Cartoonist Adrian Tomine is best known for his elegant comics and New Yorker illustrations that examine the nuances of identity, the mores of contemporary romantic relationships, and the poignant moments of connection and disconnection in New York City. However, his latest graphic novel, Killing and Dying, out this month from Drawn & Quarterly explores new territory – the fraught bond between parents and children. Tomine recently became a father, but this latest work isn’t autobiographical. Rather, Killing and Dying is a darkly funny and profound work of fiction, a complex meditation on our fears as parents and as children. It’s a collection of short stories originally published in Optic Nerve, which seem to converge on the anxieties of parents and children. In “Hortisculpture,” for example, a father’s public art mortifies his young daughter. In the title story, a teenager explores stand-up comedy, to the dismay of her father, while her mother struggles with cancer.
Through glances and gestures, Tomine’s characters express what they fail to acknowledge in their speech. In their quest to reimagine themselves – whether as baseball VIPs, comedians, or artists – they have a fundamental depth and complexity to them that eluded many of his previous characters. Killing and Dying questions how parents live through the achievements of their children and vice versa, and critiques the American impulse to reinvent oneself in order to find salvation. As he suggests in the title of the book, these characters, often suburbanites with quotidian struggles, seem to be fighting for their lives.
Tomine began his career nearly 25 years ago. The son of academics who divorced when he was two years old, he led a peripatetic childhood. Because of his mother’s demanding career as a psychology professor, he moved frequently when he was a kid, ultimately landing in Sacramento, Ca. He says that the departures from his friends and the ensuing isolation prompted him to stay in his room and practice drawing for hours.
Growing up in the ‘70s, he consumed superhero and genre comics, collecting them religiously as a way to impose order on his unstable world. He also began to create his own short, visual narratives, but he was constrained by the limited range of comics influences around him. It wasn’t until he discovered Love and Rockets, the groundbreaking alternative comics series by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, that something clicked. “All the stars aligned,” he says, “because I was getting tired of superheroes, and I was getting interested in literature and film that had to do with the more slow-paced, everyday life sort of subject matter.” Love and Rockets led him to indie comics by Julie Doucet, Robert Crumb, and others. Influenced by their distinctive, personal narratives, as well as the growing zine movement, Tomine decided to create his own comic booklet. He named it Optic Nerve.
At 16, Tomine began creating his own comics. “I was just taking my sketchbook to Kinko’s and making photocopies and hand-assembling them – folding them over and stapling them,” he says. He handed them out to friends and family in Sacramento. A few comic book stores allowed him to stock his comics on their shelves on consignment. He sent his work to other alternative comics artists, some of whom sent him encouraging words. Peter Bagge, Chester Brown, and others lauded his work in their own comics, which boosted his visibility exponentially.
Then, in 1994, Drawn & Quarterly began to publish Optic Nerve. While many new readers embraced his work, others would send the twentysomething artist criticism about everything from his drawing to his lettering. He would include some of these responses in Optic Nerve. “I’ve always published a range of responses to my work in the letters section of my comic book,” he says. “I think that I’ve really benefited from feedback that I’ve gotten over the years. I think it really clarified for me the choice that an artist makes, especially a fairly commercial artist. I think that artists, at a certain point, can either become defiant and say that the audience is wrong, readers don’t get them, and they’re going to keep doing it their own way, or they can listen to the criticism – and not necessarily blindly follow the audience’s requests and advice.”
Tomine got unsolicited guidance from his peers, and began to seek advice from Daniel Clowes, Jaime Hernandez, and his other heroes. Despite what he called the “annoying” experience of having to evolve in front of his audience, he says, he grew more confident as a draftsman, and increasingly precise and pared-down in his work. He sometimes grappled with his subject matter as well.
He told The New Yorker earlier this year that “When I first started drawing the earliest incarnation of Optic Nerve, I hadn’t even been on a date; I hadn’t had a romantic relationship of any kind yet, so in a way I was almost writing science fiction. It was my pathetic version of trying to imagine what the future might be like.” Once Tomine did start dating, his personal narratives of yearning and heartbreak made their way onto his pages. He became known for these Generation X love stories. Mother Jones called him an “indie heartthrob.”
