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.
Alone with her at work, cleaning up at the end of the day, the boy sweeps the floor as he tells her, “I’m probably the only 16-year-old in the world that doesn’t want to get drunk and do drugs and get laid.”
Baffled in her Dionysian blitheness, she says: “Wait…you don’t want to get laid?”
Stopping his sweeping, he attempts to explain: “I mean, in theory…maybe. It just seems too monumental.” And she laughs.
The high population of dreamers, drifters, mopers, and defeatists in Tomine’s comics has prompted considerable criticism as well as commiseration from his readers, much of which he has aired freely in the “Letters to the Author” pages of Optic Nerve. “Personally,” wrote a person from Berkeley in the September 2001 issue, “I liked the semi-loser in issue #5 more than the loser in issue #7…. Issue #5’s loser was more likable (to me) because he wasn’t such a loser…. I’d rather be a loser like the loser in issue #5 than the loser in issue #7.”
These characters, for all their inertia as people, are vivid and palpably true-to-life as fictive creations. Like the most realized figures in fully imagined fiction, they feel human. You know them, you’ve met them, and you recognize the society of contingent values, ill-defined expectations, and diminishing options that has incapacitated them. The rendering of veracious characters is one of the hallmarks of first-rate realistic fiction, and Tomine’s characters are so real you want to reach out and smack them and scream at them to get off their slacker asses.
Instead, you sit and puzzle over their behavior, wondering what these characters could possibly be thinking. Therein lies the power of Tomine’s work. Through the tactical withholding of explanatory information, he brings credibly enigmatic characters to life in his panels. He lures us into their inner lives—and the fact that the characters do have inner lives is itself precious, something all too rare in fiction of all kinds, particularly comics. After all, the very term “cartoon” is a near synonym for reductivity or one-dimensionality—as in saying, for instance, that every character in one of Chuck Lorre’s TV shows isn’t a real person, just a cartoon. In the cartoons of Adrian Tomine, every character is a person.
Visually, his strategy is to lead the reader to an interior landscape more intriguing than the one he draws. He is stingy with environmental details, using spare, clean lines to limn buildings and their furnishings, the computers his characters are frequently staring at, and the cups of coffee or bottles of beer they invariably seem to be holding. He concentrates his efforts as an artist on their faces, framing his panels like scenes on TV, in close-ups and medium “shots,” for the most part. Each of his people is distinctive and real-looking, though not rendered with photorealistic precision. Tomine is exacting but highly selective in his use of visual details: slightly too-big, out-of-date glasses on the mother in one story; a tiny ponytail on the lecherous oldies-station deejay in another.
Facial expressions often vary little from frame to frame, and the subtle shifts—eyes turned downward now, eyebrows tipped ever so slightly—focus the reader’s attention and trigger questions about the characters’ feelings and thoughts. In this, their images work much like the films of some screen actors whose largely unchanging faces have led audiences to project thoughts and emotions onto the screen—vintage performers such as Buster Keaton and Gary Cooper and, more recently, Grumpy Cat. The early Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov first investigated this practice of the mind 100 years ago, by juxtaposing identical shots of a blank-faced actor with images of varying kinds—a bowl of soup, a young girl in a coffin, a woman lounging seductively on a divan—to find that audiences perceived different emotions in the actor’s face depending on the context.
In comic books, this phenomenon is thoroughly established. Until this year, the artist’s guidelines for Betty and Veronica in Archie comics called for them to be drawn identically, with exactly the same faces and bodies. Readers would read worlds of difference into them from their hairdos, wardrobes, and dialogue. Tomine seems to know all about this, as he suggests with his treatment of the main character in “Go Owls,” one of the subtly rich stories in Killing and Dying. The woman—who, as a matter fact, looks quite a bit like Veronica (which is to say, like Betty)—moves from loneliness to near desperation to satisfaction in a complicated relationship with an older man (who, we discover, is a schoolyard drug dealer) with minute changes in expression that somehow suggest a depth of feeling and thought.
