Emily Flake of More Intelligent Life interviews ADRIAN TOMINE


More Intelligent Life    |    Emily Flake     |    February 18, 2011

Adrian Tomine, a Brooklyn-based cartoonist, is something of a poster boy for a certain kind of carefully studied mopery. His spare, elegant lines bear the influence of such comics greats as Dan Clowes ("Ghost World") and Jaime Hernandez ("Love and Rockets"). But his dialogue and stories skew more Woody Allen, if Woody Allen were a young Asian guy from the West Coast.

His highly regarded comic book "Optic Nerve" began life as a mini-comic in 1991 when Tomine, who is Japanese American, was still in high school in Sacramento. It was picked up in 1995 by Drawn + Quarterly, a Montreal-based comics publisher, and Tomine remains with the outfit today. "Optic Nerve" was most recently collected and released as the graphic novel “Shortcomings” (2009), which found Tomine’s protagonist and possible alter-ego Ben Tanaka navigating the fraught territory of romance, desire and identity with his girlfriend, Miko. Ben’s fondness for the white ladies spins the couple out into the kind of conflict at which Tomine excels, his sharp ear for dialogue limning both the political and the highly personal.

Those not initiated into the comics scene might recognise Tomine’s work from the New Yorker, where his clean, stylish drawings and muted colour palette grace the cover from time to time. His covers carry a strain of his usual melancholy, but the mute, single-panel format tempers it into something more like wistfulness. Still, Tomine’s figures seem to be strangers to happiness, or even contentment, which is why his latest offering, "Scenes From an Impending Marriage", comes as such a nice surprise.

Originally conceived as a party favour for his 2007 nuptials, "Scenes" is tender, funny, and—there’s no way around it—downright cute. The little blue book takes us through the usual frustrations of planning a wedding—finding the perfect venue, the perfect DJ, the perfect hairstyle—and executes them in a style looser and freer than Tomine’s usual fare. This lightness of touch lets some air in without letting the final product get too frothy, and the size announces the book as a thing that doesn’t take itself quite so seriously.

More Intelligent Life caught up with Tomine via e-mail for a chat about romance, weddings and new directions—as the city around us entered the anxious frenzy of Valentine’s Day.

As a cartoonist, I’m very curious as to what form the original wedding mini-comic took. I can very easily see myself saying “Sure, I’ll just make a comic!” and then handing out hastily scribbled nonsense straight off the Xerox machine.

Yeah, it's one of those situations in life where you're kind of punished for being an artist. Like, if I sent someone a Hallmark card for their birthday now, it would be a slap in the face. So when the topic of these "wedding favours" came up, I knew there was no getting out of it. Unless I wanted to give out chocolate bars with our faces embossed into them.

How much of the book as it exists today was included in the mini?

I tinkered with some of the original pages, re-drew a few, and added a bunch. Obviously, the whole post-wedding epilogue was done after the fact. Basically I would just pull out that sketchbook and add to it whenever I was waiting to hear back from an art director, or if I felt like I needed a break from the other, more "serious" book I'm working on.

What made you decide to release it into the world at large?
I probably first started thinking about publishing it when a copy appeared on eBay. I assumed that since it was only given to close friends and family, that would never happen, but I was wrong. And like I said, since I was slowly adding pages to the book, I eventually found myself with 50 or 60 pages worth of material, and I just proposed the idea to my publisher. If he had declined, I would've happily filed it away, but he seemed to think there would be some interest in it.

Were you upset that it ended up on eBay? I wondered if that would have happened.

Well, it's a whole sordid story that I probably shouldn't go into, but the short answer is "yes." But then after some further investigation, I ended up feeling really bad and almost wanted to send the eBay seller in question a whole stack of the stupid comics to sell.

The subject matter also seems a bit outside your usual wheelhouse; how do you suppose fans of "Optic Nerve" will feel about a happy, well-adjusted Adrian Tomine writing about a conventional rite of passage, especially one in which everything seems to have gone so well?

If the hypothetical reader's life has progressed similarly to mine, they'll probably enjoy the book. If it hasn't, then they might want to sit this one out. What can I say? I took a gamble! The one thing I'd say is that the only thing this book really whole-heartedly endorses is a good relationship. I should mention that another impetus for publishing this work was the simple fact that it was time for me to do something different. I think the worst thing I could've done to follow up “Shortcomings” would be to do another book with a similar tone and drawing style. So it was kind of exciting for me when I realised that kind of departure that I was aiming for was already completed and ready to go.

Do you see this as a permanent shift, or just something you needed to get out of your system before returning to the “Optic Nerve” universe?

I think of this wedding book more like a fun little detour. It's a mode that I'd be happy to return to at some point, and will continue to use in my sketchbook. But right now I'm actually working on something that's pretty different.

You and your wife Sarah now have a young child. How has becoming a family man affected your comics work?

On a practical level, it's made the comics work more difficult. Working from home used to be the world's greatest luxury to me, and now with a one-year-old daughter, it can be tricky. On a broader level, having a kid is one of the only events in my life that significantly changed my perception of a lot of things, so that's probably going to show up in some form.

You've called “Optic Nerve” "thinly veiled autobiography". Will we see a happily married Ben Tanaka navigating fatherhood and marriage?

If a character of mine is widely criticised and reviled, then it's all fiction. If the character is admired and beloved, then that's pretty much straight autobio. Having said that, what does Ben Tanaka have to do with me?

You might also like


Select Your Location: