It can be tough to be the wonder kid. Just ask Adrian Tomine. Tagged as the "hot new indie artist" when he was still in high school, he's...
It can be tough to be the wonder kid. Just ask Adrian Tomine.
Tagged as the “hot new indie artist” when he was still in high school, he’s had to compete with unrealistic expectations about his work — usually serialized in his ongoing comic-book series, “Optic Nerve” — ever since.
It’s unfortunate, because he’s really one of the most talented and interesting folks working in comics right now. His naturalistic stories about disaffected and insecure young adults call to mind authors such as Raymond Carver and Alice Munro.
His latest book, “Shortcomings” (Drawn and Quarterly, 104 pp., $19.95), is also his longest work. It tells the story of Ben Tanaka, an overly critical, sarcastic young man who has, shall we say, “issues” about his own ethnicity, including a yen for white women, something his Asian girlfriend has understandable trouble with.
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The book follows Ben as his love life slowly implodes, and he tries to get back into the dating scene. It’s a captivating, smart look at how people trip over issues of race and sex in an attempt to get the things they think they want.
I talked to Tomine over e-mail a few days before his impeding marriage to discuss his new book. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: What was the impetus for “Shortcomings?”
A: “Shortcomings” was the result of me wanting to try something a little more challenging after spending many years working on short stories. I admired the achievements that some of my fellow cartoonists had made with longer narratives, or “graphic novels” as they’re now called. So whether or not I was truly ready to take on a 100-page story, I basically just forced myself to give it a shot.
In terms of the content of the story, I’d been accumulating material for years, and I knew that at some point I would want to group it all together. Some of the topics that are raised in this story are things that I hadn’t dealt with in my past work.
Q: What sort of challenges did creating a lengthier narrative pose for you?
A: The initial challenge I faced was simply figuring out the process I wanted to use to create the story. I’d gotten pretty comfortable with writing shorter stories, and often I was able to pretty much just write a story like that in my head. But something like “Shortcomings” required a new level of organization and forethought for me.
The other challenge I faced later on was that of just maintaining my focus on something that I’d been toiling away on for several years. I’ve always had a pretty quick arc from the conception of a story to its completion, and at times there was a bit of a Sisyphean feeling to the process of drawing “Shortcomings.” I’ve never had to draw the same faces so many times before in my life!
Q: One of the things that’s interesting about the book is there are very few sympathetic characters. Was this a deliberate choice?
A: I think it’s more just that I have a different sense of what’s “sympathetic” than a lot of other people. I have to admit that there might’ve been some miscalculation on my part in terms of what readers would accept before a character became “unlikable” or “unsympathetic.”
But to answer your question more directly, I don’t think I made a deliberate choice either way. Sympathy or empathy with the characters was never a primary guiding force as I was writing the book.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the issues of ethnic identity and sexuality that you explore in the book? How does Ben’s attitude jibe with your own personal experiences?
A: A lot of people have been asking me about the relationship between the character Ben and myself, and I think I have myself to blame for that correlation in some readers’ minds. I might’ve misled some people to think that this was a more autobiographical story than it really is with a few very specific details about Ben, including his appearance. But the truth is, it’s entirely a work of fiction, and if any of my real beliefs and personality are to be found anywhere in the book, they’re scattered amongst all the primary characters.
Q: Your work is very dialogue-heavy, yet never comes off as overly wordy. How do you as an artist break down a conversation so that it doesn’t become a slog to read through?
A: Well, thanks for saying that, because that’s certainly something I struggle with. For me, the challenge isn’t so much about not being overly repetitive with the visuals. I think like so many cartoonists, I grew up with the notion that comics had to always be visually dynamic with all kinds of absurd “camera angles” and unconventional layouts.
And now to me, as a reader, that’s just as deadly, if not more so, than something being visually repetitive. I think that kind of simplicity works beautifully for people like Charles Schulz or Chris Ware, whereas any time I see a page that looks like something out of “How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way,” my interest just kind of shuts off.
Chris Mautner is a staff writer for The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pa. He can be contacted at email@example.com.