After years of writing and drawing short but elegant snapshots of relationship angst, Adrian Tomine has turned his talents to a longer piece. With Shortcomings, the cartoonist wanted to stretch his storytelling ability and reach a broader audience, while still maintaining fans of his comic Optic Nerve. But maybe things haven't turned out exactly as planned.
"I don't know if I was choosing one audience over the other, or specifically trying to reach out to one," Tomine says, reached at home in Brooklyn, where he's working on a New Yorker cover. "I just wanted to create a book where the focus is primarily on the content”¦and to make the language of the comic storytelling more invisible."
With its emphasis on precise facial expressions and body language, Tomine's clean, realistic style has become one of the most recognizable in alternative comics. Signed to Montreal publisher Drawn & Quarterly, he produces an issue of Optic Nerve once or twice a year and does frequent commercial illustrations. But it was Summer Blonde, a 2003 collection of short pieces gleaned from Optic Nerve, that introduced him to the mainstream press, with critics likening his minimal storytelling style to that of Raymond Carver.
In its subject matter, Shortcomings is familiar Tomine territory, as characters struggle with their own worst enemy–themselves. In this case, Ben is a dude with a perennial chip on his shoulder, and his disposition doesn't improve as life throws a series of obstacles in his way. What isn't said is as significant as the carefully selected information in the panels.
This is sophisticated, adult work. And so, in the world of alternative comics, it's suspect. Since the 33-year-old began publishing mini comics in his teens, his pieces have struck some of the medium's watchdogs as the epitome of hipster navel gazing. Shortcomings, which took him five years to complete, has stirred controversy as well, partly because of the protagonist's ambivalence about his Asian heritage.
"For the number of new Asian readers I've gotten, I've probably turned away an equal number," says Tomine, whose parents spent time in American Japanese-internment camps during World War II. "I've learned long ago that when it comes time to do the work, it's best to try and shut out thoughts about how people are going to react to it."
Some readers seem to have assumed Shortcomings is autobiographical, including its rather unsympathetic protagonist. "That misunderstanding has been at least one component in some readers' less-than-enthusiastic response," says Tomine. "It's almost like they had some illusion of who I was, and by confusing me with this character some of those notions had been [further] confused.”¦It's certainly not by accident–there are a lot of things thrown in there for no other reason than to create that confusion."
One area where Tomine and his creation are definitely dissimilar is that of professional success. Ben might be unfulfilled in his job as a movie-theatre manager, but with Shortcomings Tomine continues to stand out as one of alt-comics' best and brightest.
Adrian Tomine appears in conversation with Kevin Chong on Tuesday (November 13) at Sophia Books (450 West Hastings Street) at 7 p.m.