Books

Tomine's Anti-Memoir, 'The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist'

Adrian Tomine, Self-Portrait (courtesy of Drawn and Quarterly)

There's something perversely entertaining for a memoir about the career of its successful author to stay so relentlessly focused on failures as Tomine.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist
Adrian Tomine

Drawn & Quarterly

July 2020

Other

Few comics artists are more highly regarded than Adrian Tomine. Though none of his books crack the top tier for either best or most famous graphic novels (Spiegelman's Maus, Satrapi's Persepolis, Bechdel's Fun Home, Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen), his continuing stature and consistently excellent output is hard to rival.

Not that you would guess that reading his new (and only) memoir about his career in comics. While some of his previous work suggests a clear autobiographical edge (his novel Shortcomings offers a cringingly sharp focus on the experiences of Japanese Americans), Tomine has been content with the protective aloofness of fiction. Until now.

Shifting the spotlight to himself comes with a shift in tone. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist doesn't feature Tomine's signature understatement. Instead, it's a comic in that other sense: he's trying (and succeeding) to be funny. Every page is a 3x2 grid, often with the narrative rhythm of a stand-alone comic strip, including a punchline in the concluding square.

The four pre-title opening pages establish the norm with the book's only glimpses of his childhood: a quickly paced sequence of humiliations, including bullies, well-intentioned mishaps by would-be allies, and Tomine's relentless self-sabotage. I suspect most readers will be able to relate.

What's surprising, though, is how that childhood motif doesn't change with adulthood but instead defines the tone of the memoir. More than a decade passes in the narrative leap from middle school to his first comic-con, but it's as if Tomine is still trapped in that same purgatorial lunchroom. His continuing career features the same kinds of social cliques, insults, bullying, and brutally disinterested bystanders.

The list is impressive: Tomine writhes over a bad review. He's mistaken for an internet service guy by a famous cartoonist. He sits through desolate book signings (once with the added humiliation of fake customers phoned in by the store owner in a failed attempt to lessen the humiliation). He's heckled at a reading. He's insulted by a fellow panelist. He's upstaged by Neil Gaiman. He's upstaged by Chloe Kardashian (plus no one laughs at his Thomas Pynchon joke). He's mistaken for Daniel Clowes. His stalker calls him overrated. He's spotted eating alone in a fast food place by pitying fans.

That's not even the complete list, because the memoir is a sequence of Tomine's worst comics experiences. There's something perversely entertaining for a memoir about the career of its successful author to stay so relentlessly focused on failures. It turnsThe Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist into a kind of anti-memoir, an extended comic strip gag. Tomine waits until the last scene to acknowledge the joke: "My clearest memories related to comics—about being a cartoonist—are the embarrassing gaffes, the small humiliations, the perceived insults … everything else is either hazy or forgotten." And his memoir proves it.

But it also quietly undermines that self-deprecation. When he includes an eight-page story about an embarrassing bowel movement, the comics connection is tangential—revealing that the selection is absurdly stacked against him. Clues of his exceptional successes shine through the cracks of his comically negative faulty narration. Sure, he ends his radio interview with exactly the sort of clumsy "Thank you!" that he was desperate to avoid—but the interview was on Fresh Air. Yes, he made a lame expression when he looked back at the camera recording him—but only because he was famous enough to attract the attention of a French TV news show while being honored at a festival. No one in the audience laughed at his joke, but he was being interviewed on stage about his success as a New Yorker cartoonist.

The intentionally myopic memoir leaps over massive and presumably positive swaths of his non-comics-related life. When his daughter makes her first appearance, she's already speaking in full sentences. His future wife is more integrated, but only because she's there to experience some of his humiliations beside him. At first, that means witnessing another desolate book signing (and now I'm wondering if the repeated comparisons about line lengths is a veiled penis joke), but soon she moves from spectator to dedicated participant, ready to shout down a rude stranger at the next restaurant table overheard haranguing his date for liking a Tomine book. Tomine's sixth-panel thought-bubble punchline is revealing: "I'm gonna ask her to marry me."

The memoir has a subtle subtext too. Though most of the litany of humiliations might resonate with any reader, some are specifically racist microaggressions—as when a famous author (most names are blacked out as if by a censor's pen) gratuitously asks Tomine's nationally and then declares: "I love Jujitsu." When Frank Miller (one of the most famous writers and artists in superhero comics) reads the nomination list at the Eisner Award banquet (the comics equivalent of the Oscars), he says: "Adrian … uh … I'm not even going to try to pronounce that one!" It becomes one of the memoir's running gags—"Toe-mine", "Toe-meen", "Toe-mih-nay"—not because it's funny, but because it's presumably a running discomfort of his life.

Happily, even Tomine's artificially negative premise buckles under the weight of his happiness. He appears to be in a deeply loving marriage (even if his wife dozes off as he rants). He appears to have a deeply loving relationship with his daughter (even if her teacher apologizes to all the parents that he drew poop during his class presentation on being a cartoonist). His outward attitude seems to shift too, when, even though he feels insulted to be charged for a "gift" pizza, he's nice to the chef as he leaves the restaurant with his family.

Apparently, thinking you're having a heart attack has its psychological benefits. His death flashes in his mind (in a sequence of the memoir's only unframed panels), and as he waits in a hospital bed for his test results, he composes a moving letter to his family (in the memoir's only full-page panel). Those breaks in form signal a deeper break in his self-deprecating ways, even though the memoir's final paradoxical punchline is his decision to write a memoir about those humiliations.

Maybe that's the real joke: self-deprecation can mask a deep confidence. If so, Adrian Tomine (Tom-ine-y? Toom-in-ah?) is the most confident comics artist in the world.

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