling abilities. Ultimately, Tomine's tone isn't for everyone, but that combination of deep reserve in his characters masking deep rage is always compelling.

His best character remains himself, or rather a studied caricature of himself rooted in emotional truths but clearly played up for laughs. In the opening story, when he pops up on the first day of school and starts babbling about John Romita to his mocking classmates, he deliberately draws himself like a Schulz character. He's put upon like Charlie Brown but lashes out like Lucy, calling his classmates "stupid idiots." Of course, every humiliation here is specifically linked to comics in some way. His first San Diego Comicon is marked by some asshole confronting him about signing with D&Q instead of another Canadian publisher. and people burning him for ripping off Dan Clowes. The next year, he's nominated for an Eisner award and a childhood favorite, Frank Miller, is reading the list of nominees in his category. Miller makes a comment about not even attempting to pronounce his name as he then loses.

The racism that Tomine has faced in an alternative comics industry that was primarily white for decades is part of the story here, as he got put under a poster for Miller's "That Yellow Bastard" at a particularly anemic signing. While that was a bad signing, Tomine gets laughs not from his own dilemma, but from the shop owner who desperately tries to bring people over to the signing. Similarly, at a lunch with his then-girlfriend and future wife, they happen to sit next to a guy loudly bloviating about how bad Tomine's work was. While he didn't want a confrontation, he had to prevent his girlfriend Sarah from laying into that guy. In the next panel, he resolves to propose to her. It's a rare sweet moment in the book, even if it was propelled by the kind of aggressive know-it-all who frequently attacks his work.

It's also a bit of a corrective. In an earlier scene, when a blowhard asks him at a reading to essentially justify his existence as a cartoonist, Tomine's reaction afterward is to blow up, wishing extreme violence on him and then futilely attempting to backtrack by saying, "Just kidding!" It's an important progression because it reveals a key theme in the book. When Tomine is younger and lonelier, these slights bother him more, no matter how successful he is. When he's firmly with Sarah, like in that restaurant scene, he's able to swallow his rage and indignation much easier. When he becomes a father to two girls, the importance of all of this fades even more.

That's what leads into the final segment, wherein chest pains lead him to go to the ER. He realizes that while he thinks he's dying, he doesn't care about comics. He's only thinking about his wife and children. It provokes a profound moment later when he's back home with his wife, the pains a false alarm. Of course, she falls asleep while he's delivering this soliloquy about the importance of his family, and how much he had come to hate comics. He admitted to his pettiness and claimed he was a narcissist, saying that while he understood that comics had given him everything, all he could think about were the small humiliations. There's a profound moment of professing that he was going to change and be more emotionally open before he realizes she's asleep. 

Then the premise of this book hits him, and he gets to work on it. It's a fantastic punchline to a series of what amounted to shaggy dog stories, but it goes deeper than that. It's not just that Tomine is at heart a gag man who couldn't resist a series of humiliating gags that he had etched in his memory. It's not just that Tomine was expected to do comics and he felt pressure to do so. At heart, this comic is about how making comics gives Tomine genuine pleasure, even with all of the bullshit that surrounds it. It's why he got out of bed after a harrowing evening in the ER. Making comics is fun, and making comics about one's own humiliations is even more fun, especially since he gets to control the narrative. How "true" these stories are is irrelevant; what matters is how they serve the greater overall themes of the comic and how they work as individual narratives. The lack of context other than what he chooses to serve this humorous narrative makes this as closed as it gets with regard to autobio, but Tomine makes no pretensions otherwise. The only context the reader needs is what's given in each story, and each story is structured such that there's a different kind of humiliation each time. 

If it seems strange that Tomine marinates in these humiliations for an entire book's length, consider that he's been marinating in them his entire life. The book gave him the outlet he needed for them. Tomine's line absolutely crackles here as he pays tribute to artists like Clowes and Schulz, but his mastery over microexpressions and gesture (especially with regard to his children) refines the gags to an exquisite degree. This is sad-boy memoir that laughs at itself, as Tomine fully understands how lucky he is to have a career based on his skills and artistic expression as well as a loving family. He fully understands how much kvetching he's doing in the book, but he does it anyway because it's funny and because it allows him to trace this history of pettiness and overreaction and shows how he's grown out of a lot of self-destructive lines of thought. It balances the solitude of the artist with the need for social interaction of the person, even as it shows just how painfully funny these lessons were for him. Adrian Tomine may be a big blockhead, but at least he knows why it's funny that someone keeps pulling that football away from him at the last second.

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