As in the story of the lonesome birthday boy standing alone on the highway in the final panel, many of Tomine’s narratives end cryptically, without resolution. In “Summer Blonde,” the lovesick guy who’s been stalking a near-stranger ends up standing next to her in the subway, and they exchange a few words. In the next-to-last panel, they stare straight ahead, blankly. The final panel is pure black. In “Bomb Scare,” much the same: A different, younger lovesick guy finds himself being seduced by the carnal young woman he works with. (This is not to suggest that all of the women in Tomine’s universe are more psychologically developed or sexual than the men; it’s more that the main characters, whether male or female, are often repressed.) On the last page, the woman slips off her top and bra and wraps her arms around him. Final panel: He stares over her shoulder, apparently lost in thought. Tomine, over and over, has brought his characters to the emotional tipping point and stopped abruptly there, leaving readers to imagine which way they would tip.
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With his new book, a collection of six of his most recent stories (initially published in Optic Nerve), Tomine has employed his usual techniques effectively, while expanding the territory of his content considerably. Like the artist himself, many of his characters are past their 20s now. They’re no longer baffled and stymied in their struggle to confront the adult world; several—though not all—of the principal characters are middle-aged, in some cases married or living as such, and they have complicated pasts and presents with problems, as well as unknowable futures.
The opening story, “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as Hortisculpture,” is told in the form of a newspaper comic, through several series of “daily” four-panel black-and-white strips, each self-contained with a gag ending but narratively sequential, followed by a full-page color “Sunday” comic. The plot concerns a portly suburban landscape worker who tries to change his life by making sculptures from living plants—as he describes them to his wife, “a synthesis of nature and craft, a marriage of the wild and the man-made, a living, breathing ‘object d’art.’” They are ugly and unmarketable but embody hope for their creator—a hope that fizzles, along with his spirit and his marriage, until the ending, which lands soundly on a resolving note.
Two other stories, both concerned with middle-aged men and their relationships with women (one a girlfriend, the other a teenage daughter), are more complex and moving. “Go Owls” has that woman with Veronica’s face encountering an older man at a rehab meeting. He is alternately short-fused and comforting, removed and welcoming, and she is wounded and compromising. He nearly imprisons her in the name of protection, abusing her and overcompensating in contrition the way abusers do. When he’s taken away in the end and she’s left alone, we feel her conjoined sadness and relief.
The title story, “Killing and Dying,” is subtler still, and one of the most mature and emotive pieces Tomine has ever done. It involves another middle-aged man—the married, bearded, petulant father of a teenage girl who is taking an after-school class in stand-up comedy. The mother strains to keep peace between them. Around the middle of the story, the mother is shown wearing a scarf over her head. Two-thirds of the way through, she is gone, and the father and daughter are shown attempting to make a life together. Tomine, impressively, never spells this out or explains outright that the mother had cancer and died. But we sense it, and, as the realization sinks in, we are shaken. Without ruining the plot, I will say that the father and daughter wind up doing a couple of things they never tell each other about, and connect through eloquence of the unspoken. I can’t think of a writer who could have pulled this off more effectively than Tomine, the living master of the withheld.
I met Adrian Tomine once, four years ago, on the day I interviewed his contemporary and friend, the superb graphic author Daniel Clowes, at the Strand bookstore in New York City. Clowes and I had dinner before the event. I brought along my colleague John Carey, an artist I’ve been working with on a graphic nonfiction book (not yet finished), and Clowes brought Tomine. We all chatted amiably about comics in general and Clowes’s books in particular. When he brought up Tomine’s work, I clammed up, knowing that I might write about him someday. I sat there quietly while the others talked, looked down at my food, and tried to make the blankest expression I could. Once or twice, I caught Tomine glancing over at me, waiting for me to say something. I knew he must have been wondering what I was thinking—and what I was thinking was, “This is so Tomine.”