Adrian Tomine: the Raymond Carver of Illustration
Adrian Tomine is an American cartoonist and illustrator whose distinctive, meticulous and elliptical style, complete with strikingly realistic characters and minutely observed dialogue, has earned him the label of “one of the greatest graphic novelists of our time”. Tomine’s comics delve into the lives of characters struggling with ingrained flaws and loneliness, striving to communicate or even connect with those around them: the eagerness of "Summer Blonde" (Summer Blonde)'s protagonist to bond with an attractive shop assistant soon leads to stalking; a young lady in "The Connecting Thread" (in Sleepwalk) is driven increasingly paranoid by personal ads she is convinced are addressed to her. These stories are sometimes melancholic and disturbing, but always deeply human, crafted with a deep sensitivity and honesty in the absence of conclusive resolutions.
Tomine self-published his series Optic Nerve while still at high school, and they are now published in issues by Drawn & Quarterly. His published comic books include Sleepwalk (1997); Summer Blonde (2002); Shortcomings (2007), Tomine's longest work yet, which details the failed relationships of neurotic Asian American Ben Tanaka; and Scenes from an Impending Marriage, a collection inspired by his wedding preparations, released earlier this year. Tomine's illustrations also appear on the covers and pages of the New Yorker. With the twelfth issue of Optic Nerve set to appear next month, I speak to the man himself about his influences, his evolving style and his creative process.
In many ways, comics are like films on paper. Which filmmakers would you say have influenced your visual sense?
I don’t know that any filmmakers have really influenced my visual sense, at least not as the result of a conscious effort on my part. Applying cinematic techniques to cartooning is kind of setting yourself up for failure, because at best you can only approximate or translate many of the qualities that make movies so exciting. But certainly there are many filmmakers that I’ve admired and studied in terms of content and writing. A few that spring to mind: Mike Leigh, Woody Allen, and Yasujiro Ozu.
The narration and dialogue in your work displays a flair for language and an ear for dialogue. Do you ever write prose?
Yes, I’m interested in other forms of writing like prose fiction and screenwriting, but I’m most focused on cartooning right now.
Which comic releases have you enjoyed reading so far this year?
The Death-Ray by Daniel Clowes. I also just got a big stack of comics from a London publisher called Nobrow Press, and I thought it was really beautiful stuff. I’m not sure which volumes came out this year, but I love some of the comic strip reprint projects that are going on now, like Walt & Skeezix, Little Orphan Annie, and Peanuts.
Your work has been compared to Raymond Carver a number of times, presumably because you both portray characters at a loss of what to do with their lives, and present issues which are often not resolved by the end of the story. Is Carver a particular influence, and are there any other authors you would list as inspirations?
I love Carver, of course, but I’m not exceptionally well-read, so I actually discovered his work when his name started popping up in reviews of my comics. I felt obligated to acquaint myself with his writing so I wouldn’t look like a total troglodyte if it came up in conversation. I read that biography of him recently, and it was fascinating, but it also made me like him a little less, both as a writer and a person. But I’m an unapologetic fan of that whole school of realistic, modern short fiction. I love guys like Richard Yates, John Cheever, Andre Dubus. I’ll go through phases where I get burned out on that stuff and then get really interested in something totally different, but those are the kinds of guys I always go back to.
What can readers expect from issue 12 of Optic Nerve?
I just turned it in to my publisher this week, so I’m not really able to look at it objectively. All I can say at this point is that it’s a return to short stories and it’s in colour. I’m a great self-promoter, aren’t I? Actually, I feel like my life has changed so much in the past few years, and for better or for worse, that’s going to be reflected in my work.
Judging by the short preview, issue 12 of Optic Nerve seems to display the less realistic, perhaps more cartoon-like drawing found in Scenes of an Impending Marriage, rather than the style evident in your earlier work. Have you made a conscious decision to move in this direction?
The art style in my comic is certainly evolving. I kind of touched on this earlier when you asked about cinema, but lately I’ve been really trying to think about the unique qualities of cartooning (as opposed to the influence of other media such as cinema, illustration, etc.) and that’s naturally affected the way I draw. That said, part of the appeal of returning to the short story format was that I didn’t have to get locked into any one particular way of working. I think it keeps the inevitable insanity that affects all older cartoonists at bay somewhat if you’re not forced to draw the same thing the same way over and over.
This will be your first comic in full-colour. Why did you decide to work in colour for this issue?
It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but I was working on my book Shortcomings for awhile, and was forced to stick with the black and white format. During that time, I started doing these little one-page colour strips for the New Yorker, and that got me even more eager to work in that way.
