Looking for Party Time Donuts

Former Sacramento resident and comic-book artist Adrian Tomine revisits some old haunts in his latest issue of Optic Nerve

Illustration By Adrian Tomine

It’s a Friday evening in Berkeley. Inside Comic Relief, a narrow, funky old shop on University Avenue whose high wall shelves are stuffed with comic books, graphic novels and anthologies of comic books, it doesn’t take a lot of customers to look like a crowd has gathered. The place seems packed.

All the way to the back, several people line up. Two men sit behind the counter, upon which are stacked some illustration boards, various comic books and, to the right, a plate of makeshift hors d’oeuvres—cheese, crackers. On the left, a Toronto man who goes by the name of Seth is signing the latest issue of his serial comic, Palookaville. Next to him is a relaxed, bespectacled Adrian Tomine, who is busy autographing a copy of Optic Nerve, issue No. 8.

Tomine (it’s pronounced toe-mee-nay), 27, resides in nearby Rockridge, a neighborhood just south of Berkeley in the flatlands where that city intersects with Oakland. He’s been living in Berkeley since 1992, when he left Sacramento to go to the university there—at first, to study art.

“The guys who were succeeding the most in my [art] class were not the best drawers,” Tomine recalls, laughing. “Certainly, they were the ones who came up with the most obvious but political concepts of what they were trying to express through their artwork, and doing it in a slightly clever way. But if someone was to turn in a beautifully rendered figure drawing, the question would be, ‘What’s the point?’ Or, ‘What are you trying to say with this?’ Not ‘That’s a nicely drawn figure.’ ”

Illustration By Adrian Tomine

After he turned in a comic piece for an assignment, and his teacher asked him about “the ironic implications of using such a lowbrow art form,” Tomine changed his major to English. In retrospect, the switch was a good move, because it helped him to hone the verbal component of fusing visual art with the written word to tell concise short stories.

While Tomine’s medium of choice, the comic book, is often maligned as the home of superheroes badly drawn by committee, it becomes a compelling avenue for a quality narrative in the hands of an artist-writer with enough depth to detail complexities of interpersonal relationships and nuances of isolation, using static images married to text. Like the work of many of his contemporaries—his neighbor Daniel Clowes, whose serialized “Ghost World” comic from his Eightball comic book was adapted by director Terry Zwigoff into a film this year, comes to mind—Tomine is tapping into a vein of deeply personal stuff. Yet his comics are not as overtly about him as are, say, those by such artists as Julie Doucet and Chester Brown; he seems more directly influenced by Clowes, along with brothers Jaime and Gilbert Rodriguez of Love & Rockets fame.

“All [my] stories have varying degrees of autobiography in them,” Tomine explains. “The most autobiographical stuff in the comics is more, I guess, emotional content, rather than specific actions or what people look like. Usually, when I have a story where I have two or three primary characters, rather than where I’m the main one and the other two are my friends, it’s more like parts of myself split into different characters.”

Tomine explores these elements in his latest Optic Nerve. Like the three issues that preceded it, Tomine elected to structure it as one long story spread over 32 pages, rather than as a collection of shorter pieces. In No. 8, two story lines—one about a high-school girl with a drinking problem, the other about two nerdish boys in her class who are harassed by school jocks for spending so much time together that they must be gay—converge into an all too familiar tale of life in that particular angst factory called high school.

The story is set against a backdrop of the 1991 war against Iraq, which would place it around Tomine’s junior year, a time when he was already producing mini-comics and selling them at places like the now-defunct Beyond the Pale on J Street in Midtown. In one scene, Scotty and his friend Alex—a latchkey kid whose parents have moved away, leaving him the house—are watching CNN at a party. “What you’re seeing is live footage of the Scud missile in action,” a voiceover intones. “It just looks like a video game,” a bored-looking girl responds. Scotty and Alex discuss their prospects of getting drafted, but mostly their relationship revolves around Alex trying to nudge it from platonic to sexual—something that a jock named Bryan and his pals have picked up on, but which continues to elude the clueless Scotty.

Illustration By Adrian Tomine

Meanwhile, Bryan has what can only be described as a predatory relationship with Cammie. He encourages her drinking so he can exploit her sexually, but each episode seems to backfire with unintended consequences; finally, at a party, her alcohol-fueled incontinence becomes too much, and peer pressure forces him to cut her loose, freeing her to move in on Scotty, who seems to be Tomine’s autobiographical focal point. The story almost descends to soap opera, but the emotional subtext prevents it from going there.

Tomine does a particularly astute job at capturing the flavor and jagged undertow of high-school emotional life, when everything is a really big deal but, paradoxically, nothing matters. His transitions between the scenes, which can be jarring at times, force the reader to fill in the blanks.

“One of the tricks that I picked up from reading other people’s short fiction,” Tomine says, “is to almost make it a collaborative process between the reader and the writer, where the writer isn’t shoving every single detail and conclusion [at them].”

While much of Tomine’s recent work is set in the same East Bay limbo land populated by Enid and Rebecca of Clowes’ “Ghost World,” the visuals in Optic Nerve No. 8 should look familiar to anyone who’s spent time in and around Sacramento. The school campus, “Sutter High,” looks a lot like Rio Americano High (“How did you know?” Tomine asks before adding, “That’s where I went.”), the “Soup, Etc.” building where Cammie and Scotty both work looks a lot like Muffins, Etc. at H and 57th streets in East Sacramento, and the beach where the teens go to party appears to be somewhere on the American River Parkway. This time, however, Tomine seems to have left out Party Time Donuts on Watt Avenue, which turned up in some of his earlier work. (Not that depicting local landmarks is anything unique; when comic artists Justin Green and Robert Crumb lived in the area, Green used to drive Crumb around so the latter could take reference Polaroids, which later showed up in his work.)

These days, Tomine supports himself by doing illustration work for such magazines as The New Yorker, Details and Jane; drawing comic books is up there with airport security work on the pay scale these days. Tomine spends an average of 5-6 hours a day working from home on his various projects, and luckily he’s still enamored with the idea. “When I don’t have anything else I need to do,” he says, “I’d rather be sitting there drawing comics.”

But Ghost World the movie may change a few things for people like Tomine. The film wasn’t wildly successful, but it did open doors between the film and comics worlds. “In the last six months or so,” Tomine says, “I’ve gotten a lot more calls from people of varying levels of integrity, wanting to inquire about the film rights to my stuff. It’s very obvious to me that they saw the success of Ghost World and sent an intern out to a comics store; ‘Find something in this vein, and let’s try to scoop that up.’

“On the more positive side,” he continues, “I think the movie Ghost World has been able to reach a certain audience that, in the past, wouldn’t have looked at comics, but they enjoyed the movie and found out it was based on a comic, or maybe read something on Dan and Terry, and it got them interested in some comics. I mean, there was a woman at Comic Relief tonight who said that very thing—she was probably in her late 30s and said that she had never read comics before, but she loved Ghost World, did some research and ordered it from Amazon. And now she is exploring other alternative comics. And I thought, that’s one of the greatest things that could happen from something like that.”