LA New Times Profile Adrian

Loveable Losers

LA New Times    |    Roger Park    |    July 18, 2002

There are still comic-book conventions that rival Star Trek fan clubs' dorkiness, but independent comics are gaining popularity and social acceptance, thanks in no small part to Adrian Tomine's series Optic Nerve, which has brought an aura of cool realism to the world of comics with its blend of the best of independent comics and contemporary fiction. Tomine, who has become a cult figure, signs his latest release, Summer Blonde, a hardback compilation of four Optic Nerve stories, this Saturday.

The characters in Summer Blonde and most of the protagonists in Optic Nerve share a common trait: They have difficulty relating to others. No fantasy-based steroid-laden superheroes or kung fu vampires; Tomine's characters are complex, faulty and completely believable -- and they even have anatomically correct genitals!

"The characters just have to be suitable to express something from within myself, whether it's admiration, contempt or whatever. One of the characters that I had the most fun writing was Carlo in Summer Blonde, who's nothing like me," the reclusive Oakland-based writer says of the slick womanizer. "Basically, I can't write characters that I feel neutral towards."

Tomine hopes that the characters also provoke a response from his readers. In fact, he prints the letters he receives praising or criticizing his work in Optic Nerve, which comes out once or twice a year. "Ambivalence is the worst, so any kind of passion -- good or bad -- shows me that I'm reaching them."
Tomine's lovable loners and losers possess a naive but wonderfully vulnerable, accessible charm, which he renders in a clean, realistic drawing style. Of the four stories in Summer Blonde, the most intriguing is "Hawaiian Getaway," featuring Hillary Chan, a young Asian-American woman filled with self-loathing, loneliness, guilt and humor. Despite Hillary's faults, her struggles are sympathetic. It's refreshing to see a female Asian-American comic-book character who is not either a ninja or a doe-eyed, oversexed space pilot.

Tomine admits that the comic business "is a really depressing world if you let yourself get sucked too deeply into it." He dislikes the desperate competitiveness, often nonexistent rewards and insular world that "drives some cartoonists crazy and bitter." But when a really great comic is published, "There's nothing more entertaining or inspiring."

Despite the critical praise and cult following, Tomine remains unassuming. "I'm surprised how everything turned out," he says, "but I'm still in the same mood of working on them and not really thinking too much about how it's going to be received." The shy 28-year-old says that he brings throat lozenges to signings because it's the most talking he ever does. "I'm not one of those guys who knows how to put people at ease and make amusing small talk," he says, sounding like one of his characters. "I think I'm just as nervous and shy as the people on the other side of the table."

Adrian Tomine signs Optic Nerve at Meltdown Comics

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