Killing and Dying, the latest collection by award-winning comics artist Adrian Tomine, offers six short graphic stories that provide a powerful and probing rumination on the everyday.
Five of the stories are presented in what’s become Tomine’s trademark style: clean, simple pencil art supplemented by extensive dialogue. Indeed, in most cases the pieces are dialogue-driven, although the art leaves nothing wanting either; Tomine’s attention to detail in this collection is superb.
The sixth story, ‘Intruders’, is dedicated to pioneering Japanese comics artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi, and is rendered in that artist’s trademark style of thick, darkly penciled urban sketch narrative. Tomine edited and introduced several translated collections of Tatsumi’s comics, and the piece reveals the stylistic similarities between the two artists: not so much in artistic style as in trenchant revelations of the power of the everyday. Tatsumi died earlier this year while Tomine was still working on the piece, but it’s a stirring tribute to an artist who had a clear influence on Tomine and so many others.
A reader, upon completing the stories in this collection, might find themselves perplexed, even let down. The action is prosaic. Nothing dramatic occurs, on the whole; and the endings are often anti-climactic. Some of the stories end inconclusively. It’s an unusual style in a form where, creatively speaking, truly anything is possible.
Yet it’s in the prosaic, everyday quality of the stories that their delicate and fragile power lies. Kazuko Sugisaki, renowned Japanese literary translator who translated the work of Anais Nin into Japanese and the work of Japanese authors such as poet and novelist Kanoko Okamoto into English, described in an essay titled ‘Language as a Mask’ the reaction of American author Henry Miller to her English-language translations of Okamoto’s work.
When Henry Miller read my translation of “The Story of an Old Geisha,” he said rather disappointed, “But nothing actually happens in the story…” I was a little baffled by this comment, because I had felt that the story had such a strong appeal. I thought that an extremely poignant drama was enacted in the inner self of the old geisha. But of course, Henry Miller is right in a sense, for there is no exterior conflict or struggle taking place among the characters. No one falls passionately in love, no one dies a tragic death. The old geisha’s face is presented rather casually. Yet if we can see through it, we realize that behind this mask are hidden her deepest emotional dramas. Behind the façade of an understanding, mature old woman, we see her sadness at becoming old, her enormous sense of loss for not living a full life, her strong will trying tenaciously to hold onto the life-force of youth to bloom once again…
A similar critique and analysis might be made of Tomine’s work. Nothing actually seems to happen in any of the stories. But the key lies in reading the interior drama beneath the prosaic surface. In a sense, work like this challenges the reader: emotional drama is carried not on the sleeve, but hidden elusively somewhere between the lines of profile art and dialogue. “The old geisha’s face is presented rather casually. Yet if we can see through it, we realize that behind this mask are hidden her deepest emotional dramas…”
It’s the same technique he deploys in his acclaimed New Yorker covers. These are so successful because, much like his comics, they offer trenchant and revealing snapshots of everyday life. They reflect our realities back to us, in all their prosaic, occasionally contradictory, truth. The comics are extended versions of these. They are to the covers what a Snapchat photo still is to a ten-second video Snap: both artistic renderings of a moment, but one revealing its power in a single instant, and the other building resonance through prolonged engagement. It’s a testament to Tomine’s versatility that he can operate with trenchant poignancy in both forms.
Part of the power of the stories lies in their snapshot (some have called it ‘slice-of-life’) quality. There’s a backstory to many of the characters and plotlines that the reader who picks up the book doesn’t immediately grasp. The pleasure of reading lies in trying to understand the characters and sort out the issues, but the deeper lesson here is that the backstory doesn’t really matter. Taking an excerpt of daily life allows the reader to witness characters struggling to deal with universal situations.
The characters and their backgrounds may differ in mysterious and elusive ways, but ultimately their struggles are ones that resonant with poignant familiarity. A daughter struggling to find something she’s good at; the father who recognizes the need to support her but doesn’t want to waste another $500 on lessons that will probably lead nowhere.
Tomine deserves credit too for his visual style. To many it seems a basic penciled rendering, but the power lies in the details. The short story ‘Translated, From the Japanese’ demonstrates this quality profusely. The visual depiction of the airport in Tokyo, the flight to San Francisco, all resonate with video-quality accuracy. From the signs in the backdrop to the snacks consumed by characters during dialogue, the quality and attention to detail is astounding.
Killing and Dying is a rewarding read for those seeking short, emotionally intense snapshots of daily life (and the eponymous story is probably the most poignant in the collection). There’s no complex plot or dramatic, extended narrative here. But the stories offer a bittersweet breath of fresh air; their lingering effect like the delicate scent of a passing spring shower. Much like the short stories of authors like Banana Yoshimoto or Yasunari Kawabata, their power lies in their prosaic poignancy.
Tomine’s work has matured in recent years, and the refined quality of stories such as these reflect the immense creative potential of his increasingly nuanced pen.
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