Comics College | Adrian Tomine
Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.
After a brief one-month vacation, Comics College is back with a look at the bibliography of one of the brighter stars indie comics sky, Adrian Tomine.
Why he’s important
Tomine initially came to prominence when he was still in high school, self-publishing issues of his mini-comic, Optic Nerve. In some ways it seems he’s been on the defensive ever since then, despite the justified acclaim he’s received. He got accused of selling-out once once he moved over to Drawn & Quarterly. He then got accused of pandering to trendy, hipster “emo” attitudes with his frequent focus on disaffected twentysomethings. Then he was decried by some as creating “stories about nothing.”
None of those things are true, of course. Since teaming up with Drawn & Quarterly in 1995, Tomine has proven to be one of the best short story writers in the industry, creating affecting tales of people plagued by insecurity. He never spells anything out, but he’s a master of naturalistic dialogue and expression, and often able to convey in a few panels a character’s inner thoughts without resorting to wordy thought balloons or text boxes.
If nothing else, he should be admired for stubbornly sticking to the pamphlet format when every other alt-cartoonist of note has grudgingly abandoned it.
Where to start
For new readers coming to Tomine’s work for the first time, Summer Blonde, a collection of Tomine’s later, longer short stories (roughly Optic Nerve #5-8) might be the best place to start. It’s the beginning of what could arguably called his mature period, with Tomine taking more time and care to offer detailed, perceptive portraits of deeply insecure or otherwise emotionally and socially awkward people, “Bomb Scare” and the title story being the best of the bunch.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a cheaper entry point, there’s the latest issue of Optic Nerve, No. 12, which just arrived in stores last week. It’s a good issue, too, featuring a suburban gardener who attempts to create art by combining his landscape know-how with sculpture only to face derision from just about everyone, and “Amber Sweet,” the story of a young girl who just happens to be a dead ringer for a well-known porn star.
From there you should read
Shortcomings is Tomine’s best work to date by far, but it’s drawn criticism by some for having a main character that’s basically an insufferable asshole. I don’t remember reading any rules of literature that dictated that the lead character had to be likable, but apparently that’s an issue with some readers. It’s a shame, however, as a closer reading, I think, reveals that despite Ben Tanaka’s pathetic behavior, he’s not a character that alien from people we know or even ourselves, especially in his search for love, security and a removal of self-loathing. It’s a near-perfect story of person who desperately needs to alter their way of living yet seems unable to find a way to do so.
Once you’ve read those books, it’s time to go back to Tomine’s earlier works, beginning with Sleepwalk and Other Stories, which collects the stories from the first four D&Q issues of Optic Nerve. There’s the occasional misstep here, but by and large this is solid work, with Tomine slowly trying on different voices and storytelling devices, and finding his voice. “Dylan and Donovan” is probably my personal favorite of the bunch here.
Moving even further back in time, there’s 32 Stories, the collection of Tomine’s initial mini-comics he did in high school. Last year D&Q reissued the stories in their original minicomic form, all nicely packaged in a slim cardboard box.While Tomine’s work has improved considerably since these initial forays, it’s still rather remarkable how confident and strong his work is here. No wonder he got the attention he did so quickly.
Scenes From an Impending Marriage is a trifle, but it’s a charming trifle, a minicomic Tomine did for his wedding guests chronicling the stress he and his then-fiance went through preparing for their nuptuals. It’s familiar enough material (trying to find the right DJ, mailing invitations, etc.) to bring a smile to anyone who’s gone down the aisle themselves, or witnessed plenty of their friends doing the same.
Finally, there’s Scrapbook, a paperback collection of sketches, illustration art and other ephemera. The most notable thing about this book is the inclusion of a series of uber-short strips Tomine did for Tower Records’ Pulse! magazine, all of which are pretty great.
Nothing really. Tomine’s output has been relatively strong over the years with never such a serious drop in quality as for me to recommend you avoid something of his. It’s all good.