Was it daunting at first drawing for the New Yorker, considering the rich line of seminal illustrators they have featured, such as Saul Steinberg?
Oh, I was very intimidated, and it shows. If you find the first drawing I ever did for them, you can tell I was trying so hard that I ended up choking. I’m always grateful that they continued to give me work after that.
A man and a woman in separate subway trains share a glance. A woman receiving a delivery at her front door makes eye contact with her neighbour as he enters his shop front. A young girl cranes her neck to watch New York disappear as she is driven out of the city. Why is it that a lot of your illustrations for the New Yorker depict moments of fleeting contact?
That’s a good question! I don’t have a good answer other than maybe it’s a personal obsession or that it’s just a big part of living in a big city.
With illustration increasingly becoming a digital process, generally, how much of your work is on paper, and how much digital?
All the drawing is done by hand on paper, and the colouring is done on a computer. But even the colouring is fairly man-made. If I want a wispy cloud in the sky, I always draw it with a brush and then turn it into the appropriate colour rather than just using some of the tools in Photoshop.
You’ve said before that as far as social media goes, it’s not for you. The dialogue in your books strongly suggests you are very aware of the intricacies and minutiae of conversation. Your illustration “Facebook” depicts loads of speaking faces emanating from a woman’s computer. Is this why you dislike social media—voices fighting for attention, drowning each other out, language being stripped of subtleties?
It’s just not something I have time for anymore. Social media has already served it’s purpose for me: years ago, a friend of mine put me in touch, via Friendster, with a girl he knew in New York—and now we’re married.
Do you look back on your self-publishing days with fondness?
Yes. Not because I particularly enjoyed the grunt work of stapling comics and whatnot, but because it was the last time in my life when drawing comics was a pure hobby, unencumbered by the need to make a living.
Is it correct that you used to use photos to capture facial expressions in your earlier work?
No. I’ve never used photo reference for anything other than background details like cars and architecture.
What are you working on at the moment?
An illustration for the New York Times Book Review and the next issue of Optic Nerve.
‘Once Upon a Riot’ by Louie Stowell
Artist: Louie Stowell has been drawing cartoons and other illustrations for Litro for a year or so. Her drawings have appeared in other off and online magazines and an annual charity art exhibition called ArtSHO. She also writes children’s books for Usborne and recently co-wrote a book called the Write Your Own Story Book, published at the start of June.
Me and my Dad and a Long Time Ago by Neil Dvorak
Writer/artist: Neil Dvorak says: “I think the farthest a human can go is to ask a really great question. Right? There are so few truths or answers on Earth … here are three: I love my friends and family. I love bugs and drawing. I made everything else up.” See easypiecescomics.com
Alison Willis – Comeback
I believe in giving people second chances.
My shrink, for example. Caitlin was disbarred three years ago for having an affair with a patient. When I first met her, she was working in a run-down cathouse on the South Side as a hooker. We live in tough times. I was in the neighbourhood, on duty but out of uniform, luckily, and I happened to save one of the girls from a john who cut up rough. Caitlin and I got talking, and she told me her story. Ever since, I’ve been telling her mine.
[private]Every Thursday, three o’clock on the dot, I turn up – incognito, of course – and ask for Caitlin. The Madam nods knowingly and shows me up to Room 9.
“Nurse,” she says to Caitlin, smirking, “your patient.”
She thinks it’s all part of the fantasy. She thinks I’ve got a thing for blondes in nurses’ uniforms giving me enemas. If only she knew. It’s much worse than that.
I lie back on the cheap vinyl couch and Caitlin starts the clock. We have fifty minutes precisely. She’s very professional. Cheap, too. Most psychiatrists cost twice as much per hour as most prostitutes. Like I said, tough times – especially if you’ve got emotional issues.
“How has your week been?” she asks. She’s thrown a white cotton lab coat on over the naughty nurse outfit: she always does this before we start now, since I mentioned that the uniform was kind of distracting.
I shrug against the squeaky couch.
“Oh, same old same old. Saved a few lives, averted a few crimes, got some cats down from some trees.”
“That train crash that almost happened – maybe you saw it on the news?”
“That was you, huh?”
I nod at the ceiling.
“Yep. Pushed it aside just in time.”
“Why didn’t you take credit?”
“Well, y’know … I don’t want to be over-exposed. I want to lie low right now. Stay in the shadows.”
I hear her pencil scraping swiftly across the paper. She’s making a note.
“An interesting choice of words,” she says.
“It’s just a turn of phrase.”
There are no coincidences, nothing is meaningless, not on Caitlin’s couch.
