Robot 6

Viva la Foletto!: On Adrian Tomine’s still floppy Optic Nerve #12

The last two pages of Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve #12 look like the roughest and most quickly considered and drawn pages in the entire issue, but they are also the funniest, and the most concerned with the quickly disappearing format of alternative comics like Optic Nerve.

In two black and white, 20-panel-grid pages that most closely resemble the style and tone of Tomine’s recent Scenes From an Impending Marriage, Tomine’s unshaven avatar in opaque spectacles gets lauched at by his fellow cartoonists when one refers to him as “The Last Pamphleteer.”

Stewing about the fact that the bound, book format has (what we commonly if not quite accurately refer to as “the graphic novel”) has become the default format for (non-superhero) comics, he laments sticking with “floppies”: “I even liked it when the artist was obviously just trying to fill a few extra pages, and you’d get a pointless, dashed-off autobio strip or something!”

Tomine works in an awful lot of jokes in so few pages, and rather masterfully fills those many panels so the art never looks small or claustrophobic (I read Optic Nerve #12 before and after this week’s Justice League #2, and I get such a case of whiplash reading superhero comics and “art” comics; people sometimes wonder why I’m so negative about super-comics, but how can one not be when you see the quality vs. quantity gap between a Big Two pamphlet and an issue of Optic Nerve?), eventually culminating in what is a (hopefully highly) fictionalized encounter with a comics reader at a shop signing.

The dashed-off autobio strip is endearing in the way it allows Tomine to honestly express his feelings about his chosen format and the way the industry is currently going, while also rather mercilessly ridiculing those feelings.

There are several arguments to be made for floppies (“Which is about as withering a terms as I’ve ever heard,” the Tomine character thinks in one panel), and while Tomine makes a couple of them, I think he left out one of the more compelling ones: Neither of the excellent stories in Optic Nerve #12, which are graphic short stories more than graphic novels or even graphic novellas, could have been published as books. They’re just too short to justify a book, and, I think, the expense of purchasing them.

That is, Optic Nerve #12 features 32-pages of comics content, one 19-page story and an 11-page story in addition to the previously discussed two-pager, for $5.95. If a publisher bound and published either as a book, they would be incredibly expensive and unsatisfying as individual story units.

So where do short stories go, in today’s comics market? Essentially they either get published online (which generally means “for free,” and lacks the tactile experience of reading a paper comic book that some of us treasure), or they can be put into a stapled comic book. Or they can, of course, be saved up until an author gets enough of them to publish them as a collection, but that method causes some problems for the creator (like a lack of revenue between collections and a lack of interaction with readers) and for the fan (a long wait between engagements with the cartoonist).

There’s an additional, aesthetic concern to publishing short stories straight to book length collections of short stories, too: The context inevitably affects the reading experience, and transforms the story in some way, as a reader takes it in as part of a likely artificial whole.

Without a floppy, a cartoonist like Tomine wouldn’t be able to publish either of the stories in Optic Nerve #12—at least, not in quite the same way, and not without severely altering the experience of reading them. And that would be a damn shame, because Tomine crafts great short stories, and the experience of reading these two, back-to-back and in a paper, stapled-comic book that I read over silver dollar pancakes and coffee in a diner on a sunny October morning and again in the break room of my day-job?

Those were great experiences I enjoyed.

(I almost wrote “will treasure,” but I’ve already said “treasure” once in regards to comics, and I don’t want this essay to get too precious).

As for the comics, the first is “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture’”, in which a frustrated gardener and family man attempts to follow his muse by creating a vital new art form blending the disparate media of gardening and sculpture.

Tomine tells it as if it were a daily newspaper comic strip, with six four-panel black and white “gag” installments followed by a full-page, full-color Sunday strip of greater length.Each opens with a title for the cartoon “Hortisculpture,” and the only thing distinguishing it from something you might actually read in the newspaper these days is its generally great quality. Tomine strips down his style to something more cartoony, but regardless of the abstract faces and fun, swollen body types, his characters still move with a degree of realism that looks wholly alien to what you find on the funnies pages of 2011.

Also, there’s some swearing, I guess.

In it, our protagonist grapples with the frustrations of being an artist, and by creating a particular form for the artist, Tomine gives himself creative space to focus on the feelings of ambition and frustration universally, without getting bogged down in the specifics of, say, cartooning or painting or music.

The second story is entitled “Amber Sweet,” and is a full-color drama in the style of Tomine’s Shortcomings. It apparently ran in the New York Times somewhere or other, according to Chris Duffy, but I wouldn’t know about that, because who reads newspapers in this day and age? (He wrote, just two paragraphs after intimating familiarity with the newspaper comics pages).

