Optic Nerve #9
(Drawn & Quarterly)
Adrian Tomine’s books have a certain “closeness” to them, like an artist friend who you talk to every so often, and shows you the work he’s been doing. Tomine is really down to earth, not arrogant about his stuff but slightly reluctant to show you out of embarrassment or modesty. You’re naturally drawn to such people and you want to know more about Adrian and his stories.
Also, being an Asian in America brings me closer to Adrian Tomine and his stories of angst and misery. In many ways it’s almost an obligation for us Asians-Americans (whether we be Chinese, Japanese or Korean) to recognize and to support each other as we struggle to gain attention and exposure. But, it’s not because of the camaraderie of the Asian-American community that I write this review, but out of a genuine appreciation for this book.
This series hasn’t had an issue in quite sometime, a point that Tomine makes in his apology at the beginning of Optic Nerve #9, again showing just how close he is to his audience. It’s intimate elements like this that really earn my loyalty: you can just see a self-conscious Asian-American in front of his computer worrying about what he should write and who to thank. And it reads that way too, which makes it so precious! Here again is that closeness you feel as you read the goings-on of this long-distance friend.
The latest story is the first part of a multi-issue storyline (an Optic Nerve first if I’m not mistaken), and tackles an issue that I have been waiting for in Tomine’s work for a long time: race and sexuality. Die-hard Optic Nerve fans will agree that sexual innuendos decorate Tomine’s stories. And being Asian, it was only a matter of time until he would fuse the two ideas together. I have a friend who is writing her thesis on “yellow fever”; Tomine’s story hints at such race-specific sexual fantasies, but, typical of his narrative skill, leaves it for the reader to decide. In this case, it may be the reverse of “yellow fever” (“white-out”?).
We meet Ben Tanaka and his girlfriend Miko, two very American Japanese hipsters. Right off the bat, lines are drawn as the two argue about race after coming home from an Asian-American film festival. Ben (who is basically a pessimist) is fed up with the sympathetic portrayal of Asians while Miko cannot understand why this is such a big deal. Before long, a new employee at Ben’s workplace complicates the matter by bringing the whole issue closer to home. Miko drops off food for Ben and sees “Autumn (the new employee)” who is Ben’s type “cute, white and what is she twenty, nineteen?” The keyword here is “white”, and sure enough Miko’s suspicions are confirmed when she discovers Ben’s “all white” porn stash.
To complicate the issue, we also have Alice. Alice is a post-grad Korean-American lesbian who is only interested in the “incoming freshwomyn”. It appears that she has no concern with the ethnic origins of her partners, only that they are women. But, she has her own cultural problems to deal with. Her family is deeply rooted in traditional Korean heritage, so to keep her family oblivious to her choice of bed partners, she asks Ben to pose as her boyfriend at one of the Korean church gatherings. This exposes yet another facet of this drama as the discussion on the way to the church lays down a few more insightful tidbits into the Asian-American community. Ben is reminded of the bad blood between Koreans and Japanese during World War II, referring to the occupation by Imperial Japan as rape and pillaging. “Still,” Alice says to Ben, “I’m sure my family would rather see me with a Japanese boy than a Korean girl.” Ben remarks, “So rapists and pillagers are preferable to homos.” “Everything is preferable to homos,” she replies.
It is too early in the story to say where Tomine is taking this, but by introducing Alice he moves to a new level in the discussion of both sexual preference and race. In Korea (and I imagine the majority of countries in Asia), the family unit is the basic building block for a pyramid of conformity. From the family sprouts a plethora of innuendos and perspectives inculcated early on that continues into school, the workplace, and social circles, then to begin anew in a newly formed family of the next generation. Straying out of this parameter is grounds for automatic ostracism. In Korea there is an unwritten law regarding the age for marriage, finding a job, and having a baby, all of which is under the supervision of the parents or grandparents. Naturally, non-hetero sexual preferences are shunned. Tomine questions these values, asking us the readers to engage this question and to answer individually.
On a related tangent, a few years back in Korea, there was controversy over an actor who apologized on television for admitting to be gay. He was socially buried, his career as an actor virtually over. Around the same time a young gentleman had a sex change and became the next sex symbol in Korea. Strangely enough, he (now she) was accepted with open arms; men both young and old drooled over his/her centerfold, and he/she appeared on all the major talk shows and made cameos on various TV programs. Admittedly, Koreans on the whole are conservative, yet this contrast raises a lot of new issues regarding what is traditional and what is not.
In any case, how this story will turn out is going to be an interesting look into issues of sex and race. And in regular Tomine fashion, he will most likely let the readers make their own decisions about the outcomes.