Comic Book Resources interviews ADRIAN TOMINE!!

Perfect Vision: Tomine Talks "Optic Nerve"

Comic Book Resources    |    Arune Singh    |    March 8, 2006

Few comic books have inspired as much mainstream acclaim, adulation and acceptance as Adrian Tomine's "Optic Nerve." The series ships once a year, at best, but the release of each issue is a cause for celebration to the many fans of the series. "Optic Nerve" #10 shipped at the end of 2005 and while issue #11 is set to be released at some unspecified time in 2006 from him, Tomine was happy to talk to CBR News about the upcoming plans for the book and the origin of the book.

"I was exposed at an early age to a variety of American comics, most significantly 'Peanuts' paperbacks, 'Archie' comics, and Marvel comics circa late-70s," explained Tomine. "'Optic Nerve' began as a self-published mini-comic when I was in high school. It was just a hobby for me that evolved into a job.

"The initial idea came to me when I was about fifteen years old. I was very much inspired by the 'alternative' comics of the late-80s, particularly 'Love and Rockets.' I started drawing little stories in my sketchbook, and that was where the material for the first 'Optic Nerve' mini-comic came from. As for that original, xeroxed mini-comic format, I was sending away for little comics by people like Terry LaBan and Julie Doucet, and I basically just emulated their production methods. I sold the mini-comic at a couple comic shops in Sacramento, CA, and the distribution slowly expanded over time. It really helped when I got little 'plugs' from people like Chester Brown and Peter Bagge...they were really instrumental in getting my name out there.

"And I didn't have a lot of friends at the time, certainly none that were really interested in comic books, so there wasn't much of a reaction."

With an intensely personal tone to Tomine's work, there's been a lot of speculation as to the possible autobiographical nature of the book, but the writer says that "Optic Nerve" is hardly his life story. "Very little of it is autobiographical in the way that Joe Matt or Harvey Pekar's work is, but every story has some basis in real experience. Any story that features me as the main character (these are mostly in the early '32 Stories' era stuff) is pretty much a literal transcription of some event in my life. And the other, fictional stories still draw on my own experiences, but in a more obscure way."

Read any issue of "Optic Nerve" and like many fans, you'll likely be impressed by Tomine's observation on life, from the expressions that say more than words to the words that people don't say. When asked about his fascination with the human condition, Tomine replies, "I think being a writer or cartoonist goes hand in hand with being an observant person. It's one of the few areas in life in which it actually helps to be a passive, introverted observer."

Tomine's approach to visual storytelling is quite different from many other comic book creators, from the angles used to the amount of panels on each page. "For the most part, I try to keep my 'storytelling' invisible. I don't want someone to be reading my comic and then think, 'Wow, what an incredible panel design!' I prefer that the focus remain on the content of the panel, rather than the panel itself."

The done-in-one nature of the series has impressed many who argue against the current trend of "decompressed" stories, but before you hail Tomine as forward thinking guru, he smiles and says, "That's probably just a by-product of my laziness and my short attention span."

That said, "Optic Nerve" is in the middle of its first multi-part arc that began with issue #9, something Tomine says was the result of his fellow creators. "I blame it all on peer pressure. I saw the amazing work that other cartoonists were doing with longer narratives, and I just felt like I'd never be able to aspire to that level unless I forced myself to try something more ambitious.

"I learned that creating long stories is very challenging and tedious. But it also allows me to try a lot of things that are just impossible in short stories, and I'm enjoying that. I love that I finally have the space to let conversations just kind of drag on and be boring like they are in real life, instead of always just isolating the most important moment. I guess I'd make the analogy that my previous works felt like little sprints, and this one feels like a marathon. Now I know this sounds very pathetic in light of some of the enormous tomes that some of my contemporaries seem to have no trouble producing, but it just doesn't come very easily to me. I'll probably do another long story again, but I'll probably need to mix it up with some short stuff, too, just to keep it fun for myself."

The latest issue of "Optic Nerve," issue #10, showcased some very critical letters from readers and Tomine says he ran the letters to be fair to his critics. "I've been running critical letters since the comic's inception. I imagine most cartoonists receive some negative mail. I just thought it was fair (and entertaining) to allow a range of reactions to be heard. And as for my response, it really varies: some criticism I dismiss completely, and some I take to heart."

Tomine's done a lot of work outside the comic book industry and as someone who's worked successfully in a variety of publications, he's experienced a lot of different reactions to his craft. As for the issue of more "respect" outside the industry, he replies, "If you want to equate 'respect' with money, then yes. But I've never worked with anyone in or outside of the comics industry that I felt was more respectful of me (and art in general) than Chris Oliveros, my publisher at D+Q.

"I sent my mini-comics to D+Q for a number of years, and when they finally wrote back, it was not an offer to publish, but instead a bit of fairly brutal but helpful criticism. Rather than be discouraged, I took this as a glimmer of hope, and kept working and sending my comics to D+Q. Around the time of my seventh mini-comic, when I was a sophomore in college, Chris Oliveros called me up and offered me a deal. That was in 1994, and I've had a perfect working relationship with them ever since."

The acclaimed auteur is also happy to report that people outside the industry don't think all comic book fans are overweight, unkempt, horny males. "There's some diversity in opinion," says Tomine. "Some people tend to think of comics fans as being really skinny, not overweight."

So what's next for Tomine? "'Optic Nerve' #11 (by me) and 'Abandon the Old in Tokyo' by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, both published by D+Q," he says, though there aren't specific dates for either project.

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