He has said that he found himself recycling real-life stories for Optic Nerve, as well as using his comic as a potential way to flirt with women. “I was already working for Drawn and Quarterly and publishing my work, but I was a college student [at UC Berkeley] living alone. I thought that this might be a way to meet people. ‘Maybe some girl will see this and think I’m a cool guy.’” His haunting tales often laid bare the tension between the way we’d like to be perceived by friends and lovers and the way we’re actually perceived, as well as our stated versus our observed romantic desires. He continued to explore these themes in Optic Nerve issues 9-11, which were later published in his most high-profile book to date, the graphic novella Shortcomings.
An early criticism of Optic Nerve was that Tomine refrained from writing about Asian American identity. Tomine, who is fourth-generation Japanese American, rankled at being pigeonholed as an Asian American cartoonist. “When I started creating my work for publication,” he says, “I just assumed that the focus would be on the work itself, and that there wouldn’t be a lot of interest in who was creating the work.” His retort to these comments came in the form of Shortcomings, his graphic novel published in 2007, a provocative story about identity politics, interracial dating, and racial stereotypes. Shortcomings was named a New York Times Notable Book and in a PW signature review, novelist Junot Diaz said that Tomine “explodes the tottering myth that love is blind and, from its million phony fragments, assembles a compelling meditation on the role of race in the romantic economy.” Despite this prominent praise, the book received mixed reactions, and particularly negative reactions from his Asian American readership.
The controversy around Shortcomings resided not in any inflammatory comments about race and ethnicity in the book but rather in the unlikeable nature of its curmudgeonly lead character, Ben Tanaka, a young Japanese American man who is attracted to white women and whose friends and girlfriend accuse him of being ill at ease with his Asian American identity. Ben insults the work of the filmmakers at the Asian American film festival: “Why does everything have to be some big statement about race? Don’t any of these people just want to make a movie that’s good?” His girlfriend replies, “It’s almost like you’re ashamed to be Asian.” He longs for the white women whom he meets in and around Berkeley, and he grows disinterested in his Asian American girlfriend – until he can no longer have her.
But aside from being an acclaimed cartoonist, Tomine also has one of the most prestigious illustration gigs around. Since 2004, he has been contributing cover and interior illustrations to The New Yorker. These images, which celebrate and lament modern life in the city, were collected in New York Drawings, published by Drawn & Quarterly in 2012. Tomine’s images often focus on books and their place in New York City culture. His most famous cover illustration is “Missed Connection,” a picture in which two young city-dwellers, both holding a copy of the same book, lock eyes from two passing subway trains. He explains the story behind the image: “[The New Yorker’s art editor Françoise Mouly] said that there was an issue coming up that had to do with books, and could I start thinking about ideas that had anything to do with books or reading or writing? That was my first cover for the magazine, and it definitely would not exist without Françoise strategically thinking about how to get me to submit some cover ideas.” In “Missed Connection” and many of his subsequent New Yorker images, books offer a sense of identity and the promise of connection or community, even if, as he suggests in his morbidly funny illustration “Shelf Life,” they may later become curbside giveaways – or worse, kindling.
In the recently published Drawn & Quarterly compendium, Mouly writes that Tomine’s art also captures the small-town feel of the big city. It’s a tenderness, she suggests, that arises from the fact that Brooklyn is his adopted home. In his refined, keenly observed drawings of New York and its citizens, he’s an anthropologist patiently capturing unusual behavior in a wild habitat. His illustrations are a mirror for our changing attitudes and behavior in an exceptional city and its exceptionalist culture.
When it comes to the process of drawing his comics, Tomine says that not much has changed. He continues to use ink and paper rather than a drawing tablet and a computer. However, becoming a husband and becoming a father have altered his approach to his work:“There’s a lot of weird stuff that I started to become aware of as my daughter was growing up,” he says. “It has a lot to do with how your own identity gets mixed up with your kids’, and how you can feel secondhand embarrassment or pride, or whatever the feeling might be.”
Killing and Dying shows a more mature Tomine. Far from his teenage years, when he struggled on the page in the self-published issues of Optic Nerve, or his years as a college student who sometimes engineered his stories according to a persona that he wanted to project, the Tomine of Killing and Dying speaks more powerfully to the reader than ever before. Clearly, the comics wunderkind is all grown up.
Grace Bello is a freelancer writer who regularly covers comics and graphic novels for Publishers Weekly.