Long-Awaited Adrian Tomine Comic is Bitter and Brilliant

WIRED    |    Annalee Newitz    |    April 3, 2007

It's no surprise that the 11th issue of Adrian Tomine's indie comic book Optic Nerve will make you want to slit your wrists and howl in frustration. Tomine is famous for his spare, depressing tales of amoral urban hipsters. What is surprising about this final chapter in Tomine's three-book story -- soon to be released as a graphic novel -- is its sheer bitterness. This is Tomine's first sustained meditation on racial identity, and I think at last the writer/illustrator has found a topic which arouses all of his bile and none of the sad sweetness that permeates the brilliant work he collected in Summer Blonde (from previous issues of Optic Nerve).

Optic Nerve #11 is so bleak that it may drive away some Tomine fans, but it will just as surely mark him as one of the great graphic novelists of our time. It's the tale of Ben Tanaka, an aimless Asian-American movie theater operator whose lust-repulsion for white girls destroys his relationship with his Asian-American girlfriend and pushes him to confront (or at least articulate) his own self-hatred. While the first two volumes focused on Ben's failed relationship and half-hearted attempts to date a white woman, the third is about Ben's relationship with himself.

Ben travels to New York to join his best friend, Alice Kim, whose devotion to him begins to wear thin as he stalks his ex and makes mock-racist comments about Alice's Hapa girlfriend. Without giving away too much, I'll say that the book essentially focuses on the way Ben's self-loathing seeps into everything around him, preventing him from understanding his own motivations and those of the people he loves. Tomine often draws his characters with oddly blank expressions on their faces, and this works well in Ben's case. He's a kind of blank, hunting for something that will make him legible to himself.

The entire book takes place in New York, where Tomine recently relocated from his longtime home in Berkeley. This has led fans to speculate that this series is the author's most autobiographical, but it doesn't strike me as any more confessional than any of Tomine's previous works. He's always been a personal writer, and his drawings are intimate recreations of the places and people he knows. Certainly he's dealing with his Asian-American heritage in the book, but Ben feels less like a Tomine proxy and more like a dejected Everyman searching for his particularity in a world that wants to label him "Asian" or "boyfriend" or "unemployed" instead of something more meaningful.

I'd highly recommend the book, though be sure to read Optic Nerve #9 and #10 first.

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