A conversation with graphic novelist and Sacramento native Adrian Tomine.
With the release this week of the graphic novel Shortcomings, Sacramento native Adrian Tomine, 33, publishes his longest, most ambitious work to date. It’s the three-part story, first serialized in Tomine’s highly collectible comic Optic Nerve, of a surly, somewhat nebbishy 30-year-old Japanese-American man with—among other troubles—a certain jaded fondness for white women.
A marvel of honed understatement and emotional sophistication, Shortcomings delivers yet again on the promise first made in the monthly comic strip Tomine wrote and drew for Tower Records’ Pulse! magazine as a teenager. By now, though, with his poignantly quotidian scenes of young people navigating the denials and double standards of relationships, the personal and political aches of true intimacy, Tomine might already be a master.
Now living in Brooklyn, he took time out from a busy schedule—including his own wedding last weekend—to talk to SN&R about practice making perfect, guilt over schmoozing in the “real” book world, and why he’d be lost doing comics about barbarians or space aliens.
Why tell stories in this medium?
I could go on and on about why I think comics is such a great medium, but I think the truth is, it’s just the one thing that I’ve ever shown any real aptitude for. I’ve always suspected that any ability I have now is not so much the result of any innate talent, but more just the accumulation of a lifetime of practice.
And why this particular story? I’m guessing you didn’t just sit down and say: “I want to tell a graphic-novel tale dramatizing issues of race and sexual jealousy among the young people of today.” Or if you did, you sure knew how to avoid making it phony and preachy and ridiculous.
This was a story that I had been working on, almost subconsciously, for many years before I ever decided to commit it to paper. I think I was probably grouping certain ideas together in my mind, and then it seemed like it was too much for one of my usual short stories. So when I decided to challenge myself a little bit and attempt a longer story, this was the material that I naturally gravitated towards. And thanks for saying it wasn’t phony and preachy and ridiculous.
Your work keeps getting compared—favorably and deservedly—to great movies and short stories. It’s generous praise, but what does it say about people’s willingness (or lack thereof) to take comics and graphic novels on their own terms?
I think we’re at an unusual point in terms of how America thinks about comic books. It’s as if the general, adult population is finally willing to afford comics some respect, but the highest praise they can offer is to say that a comic is kind of like, or almost as good as, something from a different medium.
Not to dwell on the autobiographical elements of your work, but I think people respond to your fluency with auras of unsettledness, of lonesome, melancholic ambivalence. As you’ve become more established and unequivocally successful (and a New Yorker, and married, etc.), how do you figure your work might evolve?
I’d have to look into a crystal ball to answer that one! While my stories have rarely been strictly autobiographical, they unavoidably reflect something about my real thoughts and my real life, so I’m sure all those things you mentioned will somehow find their way into my writing.
I love your draftsmanship, and eye for compositional details, and ear for dialogue—but I think your sense of rhythm is also crucially important, and sets you apart from many other artists. Can you talk about how you compose a given sequence, how you pace the emotional beats of each scene? Does the imagery come first, or the dialogue, or…?
I remember asking some of my cartooning heroes similar questions when I was younger, and being crestfallen when they told me that a lot of that stuff was just intuitive. And now I think I have some sense of what they meant: I can never really articulate what I’m striving for or what I’m frustrated by in any given scene, but I just know when something doesn’t feel right, and I hack away at it until it does. I think I have a real advantage in this regard due to the fact that I’m working in a very realistic setting. I always have verisimilitude to use as a criteria or goal. I don’t know what I would do if I was writing about barbarians and space aliens. I’d be constantly asking myself things like, “Well, what would this made-up creature do in this invented scenario on this non-existent planet?” and feeling like there was no clear answer. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s been helpful to me to be a fairly uncreative writer!
Part of what makes Shortcomings so rich, despite its deceptive minimalism, is the characterization. Even the relatively minor characters can be wonderfully maddening and inexplicably contradictory. How do you develop these characters?
I hate to keep dodging your questions in a way, but I don’t feel like I could give a really good, honest answer without boring the majority of your readers to tears. Again, it’s a lot more intuitive than it is systematic or explainable. I think there are some people who read my work and assume that I’m basically just transcribing from life, and that’s rarely the case. There’s certainly elements of real life in there, and that even includes observation from a distance or conjecture, but then there’s kind of an inexplicable mental process in which I keep struggling with a given character until they “feel right.”
There are of course other great details, too. I love the little rhyme you make with that image of a woman’s hair falling on Ben’s pillow. And in fact that pillowcase motif comes up in the first chapter (and on the cover) before we even realize its full importance. Do you have a system for installing these visual cues in your work—is it something that comes to you early in the process, or later, closer to the end?
Thanks for noticing all that! For me, that kind of stuff works best when it’s not forced. I’ve tried doing that in a more conscious way in the past, and I’ve always felt like it was way too obvious and imposed. That flower pattern thing you’re talking about developed pretty organically as I was writing the comic, and I think I was probably a little more strategic when it came to the use of it in the book design. That was one of the nice things about working in this longer format: I was able to let little ideas like that just emerge as I worked. There’s a lot less room for improvisation or “happy accidents” when you’re writing a very short story.
