Cartooning is an art of omission and suggestion. A pair of black dots can do for eyes. Make a pair of box shapes for eyeglass frames, and those dots aren’t even necessary. Put a crisscross pattern on a patch of a wall, and the mind will fill in rows of bricks. Add a few slashes of vertical lines across the picture, and there’s a rainstorm. The silliest strips on the newspaper funny pages (or what’s left of them) have always worked this way, and so have the most serious graphic books for an adult readership. Through implication and visual shorthand—a window frame, the silhouette of a car—Will Eisner summoned the Lower East Side of the early 20th century in A Contract With God (1978), and Marjane Satrapi conjured Iran during the post-shah years in Persepolis (2003).
Of the many cartoonists to have emerged through the flowering of long-form literary comics in recent years, few have proven to be as masterly at the arts of omission and suggestion as Adrian Tomine, a 41-year-old artist and writer who has been producing stories for a periodical devoted to his work, Optic Nerve, since he was in high school. (Originally homemade and distributed by Tomine himself, Optic Nerve has since 1995 been published by the high-minded, Quebec-based comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly.) Other contemporary comics artists, such as Sammy Harkham, Chris Ware, John Porcellino, and Wayne White, as well as Satrapi and others, have drawing styles that look simpler than Tomine’s, employing highly stylized images to suggest kiddie cartoons or crude doodles. Tomine’s visual mode is relatively straightforward but essentially realistic and far from simplistic. His style—or his dominant style, since he varies his approach somewhat from story to story—is something of a cross between the look of the newspaper melodrama strips of the late 20th century, such as Dondi and Mary Worth, and the naturalistic superhero art of the same era, particularly John Romita’s Spider-Man and Curt Swan’s Superman. Tomine, a Gen-Xer whose work constitutes a piecemeal treatise on generational identity, has talked about his affection for Spider-Man comic books as a kid.
In Tomine’s comics, omission and suggestion take a literary as well as visual form. His work, as a rule, is as much (if not more) about what his characters refuse or fail to do as it is about what they do. Tomine has published more than 100 stories (some of them serial parts of extended narratives) over the 24 years between the publication of the first Optic Nerve and Killing and Dying, the latest collection of his pieces published with high-quality reproduction and nice paper stock by Drawn & Quarterly. In story after story, characters battle inertia and lethargy—or just give in to it, without bothering to fight. Tomine’s world is a ward for victims of social or psychological paralysis, hidden plainly in a vividly generic suburban landscape of strip malls and cafe chains, copy shops and starter apartments.
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In “Sleepwalk,” the tellingly named title story of Tomine’s 1998 collection, the protagonist (who is not a hero, as with most of Tomine’s main characters) pines for his former girlfriend, who meets him for a pity date on his birthday. Driving home alone late at night after she rejects his overtures, he smashes up his car; the story ends with him standing alone, leaning against the battered vehicle on an empty highway. In “Echo Ave.,” from the same collection, a young man and woman spend their nights gazing out their window into the apartment of a neighbor, who is practicing S&M. In “Bomb Scare,” the final story in Tomine’s 2002 collection Summer Blonde, a quiet, confused teenage boy wafts about, avoiding active engagement with his mother, the male friend who has goo-goo eyes for him, or the thrill-seeking girl at his part-time job at a coffee shop.