It’s about a young woman who happens to look remarkably like another young woman named Amber Sweet who happens to be an online porn star, and the problems this coincidence cause her. The solution to the problem is remarkably simple, and it beggared belief it took her so long to reach it, but its easy to suspend disbelief when looking at such gorgeous artwork, and besides, if she reached that solution too quickly, there wouldn’t be a story.

I’d highly recommend Optic Nerve #12, as a great comic book containing three great comics (two humorous and one literary), as a high-five and validation to Tomine for sticking with a the best format for some of the particular types of comics he tells and as a way of voting with your six bucks for continued existence of comic book-comic books that don’t have superheroes, monsters or movie tie-ins or pitches in them.I’d also be a hypocrite, not unlike the guy at the end of Tomine’s dashed-off autobio strip, who gives the Tomine character “big ups” for sticking with Optic Nerve as a comic book, but walks out of the shop without buying one, because he doesn’t “do ‘floppies’ anymore.”

Because I didn’t buy a copy of it either—I got a review copy from the publisher.

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Comments

22 Comments

Thanks for the review and thanks Mr. Tomine for another great book. Long live the “floppy!” As long as its Optic Nerve! (I stopped collecting “floppies” several years ago but I got my copy of ON at APE earlier this month.)

This was my first exposure to Tomine and I have already made sure it won’t be my last (I picked up a collection of his short works at my local used bookseller last week). What a great damned cartoonist and storyteller.

Wait….you got that the main character from Amber Sweet WAS Amber Sweet and the story was just made up by her so that she could start over right?

I’m glad you’re discussing this again, I’d never heard of Adrian Tomine until I read a great review of Optic Nerve 12 on this site, and then I saw it on the shelf of my LCS and it was brilliant. It was genuinely uplifting and enjoyable in a way I hadn’t ever realised that comic books could be.

As for the floppies, I hope Adrian reads this and sticks with them.

It is all well and good, indie snobs criticising superhero comic books for being juvenile, but at least they are accessible and affordable. The arrogance of huge numbers of indie creators retailing underaccomplished comics in hardback for $30-$50 is laughable. Noone wants to buy your comic, not because it’s a non superheor piece of work, but because it is a pretentious rip off.

Adrian is a genre unto himself, if I see ON 13 in the UK I will be snapping it up, no questions asked.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

October 20, 2011 at 3:55 pm

people sometimes wonder why I’m so negative about super-comics, but how can one not be when you see the quality vs. quantity gap between a Big Two pamphlet and an issue of Optic Nerve?

Easily – you shouldn’t be expecting the same things from them.
To me, it seems the height of silliness to compare the two at all.
It’s the same with cinema – I very much enjoy Bond films, and I very much enjoy Bergman films.
I don’t wonder about the lack of depth in Bond, nor the lack of explosions in Bergman, as I’ve watched each one to get very different things out of them.

@Stuart

Most of those “pretentious rip offs” were floppies in the 90s and they didn’t sell enough so now they have to go the route of book publishing: hardcovers first and affordable versions if they can sell enough.

Easily – you shouldn’t be expecting the same things from them.
To me, it seems the height of silliness to compare the two at all.
It’s the same with cinema – I very much enjoy Bond films, and I very much enjoy Bergman films.
I don’t wonder about the lack of depth in Bond, nor the lack of explosions in Bergman, as I’ve watched each one to get very different things out of them.

It seems to me the height of silliness is going around in public calling yourself “FunkyGreenJerusalem.” No wait, I spoke too soon. The height of silliness is responding in public to someone calling his or herself “FunkyGreenJersualem.”

I wasn’t comparing superhero comics to Optic Nerve in general, but I was marveling at how much content Tomine was able to fit into a single two pages of his comic—it’s an entire story, beginning, middle and end, with a ton of different little jokes building up to a climax, and it’s not at all crowded looking; the art is great in every single panel. Tomine had more panels in those two pages than Johns and Lee had in the first 13 pages of JL #2 (to stick with that example).

It’s difficult to feel satisfied when you blow four bucks on a comic that takes less time to read than two pages of another comic.

Otherwise, yeah, they’re different beasts; one’s a unicorn and the other’s a donkey’s corpse, and spending time in the presence of one makes appreciating the other easier/harder.

(Er, “Justice League #2 is the comic book equivalent of a donkey’s corpse” probably sounds pretty negative, huh? For the record, I’m a big fan of both Geoff Johns and Jim Lee as a writer and a pencil artist—not so much as businessmen so far—I just think far too many readers give far too many creators and publishers a pass on the value of comics vis a vis content and price).

