Talking to Comic Book Artist Adrian Tomine About Autobiography, Ageing and the Asian American Experience

The man behind 'Optic Nerve', Tomine's latest comic is 'Killing and Dying' – a tale of family and mortality.

by Joseph Marczynski
25 September 2015, 5:02am

Issue 2 of 'Optic Nerve'. All images courtesy of Adrian Tomine.

In 1991, a teenage Adrian Tomine began self-publishing Optic Nerve, a semi-autobiographical comic series starring an affable cast of oddballs and misfits. The stories were short, steeped in realism and drawn with elegance and subtlety – the beginnings of what would become Tomine's trademark style.

The series soon gained a cult following as a rare alternative to the asinine superhero franchises currently dominating the comic shops of North America, with Tomine channelling his own detachment and lack of social interaction into his work. By the fifth issue, he received a handwritten letter from Chris Oliveros, the then publisher of Canadian Independent comics' powerhouse Drawn & Quarterly and, with Chris' help, Tomine's stories eventually reached a worldwide audience.

Like finding a box of old school memories or discovering a battered Nokia 3310 filled with forgotten text messages, Tomine's stories have an ability to transport you back to the social awkwardness, unrequited love and emotional growing pains of your own adolescence.

His first collection, Sleepwalk, is charged with lonely, haunting short stories taken from Tomine's early Optic Nerve series. The most memorable of which charts the small acts of rebellion that are easy to indulge in during a banal summer job, as well as the sometimes depressing reality of people who are trapped in roles most people use merely as temporary employment.

The cover of 'Summer Blonde'.

Developing a harmless crush on an attractive person whom you regularly encounter is something most people are guilty of (girl from the café with the stripy T-shirt – where are you now?). In Adrian's second collection, Summer Blonde, the principal story explores how an unhealthy infatuation with a local shop assistant and neighbours' girlfriend snowballs as the desperation and neurosis of the central character takes hold. With grander themes and more refined, minimal artwork, this collection exploring the pain and loneliness of the modern urban existence was the moment Adrian's graphic novels truly hit the mainstream, earning widespread plaudits from the notoriously elitist book industry.

Tomine's third and most substantial release, Shortcomings, charts the tumultuous relationship of an Asian American protagonist as he lusts after a bevy of seemingly unattainable white blondes – much to the behest of his long-suffering girlfriend. The relationship unravels as his cynicism and wandering eye drives his partner to move to New York to find a new partner.

His latest release, Killing and Dying, is a collection of full colour tales of physical and emotional upheaval, creative ambition and navigating the often-difficult realities of family life. I caught up with Adrian to talk about his newest release, his creative process, reaching middle age and the fear of failure.

Tomine's latest release, 'Killing and Dying'.

"I didn't set out to make the book with any specific themes in mind, so I'm probably not the best person to answer this question," Adrian explains after I ask him to describe the concept behind his latest work. "To be honest, the whole writing process is kind of mysterious to me, and a lot of the best material is more surprising than strategic.

"But looking at the book now, it seems like there's a lot of stuff about parents and children, and I think there's some recurring anxiety about trying to be creative in some way, and maybe something about the positives and negatives of putting yourself out there into the public.

"But on a broader level, I think this book is the result of moving away from California after thirty years, and trying to capture certain moods and emotions that I associate with the places I used to live."

Indeed, much of Adrian's early works is concerned with the upheaval and fear of change. In Shortcomings, the emotional gulf between the two principal characters is reflected in a physical distance that ultimately destroys the relationship. Tomine's work often deals with the angst and uncertainty of growing up and finding a place in the world, as well as the fragility and complexity of relationships in your twenties.

As Adrian reaches middle age, I wondered about how having a family of his own affected the stories he chooses to write: "When I found out my wife was pregnant, I made a conscious choice to work on short stories – rather than a graphic novel – because I sensed that my working life was about to get very unpredictable.

Having kids also forced me to become a lot more focused and disciplined in my work habits, basically 'clocking in' the minute they were out of the house rather than waiting for inspiration to strike."

With each new release, Tomine seems to push himself in terms of the scale and intent of his stories, weaving longer narratives with greater complexity and emotional depth. I wondered if he considered Killing and Dying to be his most ambitious work to date: "Sometimes just answering email or getting the laundry done feels very ambitious when I'm home with both my daughters. So while I hope I never actually utter the phrase 'This is my most ambitious work to date,' I will say that I'm kind of amazed that I ever finished this book at all."

Reminiscent of a sprawling, open-ended Linklater film, I've always thought Tomine's collections feel a lot like a series of snapshots of a certain period in a character's life, typically without a conventional resolution. Adrian disagreed with my interpretation: "If anything, I honestly try to tell stories as clearly as possible. Look at the end of Hortisculpture. When I finished that story, I was like, 'Now no one can say that I intentionally avoid resolution,' but what do I know?"

From 'Killing and Dying'.

"I feel like all my characters are just weird stand-ins for myself," Adrian explained as we discussed a mutual admiration for the honesty of autobiographical comics from artists like Dan Clowes and Joe Matt. I wondered how many of his contemporary characters were still based predominantly on himself: "To varying degrees, all of my stories are somehow autobiographical. But not having to explain which parts are made up and which parts are taken directly from my life frees me up quite a bit. But I'm totally with you... autobiographical comics are great, and I wish there were more. Where are you, Joe Matt?"

With so much of his life, personal failings and experiences laid bare within his work, I asked Adrian if he still feels nervous at the release of a new collection, despite his accomplished career: "Of course. I feel like I'm constantly on the verge of just calling it quits and getting a respectable job because I'm too weak to handle criticism or failure.

"But that's been going on for twenty years now, so maybe that's like my security blanket. It's actually very comforting to know that there's a lot of other things I could do with my life that would probably be more anonymous and also more lucrative."

Throughout Tomine's work, his stories explore many pertinent issues, particularly those surrounding mental health and his own experiences of racism as an Asian American. Some of the narratives in Killing and Dying confront serious issues around family and mortality, yet Tomine argues that too much emphasis is put on the importance of focussing on serious issues: "At this point, I think there's a sense that the best 'graphic storytelling' always tackles big, important issues, and I don't think that's necessarily the case."

Indeed, the simplicity, subtlety and purity of Tomine's writing are part of the reason for its success. It's easy to identify with any number of his characters as they struggle to connect and build healthy social relationships in an increasingly disconnected world. After reading Killing and Dying, it seems that even as we age, it never gets any easier.

'Killing and Dying' is released on the 6th of October in North America and the UK by Drawn & Quarterly and Faber & Faber respectively.


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