Adrian Tomine’s cartooning ranks among the best in modern comics, each new issue adding to a mythology of lovelorn slackers, family politics and sex. His latest, Shortcomings (Drawn and Quarterly, 104 pp.), serialized in Optic Nerve issues 9 to 11, is the story of Ben Tanaka, a disgruntled movie theatre manager who, like most men his age raised on a steady diet of pop culture — detritus and all — lives a private life of strong opinions and hidden desires. His already-strained relationship with his girlfriend Miko becomes increasingly antagonistic, as she accuses him of wanting other women — white women.
Shortcomings is Tomine’s most expansive story yet, told more through rich visuals than words, cadenced panel compositions and his inimitable facial characterizations and expressions. Fast Forward asked Tomine about getting into comics and the creation of Shortcomings.
Fast Forward: The first Optic Nerve issues were printed in 1995, when you were 21. What inspired you to get into comics?
Adrian Tomine: I was doing some mini-comics even earlier, at age 15. Love and Rockets was my gateway drug into more artistic, personal comics.
Did you go to art school?
I had a self-guided education. I went to college in Berkley, California, as an English major. Well, I started as an art major, but quickly grew disenchanted with that. I enjoyed English more. For me, it was a good thing to learn on my own and at my own pace. I also got to know some pros when starting up that were generous with their time and very helpful.
You’ve done commercial work for The New Yorker and Rolling Stone. Do you still do much of that?
I used to. It’s one of the nice things about the change in the market — getting to the point now that people can make money from comics. (Comics are) a pure labour of love, so there’s a hustle to do illustration work. Gratefully, I can now work on my comics and do commercial work that doesn’t overtake that.
Would you consider illustrating another writer’s work?
I don’t think so. It has been proposed — some high-profile stuff. Maybe the net result would be better, but the process of drawing is so slow and frustrating. I work slowly, and it would be too much work in service of something that my heart wasn’t in.
What inspired Shortcomings?
It had been kicking around for a long time, before I put pen to paper. I was feeling very aware of just how apparent my artistic influences were in my work. I was reaching a point of being frustrated at not being able to break free of that, but there’s no way that I could. Rather than immerse myself in a new drawing style, I wanted to explore new avenues of content, story and characters.
Is there a biographical element to the work?
It’s not an autobiographical work. There isn’t any type of fiction totally sprung from the artist. Because of the nature of working in this form, it’s not like you’re making statements — there’s some kind of protection from working in private. I was more worried about offending people esthetically (laughs). The pitfall I was most conscious of was running the risk of being sanctimonious.
When I started working on it, I thought, “what is it about books and art that address race that doesn’t appeal to me?” (I wanted to) build a story around that — not just art that deals with race, but anything fake, that houses simple messages and characters. I tried to create characters that felt real to me, so that any kind of thematic content was suggested, or gently emerged.
Aside from online sources or The Comics Journal, readers looking for comics criticism don’t have a lot of options, which makes Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean (Da Capo Press, 405 pp.) worth reading. Wolk divides the book between a discussion on comic history and esthetics, and a series of essays on particular professionals, including the Hernandez brothers (Gilbert and Jaime), Alan Moore, Dave Sim, Chester Brown, Will Eisner, Frank Miller and more. While he unfairly dismisses some creators and ignores others entirely, Wolk still manages to pack in a lot of history. Some of his opinions might be infuriating, but he gives fair balance to both superhero and more arty books, and where the two meet — there’s a great chapter on Morrison’s use of dismantling of the “fourth wall” in The Invisibles and Seven Soldiers. The focus on creators rather than works is effective, using them as a springboard for examining larger tropes (hence, no commentary on The Sandman, but a chapter on Werewolf at Night and its use of page construction).
Vertigo’s done some amazing stuff over the years, but if the comic publisher has any weakness, it’s giving titles that should be mini-series too much room, and vice versa. Deadman just ended, American Virgin’s over in three more issues, Scalped is spinning its wheels and unless The Un-Men gets better, it’ll be done, too. So unless you’ve been following 100 Bullets or Fables from the beginning (to say nothing of Hellblazer), it’s hard to find some cool new Vertigo titles to jump into. Worth checking out — and easy to catch up to — are two new trades featuring some of Vertigo’s best current work, DMZ: Public Works (Vertigo, 128 pp.), Brian Wood’s gritty drama of post-civil-war-torn New York, and the hilariously ugly bug-revenge fantasy Exterminators: Lies of Our Fathers (Vertigo, 144 pp.).
Joe Matt gives himself quite the self-loathing critique in his new work, Spent (Drawn and Quarterly, 120 pp.), another entry in the sad sack, chronically masturbating cartoonist pantheon. He’s a hugely selfish prick, but elevates the hatred with humorous, cartoony art, and the eight-panel page structure doesn’t feel cluttered.
Anders Nilsen’s latest dystopian work, Dogs and Water (Drawn and Quarterly, 96 pp.) is pretty much that — a boy wanders across a dreary wasteland with a pack of wild dogs. The dreamlike quality of the work doesn’t necessarily connect, but Nilsen’s sharp line work has a delicateness to it that adds to the eerie story, made even grander through expanses of nothingness.
Québécois artist Pascal Blanchet’s White Rapids (Drawn and Quarterly, 156 pp.) has recently been translated to English, giving readers a chance to check out this gorgeously constructed tale of Rapide Blanc, a town created in northern Quebec in 1928 by the Shawinigan Water and Power Company that housed families who maintained the area’s dam. Blanchet’s Art Deco-inspired work flits between quaint and sinister, and the muted tones and rusted orange colours make it look like a pamphlet you’d find in an old roadside gas station.