Adrian Tomine has gotten so good at what he does that I’m starting to take him for granted. Reading Shortcomings, his latest graphic novel from Drawn and Quarterly, I kept thinking of “Business”, wherein Eminem sings, “You ain’t even impressed no more; you’re used to it.”
That said, while I’m perhaps not as grateful for Tomine as I should be, I am plenty impressed. Tomine’s illustrations are as seductive as ever, and Shortcomings boasts plot developments that are not predictable, but inevitable; we roll our eyes at each character’s mistakes, not because we recognize tired tropes, but because we recognize human nature.
Adrian Tomine has a gift for capturing body language and facial expressions, with the result that his characters often say more in a silent panel than most comic book characters say with an entire bloated word balloon. And oh, the things they say; characters in Tomine’s comics share a trait with characters in the films of Todd Solondz, meaning they’re some of the most authentic, believable assholes and screw-ups in modern fiction.
That may not sound particularly appealing in light of the fact that popular culture in the US is filled to bursting with assholes both fictional and non-fictional, but whereas the men and women in US reality television shows and brain-dead Hollywood comedies tend to be brash, cartoony assholes, I want to emphasize again that the people who populate Tomine’s pages are uncannily believable.
And again like Solondz, Tomine crafts stories that are uncomfortably intimate and brutally honest. Shortcomings in particular is so convincing that it hits too close to home at times, only its protagonist is presented in such an unflattering light that you won’t likely admit to polite company that you can relate to him.
I knew Shortcomings would be provocative and perhaps a bit unsettling when I read its back-cover synopsis:
Ben Tanaka has problems. In addition to being rampantly critical, sarcastic, and insensitive, his long-term relationship is awash in turmoil. His girlfriend, Miko Hayashi, suspects that Ben has a wandering eye, and more to the point, it’s wandering in the direction of white women.
I will leave you to mostly discover for yourself how Shortcomings lives up to its premise, but here is a taste:
Coinciding with the publication of Shortcomings is a re-release, in a new format, of 32 Stories, collecting Tomine’s early work in the Optic Nerve periodical. Though nothing in 32 Stories can hope to match Tomine’s current work, students of the comic book medium will delight in the opportunity to trace Tomine’s development as a storyteller, and even novices will find his early tales endearing and entertaining.
Happily, the standard graphic novel format has been abandoned in favor of reprinting each issue of Optic Nerve in its original mini-comic format, all collected in an attractive but humble cardboard box. Tomine explains in a hilarious introduction that he was so taken with the idea of being published as a proper graphic novelist that he got a bit carried away when it came to design the first 32 Stories collection, and so he wrapped his clumsier, humbler early efforts in a comically pretentious, overwrought package.
Indeed, while I don’t want to take away from the artist’s early work, I might go so far as to suggest that Tomine’s self-conscious introduction is the highlight of this new edition of 32 Stories; it is so lovably embarrassed, self-effacing and apologetic that it comes across like a less gimmicky version of the 60 or so pages of disclaimers and footnotes and parenthetical asides that precede the narrative proper in Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
Still, Adrian Tomine is clearly an artist who is always looking forward, and so should we; 32 Stories is a worthwhile collection, but it merely has something to prove, whereas Shortcomings has something to say.