Can you comment on the relative pleasures or maybe frustrations of working in an ongoing serial format versus a single self-contained volume? It seems reductive to describe Shortcomings as simply an Optic Nerve “collection.” Will there be more multi-part series? For this one, how did you know three was the right number of parts?
Two parts seemed too skimpy, and I didn’t know if I’d have the stamina and focus to do four. One of the downsides to the recent cultural elevation that comics have experienced in America is the fact that the market has started to dictate a change in format. “Graphic novels” are now the dominant iteration of comics in terms of getting sold in regular bookstores and on Amazon, and also just in terms of being treated with any kind of respect. What used to be known simply as a comic book has now been semantically downgraded to a “pamphlet,” or worse, a “floppy.” I actually still like comic books, and I like going to buy them at comic stores, so that was part of the motivation for publishing Shortcomings in serialized form originally. I probably felt a little guilty knowing that when the story was finished, I would be publishing it as a hardcover book, and kind of schmoozing a bit with the “real” book world. So I thought it was kind of a nice thing to still put it out in comics form, and basically give comic stores and their patrons exclusive access to it. Ironically, one of the main responses I got when I did that was from readers who were annoyed at the long gaps between issues! One guy, whom I imagined sounding a lot like the comic shop owner on The Simpsons, wrote to inform me that he would be removing Optic Nerve from his weekly “saver list” to punish me for my poor work ethic.
It also occurs to me that if you told these sequences in a different order, our sympathies might really change. Can you talk about what sort of feelings or reactions you want your readers to have, and what you do to achieve those results?
Well, I can explain a bit about what I strive for, but I don’t want to seem like I’m waving the “mission accomplished” banner. Basically, I like the idea of a reader having shifting or conflicting feelings towards the characters. I know one of the things writers try to avoid is flat characters, but the thing I dislike even more than that is the character who has exactly two surprising or contradictory sides. You see this a lot in movies, where there’s, say, a despicable, racist cop, but then we learn that he’s got an ailing parent that he’s very tender towards. I feel like to just flop the audience’s sympathy once, and in like a 180-degree turn, it becomes the worst kind of trick…the kind that the audience is immediately aware of. Life would be pretty amazing if it was like that, but at least in my experience, I have kind of an endlessly evolving or deepening feeling towards people I know.
You’ve been working with these characters and this world for a few years now. How if at all have your feelings about them evolved? Have any of the letters you’ve received influenced your attitude? For that matter, has any of your mail influenced the direction of the story?
I probably would’ve had a different answer if you’d asked me this six months or a year ago, when I was still at work on the story. But the way my mind works, for whatever reason, is that as soon as a story is printed and distributed, it’s basically sealed in amber to me. I don’t have any real feelings towards the fictional characters anymore, partially due to the fact that I almost never go back and re-read my work from that point on.
As for the letters I’ve received, I’d say I was surprised by some of them, but it was probably too late for them to really influence the story at that point. From very early on, I’ve received a lot of inexplicably vehement letters, both positive and negative, and I think that’s kind of inured me to the point that I take everything with a grain of salt.
Given how far you’ve come, and how far you hope to go with the form, what do you figure is your biggest challenge? Are there shortcomings of your own that get in your way?
I think one of the greatest quandaries that an artist who is striving for a lengthy career faces is the fact that often their greatest strengths come to be viewed as their greatest weaknesses. In other words, if you do the same thing too many times, no matter how great it was initially, and no matter how much you were encouraged to go in that direction, you will eventually be criticized for that. So I’m certainly not blind to that challenge. I think I also need to keep reminding myself that for many years, drawing comics was my hobby…something that I did purely for enjoyment. By the time I was finishing up Shortcomings, and I’d been writing and drawing in essentially a very prescribed mode for four or five years, it was starting to really feel like a job. And then recently, I drew a 16-page mini-comic just for fun, and it was completely refreshing and invigorating. It was kind of like a palate-cleanser between courses.
What sort of claim can Sacramento still make on you? It was one thing when you were close at hand in the Bay Area, but now you’re long settled in Brooklyn. I know you can’t make predictions, but do you have any feeling about whether Sacramento people or places or moods might ever figure into your work again?
I still visit Sacramento at least a few times per year, so it’s not like I’ve completely lost touch with my hometown. It’s always a little bit emotional for me because I watch the town evolve in fairly dramatic increments. I’ll be driving around and notice that the Kinko’s where I made the first Optic Nerves has shut down, or the cafe where I used to hang out with my first girlfriend has changed names, or something like that. I think spending my teenage years there had an indelible effect on me, one which colors my perception of any new city I move to. Even after living in Berkeley for 10 years, I still had the feeling of being a transplant, and that same feeling is even stronger here in New York.