Graphic Lit: An interview with Adrian Tomine
It can be tough to be the wonder kid. Just ask Adrian Tomine.
Having been tagged as the “hot new indie artist” when he was still in high school, he’s had to compete with unrealistic expectations about his work — usually serialized in his ongoing series, “Optic Nerve” — ever since.
It’s unfortunate, because he’s really one of the most talented and interesting folks working in comics right now. His naturalistic stories about disaffected and insecure young adults call to mind authors such as Raymond Carver and Alice Munro.
His latest book, “Shortcomings,” is also his longest work. It tells the story of Ben Tanaka, an overly critical, sarcastic young man who has, shall we say, “issues” about his own ethnicity, including a yen for white women, something his Asian girlfriend has understandable trouble with.
The book follows Ben as his love life slowly implodes and he tries to get back into the dating scene. It’s a captivating, smart look at how people trip over issues of race and sex in an attempt to get the things they think they want.
I talked to Tomine over e-mail a few days before his impeding marriage to discuss his new book. Here’s what he had to say:
What was the impetus for Shortcomings? How did the story come about?
Shortcomings was the result of me wanting to try something a little more challenging after spending many years working on short stories. I admired the achievements that some of my fellow cartoonists had made with longer narratives, or “graphic novels” as they’re now called. So whether or not I was truly ready to take on a 100-page story, I basically just forced myself to give it a shot.
In terms of the content of the story, I’d been accumulating material for years, and I knew that at some point I would want to group it all together. Some of the topics that are raised in this story are things that I hadn’t dealt with in my past work, and since I was forcing myself to attempt a story that was longer than anything I’d done before, it also seemed a like a good opportunity to attempt to delve into some different subject matter.
Shortcomings is your longest work to date. What sort of challenges did creating a lengthier narrative pose for you? Is it the sort of thing you'd like to do more of in the future?
The initial challenge I faced was simply figuring out the process I wanted to use to create the story. I’d gotten pretty comfortable with writing shorter stories, and often I was able to pretty much just write a story like that in my head. But something like Shortcomings required a new level of organization and forethought for me.
The other challenge I faced later on was that of just maintaining my focus on something that I’d been toiling away on for several years. I’ve always had a pretty quick arc from the conception of a story to its completion, and at times there was a bit of a Sisyphean feeling to the process of drawing Shortcomings. I’ve never had to draw the same faces so many times before in my life! And trying to maintain at least a modicum of consistency in the art—not only in terms of style, but just how the characters look—that was something I was not well-versed in either.
In terms of the future, I think I probably will work on longer stories again, but maybe not right away. On one hand, I feel like I now want to do the exact opposite, and do something shorter and contained. And on the other hand, I have this feeling like Shortcomings was almost like an apprenticeship, or a learning process, and it gave me some abilities that I think will come in handy should I attempt something even longer.
One of the things that's interesting about the book is there are very few truly sympathetic characters. Was this a deliberate choice or was it something that grew organically as you developed the story?
I think it’s more just that I have a different sense of what’s “sympathetic” than a lot of other people. I have to admit that there might’ve been some miscalculation on my part in terms of what readers would accept before a character became “unlikeable” or “unsympathetic.” But to answer your question more directly, I don’t think I made a deliberate choice either way. Sympathy or empathy with the characters was never a primary guiding force as I was writing the book.
Can you talk a little bit about the issues of ethnic identity and sexuality that you explore in the book? How does Ben's attitude jibe with your own personal experiences? Do you think Asian-Americans and Americans in general are as obsessed with stereotypes as Ben seems to be?
A lot of people have been asking me about the relationship between the character Ben and myself, and I think I have myself to blame for that correlation in some readers’ minds. I might’ve misled some people to think that this was a more autobiographical story than it really is with a few very specific details about Ben, including his appearance. But the truth is, it’s entirely a work of fiction, and if any of my real beliefs and personality are to be found anywhere in the book, they’re scattered amongst all the primary characters.
As for the last part of your question, for me to answer that would be in direct conflict with my goals for this book. I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, least of all giant groups of very distinct people.
I liked the way you subtly sprinkled the pillow case motif on the cover and endpapers and through the book. How did you decide to do that and could you talk about some of the other subtle visual motifs you use in the book (the cup of coffee, the x-rated dvds, etc)?
The pillowcase motif was something that just kind of developed organically as I wrote and drew the comic. And the way it bled over into the design of the book was probably secondary. On one hand, I just liked the way that pattern looked on the cover, and on the other hand, I was probably trying to take something that was basically invisible to the reader at first, and then kind of imbue it with some relevence to the actual story.
I’m not sure what to say about those other things you mentioned, other than that one of the new things that I enjoyed about working in the context of a longer narrative was the way that you could repeat images, and have little things gently echo things from maybe 50 pages prior. I’m not saying I did it with the greatest of skill and subtlety, but I do know that attempting that kind of thing in a shorter story is usually just too sudden and obtrusive.
Your work is very dialogue heavy, yet never comes off as overly wordy or "a bunch of talking heads." How do you as an artist break down a conversation in comics so that it doesn't become overly repetitive visually or just a slog to read through?
Well, thanks for saying that, because that’s certainly something I struggle with. For me, the challenge isn’t so much about not being overly repetitive with the visuals…if anything, I have to push myself in that direction a bit. I think like so many cartoonists, I grew up with the notion that comics had to always be visually dynamic with all kinds of absurd “camera angles” and unconventional layouts. And now to me, as a reader, that’s just as deadly, if not moreso, than something being visually repetetive. I think that kind of simplicity works beautifully for people like Charles Schulz or Chris Ware, whereas any time I see a page that looks like something out of “How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way,” my interest just kind of shuts off.
In general, I wanted Shortcomings to be as readable as possible, so this issue you raise was kind of like a tightrope walk. I didn’t want it to be too dull and boring, but I also didn’t want the visuals to be inappropriately wild in relation to the subject matter.
Your work always seems to come up as exhibit A in the "indie comix are boring stories about whiny twentysomething losers" complaints that crop up all the time. It's not a stance I particularly understand let alone agree with as I find your work engaging. What do you make of that attitude and does it at all frustrate or bother you?
Well, that should all change now that most of my characters are whiny thirtysomething losers. In all seriousness, I can’t really let myself worry too much about that kind of thing. For some reason, my work has always been evaluated in kind of a polarized way…people tend to either really like it or really dislike it. That’s always kind of surprised me, but I think it’s been useful in terms of learning to not take either type of extreme reaction too seriously. I never imagined that my work would even appeal to as many people as it does, so it seems perfectly appropriate that there would be some people who really don’t enjoy it.
What are you working on now?
I recently finished my contribution to the next issue of Kramers Ergot, which is a great anthology published by Buenaventura Press. This issue is going to be a massive, full-color hardcover book, and it was a lot of fun to be doing something so different from Shortcomings.
I’ve also been spending some time lately on a little project that very few people will probably ever see: a mini-comic that we’re giving as a favor at my imminently-approaching wedding!