Julian, is anyone going to think about the fans?

I stopped buying Neil Gaiman when he published 3 single 64, 56 and 48 page comic book stories IN HARDBACK and never let them go to paperback.

Seriously, Neil you weren’t rich enough already?

How about making it available and affordable to everyone, INCLUDING YOUNG PEOPLE and then if it finds any fans then the book might deserve a hardback printing?

I have a decent job and in this economy, even I can’t afford many of these hardbacks, the indies are only hurting themselves.

“I stopped buying Neil Gaiman when he published 3 single 64, 56 and 48 page comic book stories IN HARDBACK and never let them go to paperback.”

I don’t believe Neil Gaiman has ever published anything. He’s just the writer, and has little control over how the book is published.

(That said: Most of the publishing world goes hardcover, then softcover. And books by Gaiman are hardly an example of anyone “hurting themselves.”)

@ Stuart:

You know, the only people that are snobs in comics are usually the stringent superhero and “genre” fans. They quickly dismiss anything that doesn’t revolve around such topics and themes because they think the creators and their fans “are too good’ to revel in such fun or enjoy anything that’s popular because it is popular. Truth be told, that’s never the case. “Indie snobs” are snobbish and eclectic for a reason because they are more than likely to explore the medium in all that it provides, not just certain aspects, and thus providing a deeper, more well-rounded insight into what exactly can be good comics. I know people who enjoy Love & Rockets just as much as they enjoy BPRD.

As for the price, most indie books rarely pass the $30 range, and that’s for deluxe editions. Heck, the recent hardcover translations from Fantagraphics are $16. I don’t know where you’re buying, but those prices are just crazy. Then again, probably not. Small, tiny publishers generally cannot afford high print runs, which allow for the lower prices per unit/book. Cut them some slack. They’re just as broke as you are.

P. S.

Think about this: six dollars for a floppy.

@Stuart

How about making it available and affordable to everyone, INCLUDING YOUNG PEOPLE and then if it finds any fans then the book might deserve a hardback printing?

Book publishing has never worked like that. Hardcovers always recoup costs for paperbacks. There was a time when lots of these books came out as floppies. It was the 90s. You didn’t support them when they were giving you what you’re asking for, so now they have gone the route of book publishing because that’s the only way they can hope to at least break even. Did you complain when each new Harry Potter book came out in hardback for its first edition?

Now Big Questions, that one is definitely overpriced.

@ Julian “Book publishing has never worked like that. Hardcovers always recoup costs for paperbacks.”

Comic books work like that. And all publishers make decent money off paperbacks.

I was growing up in the 90s, first you have to let your tastes mature, then you have to find out about quality products in the first place. Even now, 20 years after I started collecting [I'm in my late twenties], I’m finding out about crazy-good comics that I can’t believe I didn’t know about before, but its partly because the shelves of the LCS, the internet and the market in general is deluged with superhero shit.

I’d love to buy good quality indies pamphlets like La Perdida and Love and Rockets on a regular basis, but they’re just not stocking in the UK, and they weren’t in a lot of places in North America when I lived there. Thank heavens for The Beguiling in Toronto.

Most of the indies that are in accessible stores have made themselves ridiculously expensive and awkwardly oversized. If it’s a choice between a giant hardback piece of whimsy that isn’t particularly well drawn for $30-40 or a 100 page comic book story for $8, that will last longer and possibly even make sense, then that’s not much of a choice at all.

I have never bought a Harry Potter so I don’t know what you’re talking about. I would rather buy a paperback than a hardback because it’s not a rip off. Plenty of comic book publishers do fine not going to hardback first.

@ Mr Pants, I agree with most of your comments, but but take exception to your example of BPRD . I consider BPRD to be terrific and a part of the alternative comics even if you might disagree. Its a paranormal team action adventure detective wotsit and they don’t have alternative timelines or multiple continuity. When people die they usually stay dead, or their deaths work within the internal logic of this paranormal setting. I’m thinking of Roger the Golem here. It’s a great read, and part of a great story that respects the fans and doesn’t try to rip them off or feed them shit.

Frankly, looking at the shelves of my LCS, anything that is about superheroes is mainstream, anything that isn’t, even if it is from a bigger publisher is alternative/ indie.

@ Ryan: Neil Gaiman could go to any publisher with an idea and they’d bite him arm off, that’s the kind of cache he has right now. So don’t kid yourself that it was the big bad publisher whose idea it was, and Neil is just the good ol’ boy working in the woodshed. If Neil had wanted to give his fans affordable comics, then that’s what would have happened.

