One night, my roommates and I settled down to a lazy evening browsing HBO’s decades-old on-demand catalogue of “Real Sex”. It became obvious that the ‘90s were categorically unattractive. Similarly—although unaided by frizzed up-dos and genitally inspired facial hair—independent comics from the same era suggest that the decade was ridden by ugliness. Replete with sloppy art, a zine (read: lazy) mentality, and fragile, memoir narratives, the legacy of ‘90s comics is one of slipshod vanity. Panel after panel is scrawled with weepy girls in their bedrooms and brooding boys with comical glasses, suggesting that the broken family stories and social disquiet almost everyone endures is terribly interesting if illustrated as quickly as possible.
Even now, as young hipsters of tomorrow buy Ghost World graphic tees—What hath Clowes wrought?—comics have struggled to recover from the confessional sloth and egoism of the ‘90s.
In many ways, Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve mini-comics, now collected in Drawn and Quarterly’s box set 32 Stories is no different. The art is imprecise, the author features himself prominently, they are printed on copy paper, and there is no shortage of panels of downtrodden suburbanite youth. Throughout the minis, Tomine insists on the truth of these personal stories, even devoting an entire piece to the issue of his biographic accuracy—as if to suggest the reader might miss how very open the author was being.
However related to the deluge of ‘90s trash Tomine’s work may seem, the likeness ends at the superficial. 32 Stories effectively demonstrates how the dolorous ‘90s diary comic might pull itself out of the mire of its similar contemporary pieces. It is Tomine’s command of form that ultimately redeems the genre.
The 20th century hermeneutician Paul Ricoeur once wrote that the meaning of the Bible doesn’t occur in any of its stories of in any one of its narrative forms, but, rather, emerges from the subtle interstice of all the stories and forms. Tomine’s 32 Stories work in much the same way and its is this narrative holism that prevents them from ever feeling like they are weighted down by authorial self-obsession. Tomine never directly comes out and says, “I felt lonely”, or “Modern life is hell”. Rather, he presents the reader with many snippets of stories—some only a few panels long—that express Tomine instead of drawing him out. Tomine’s portrait becomes a wonderfully indirect one, in which, for the most part, the author is inferred as simply the central point around which all the fragments revolve.
It is an incredibly rewarding activity to try to construct the author in this way and one that avoids all the pitfalls less discreet memoir. 32 Stories takes on a life of its own as well, maturing from its half-baked first issue into the masterpiece issues five and six and finishing with the awkward #7, seated on the cusp of being picked up by Drawn and Quarterly (the mini-comics were self-published).
Much of this vitality, may be attributed to the admirable way in which Drawn and Quarterly has chosen to treat this reissue. Rather, simply stamp the Optic Nerve mini-comics in a trade—cf. Sleepwalk, Summer Blonde, Shortcomings—Drawn and Quarterly has gone the facsimile approach and recreated them exactly as Tomine originally published them. The change in the stock as the mini-comics go on, as well as the introduction of spot and color and treats such as stickers, allow the reader to experience the evolution of Optic Nerve.
Although now eclipsed by his later work which secured Tomine a spot in modern comics indie pantheon, the Optic Nerve mini-comics are an endearing and eminently readable glimpse into the author’s earlier life and career. Easily appreciable by both Tomine fans and newcomers alike, 32 Stories is a successful reminder of what the ‘90s should have shaped up to be.