“You been having the dream again?” she asks.
I shift uncomfortably. It’s hot in here, and I’m wearing my uniform underneath my civilian clothes, which doesn’t help. The city’s been restless, recently. When someone like Shade goes down, it leaves a power vacuum in the underworld. So much crime there for the taking, so many hoods scrambling for the crown. Very Shakespearean.
“On and off,” I admit.
She nods and notes.
“Still the same?”
I close my eyes. I’m standing over his grave. His armoured, lead-lined, concreted-filled grave. Shade. More than my enemy: my nemesis. A villain like him gets sunk twelve feet deep, not six. The red sun trembles on the horizon and vanishes. The shadows of the headstones in the cemetery lengthen, stretch, reach out for me. There’s scratching, like mice behind linoleum. It gets louder, closer. Then there’s an almighty thud, and the flat coffin-shaped slab of marble bucks and cracks, just as though a fist had punched it from within …
My eyes snap open and I jerk upright on the couch, staring and sweating like I’m in a cheap Hollywood flashback.
“Yeah,” I say, “Always the same.”
Caitlin recrosses her legs. She’s forgotten to take off her fetish shoes: transparent vinyl platforms. They’re distracting too. Fortunately, I know I can trust myself with her. When you’ve had the kind of experiences I’ve had, with the kind of women I’ve known, you can’t go back. Civilians are just too … fragile.
“And are you still seeing Miss Knight?”
“If you call frustrating her repeated suicide attempts seeing, yes, I suppose I am.”
Caitlin stares hard at me over naughty-nurse half-moon glasses. I can’t see the look, but I feel it. Her pencil jitters brusquely on the pad. She’s getting exasperated.
“What would you call it?”
Her laughter is a cynical snort. “Ever since Shade’s death, you two have been locked in a self-destructive, highly co-dependent relationship. And this unhealthy cycle can’t be broken until she stops endangering herself – or you stop rescuing her.”
“How can I, for God’s sake? It’s what I do.”
“Don’t pull that hero crap with me. You killed Shade readily enough – Aurora Knight was his sidekick. What’s the problem?”
I squeeze my fists together. Shade’s neck snaps again beneath my fingers.
“You don’t understand.”
“So make me. If she wants to kill herself, that’s her business. Why must you get involved?”
I often wonder if Caitlin’s somewhat confrontational style of therapy might have been another contributing factor in her professional disbarment. Most shrinks would rather strip naked than express an opinion in the consulting room. Although, come to think of it, Caitlin’s probably done both in the past.
“I … it’s not like … It’s a cry for help,” I mutter, sheepishly.
“Oh puh-lease. What about the sex?”
My blush is fierce and instant.
“Look, we’ve both been through a lot recently. It’s just part of the grieving process.”
“For you or for her?”
I twist on the couch and half sit up, staring at her. Sweat pools in the small of my back, beneath the Spandex.
She stares back, evenly.
“You heard me.”
“Don’t be so ridiculous.”
“Don’t be so defensive.”
With an effort, I uncross my arms and lie back stiffly on the couch.
“That’s better,” says Caitlin. She flips through her notes. A cat cries somewhere outside. Probably stuck up a tree. Well, it can wait.
“Last time we talked about your emotional reaction to killing Shade. You said, and I quote: It was my comeback, my big victory – and I didn’t feel triumph. Do you remember what you said you felt?”
I grit my teeth. Of course I do.
“And now you’re trying to fill it with …”
“Look, I know where this is going –”
“Exactly. And so does Aurora Knight. Nowhere. A superhero and an arch-villainess getting it on? It’ll destroy both your careers. Or is that the attraction?”
I picture Aurora. The first time, I didn’t even know it was her. I thought she was just another jumper. Her beautiful dark hair streamed in the night wind as she tumbled sixteen stories to land in my arms with a thud. Her black eyes opened wide and the next thing I felt was her fist on my jaw. And then were in the alley, fighting. She tore my costume. I wrestled her to the ground. And then … There’d been other times, since that night. The gun she’d turned on herself: the bullet I’d snatched at the last second. The poison champagne I’d knocked from her hand. Only last week, she’d stood defiantly on the railtracks, her eyes burning with tears, as the midnight express from Edgwood bore down on her … That one was a close call. Lucky my publicist managed to keep a lid on it.
”What do you think she really wants?” asks Caitlin softly. “To die? Or to be saved?”
“I don’t know. Probably both.” Always a safe answer.
“Or maybe she wants to be saved so badly she’ll risk death for it?”