NEIL GAIMAN HARDBACK COMICS:

The Facts In The Case Of The Departure Of Miss Finch 56 pages
Creatures of the Night 48 pages
Murder Mysteries 64 pages
Harlequin Valentine 40 pages FFS.

And none of them were released in paperback. Pretty please is all I’m saying.

Anyway this is about Adrian and floppies. I will be buying ON #13 if I can get it. I want to support this guy and see more of the stories he tells. His stuff is top quality, accessible and affordable.

@Stuart

Actually, BPRD is solidly a superhero/”genre” comic (and one I enjoy immensely). It deals with myths and magic and monsters by a team comprised of beings with murky pasts and supernatural afflictions. How is that different than sssssaaaayyyyyyyy….Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E.? Or Animal Man? Or Fantastic Four? Or (God help me) even Red Hood and the Outlaws?

In anycase, here’s a link to Tomine’s first full-length graphic novel. Twenty American bucks isn’t too shabby for a hardcover (eighteen for soft):
http://drawnandquarterly.com/shortcomings/

He also has a few collections of the rest of his Optic Nerve issues. None of which cost more than eighteen dollars.

I also reccomend Yoshiro Tatsumi’s stuff. It was brought over, translated, and designed by Tomie himself:
http://www.drawnandquarterly.com/shopCatalogLong.php?item=a47825cf2638ad

mr pants, thank you for the various heads ups but if you call BPRD a superhero comic again I will get very weepy and ragy. Exactly as you said it deals with myths magic and monsters.

Superhero is a very dirty word, right up there with cunt, celibacy, soccer and diet.

Is Frankenstein a superhero book? Peter Pan? Dracula? The Bible?

No, superheroes are superpowered human beings who wear stupid costumes that make them look like their whacked out mothers dressed them in the dark.

Be pedantic if you want but anything else isn’t a superhero and is probably a lot better as a direct result of this.

I think part of the reason I have been priced out of buying decent comics at decent prices is because I have lived between Canada and the UK, and floppies aren’t too bad, but anything bigger is a lot more expensive.

The hero–er, protagonist of “Hellboy” also has a name that could belong to a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes, even if it would be a cooler name than that of most of the other members of that team…

@Stuart

I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

Anyhow, I think The Comics Journal is more your cup of tea in regards to American comics reportage:
http://www.tcj.com

thanks mr pants, I love the TCJ, it’s my dream to get interviewed by them one day, IMO the highest industry honour there is.

But they’ve more or less shut down now as a magazine, I think they have an annual now #301 and that is about $50 over here.

Again, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t need to cost so much, or take up so much paper, but this is what I mean by indies shooting themselves in the foot. The 280-290 run was terrific, then they got very expensive and wasteful and the choice of interviewees and quality of content wasn’t as great as it had been, perhaps reflecting the comic market more than anything.

On a separate issue, I said Dracula, Lucifer and Peter Pan aren’t superheroes, so why would people consider Roger the Golem and Hellboy superheroes? Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but I detest superhero comics and definitely consider BPRD to be a cut above.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

October 24, 2011 at 4:46 pm

It seems to me the height of silliness is going around in public calling yourself “FunkyGreenJerusalem.”

I don’t, I just do it on comic book message boards, as it is by far the norm.
On the CBR forums, where I’ve been posting over a decade, my real name, Ben Lipman, is visible in all my posts, whereas on Bleeding Cool, where someone once talked about wanting to crush my throat due to disagreeing with me about Kirby, I don’t.

No wait, I spoke too soon. The height of silliness is responding in public to someone calling his or herself “FunkyGreenJersualem.”

No one forced you too, so once you’ve decided to do it, why not keep reservations to yourself?
I’m sorry if saying you were being silly hurt your feelings, truly, but if you’ve chosen to respond to me, why not just do that instead of telling me how you don’t want to, or mocking me for having done something people are doing freely all over this site?

I wasn’t comparing superhero comics to Optic Nerve in general, but I was marveling at how much content Tomine was able to fit into a single two pages of his comic—it’s an entire story, beginning, middle and end, with a ton of different little jokes building up to a climax, and it’s not at all crowded looking; the art is great in every single panel. Tomine had more panels in those two pages than Johns and Lee had in the first 13 pages of JL #2 (to stick with that example).

Tomine was going for something totally different to Lee and Johns.
Their story would have failed if they had tried to do it that way – even if it conveyed more story per page, it wouldn’t have had the same thrill.
And the thrill is what you pay your money for.

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