Caitlin huffs impatiently. “OK, let’s try something else. In our previous session – after a lot of resistance from you, I might add – you told me about your Shade dream. The scratching, the cracked headstone, his hand shooting up through the grave and choking you, all that. You even quoted Coriolanus at me. Funny, I never pictured you as a Shakespeare-reading type.”
“No-one ever does,” I say, with resignation. I took a class in Text and Performance at college and played Hamlet in my final year. Does anyone read that part of my website? Of course not. It’s all about the super-strength and the Spandex.
“So what do you think that dream means?”
I ponder it. I’ve been wondering that myself for a while.
“I guess I … want closure?” I hazard.
Her laughter’s frankly scornful. “If you really wanted closure you wouldn’t be humping his closest ally, now would you? You wouldn’t be playing Aurora’s little suicide-watch game.”
I stare at the floor, then the clock. We don’t have long. And I don’t want to have that dream again.
“Can’t you do something about it?” I ask her. “I haven’t slept in weeks! If it’s not Aurora throwing herself off a building, it’s the Shade nightmare. I’m becoming a danger to the public, let alone myself.”
She hesitates. Then: “OK,” she says. “I’ve got a prescription for you. Confront your fear. Enact your dream.”
“What … tonight?”
She’s chirpy, insistent. “Sure. Carpe diem. Go to the cemetery. Visit the grave. What’s the worst that can happen?”
I’m really not so sure about this. I’m not afraid, you understand – I’m just not sure.
“Well, I don’t know … Can I sleep on it maybe?”
“No,” she says, and snaps her notebook shut with such force that her breasts tremble in her low-cut uniform.
“Oh,” I say meekly, “OK then.”
“Great. Session over.” Caitlin glances at her watch and then down at her cleavage. I realise I’m staring. She grins smugly.
“I’ll see you next week, when I think we should discuss your attraction to powerful, dominant women.”
At the threshold, I turn.
“I can’t lose her,” I say. “She’s the only one left worth fighting.”
The cemetery is as quiet as … well, the grave, I suppose, silver and black under the moon. Shade’s tomb isn’t how I remember it from the armed interment. The local criminals and alienated Goth kids have covered it in floral tributes: black pansies, blood-dark tulips, white roses sprayed grey. All dead, of course. There’s a fresh grave in the plot next door. What a neighbour to have.
I stand over the grave, staring down. The clouds gather overhead like they’re waiting for something. But nothing happens.
And then I hear it.
Scratching. Quiet at first. Like in the dream. The scrape of nails against a coffin-lid buried under a ton of earth. All the other sounds I can hear – the whine of police sirens, televisions talking to themselves in uptown apartments, rats scampering through the sewers three miles away – vanish, drowned out by ragged, clotted breaths, and scratching. I fall to my knees, press my ear against the cold marble, waiting for it, willing it –
A long white arm breaches the earth. But it’s not from Shade’s tomb, it’s from the grave next door. And I’d know that hand anywhere.
I pull Aurora out. She’s choking and spluttering, spitting black soil, breathless and ashamed.
“Couldn’t hack it?” I said sympathetically.
She shakes her head, not looking at me.
“Claustrophobia.” Angrily, she wipes dirt from her pale face. “I really wanted to do it this time. But I screwed up. Again.”
She’s shaking and cold. I put my arms around her.
“Aurora,” I say, “you’ve got to stop doing this, you know? We’ve got to stop doing this.”
“I know,” she says, and looks over at Shade’s grave, as though he might be listening.
“Listen,” I say gently, “I know someone who can help –”
“He’s not coming back, is he?” she says. She stares up at me, her eyes like black stars, vast and dark. She wants me to say Sure he will, he’s a super-villain, they always come back. But I can’t. I won’t.
She sees the answer in my eyes and starts to cry. I hold her head against my chest and let her sobs shake us both.
“It’s all right,” I say into her night-black hair. “I miss him too.”
I wait until she’s okay again, or something like it, and then I take her hand, and we fly away.[/private]
Writer: Alison Willis watches a lot of bad films, reads a lot of good comics, makes a lot of strong cocktails and writes a few short stories while she decides what to do with her life.
Artist: Sam Mead is a writer and artist from Findon Village in West Sussex, now living and working in Peckham. A Horse Named Peto appeared in Litro 100, and you can find more of his art and writing online at alcoholandbirth.tumblr.com
How to Enjoy Doom
The Coffee Table Book of Doom, by Steven Appleby & Art Lester, is published by Square Peg on 3 November. £14.99.
How to Have a Relationship with God
How to Avoid War
How to Destroy the World
Issue 103: Spineless Clegg
Cartoonist: Sam Mead.