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Urban Renewal: An Interview with Adrian Tomine

October 29, 2012 | by

In “Missed Connection,” Adrian Tomine’s now-famous New Yorker cover illustration, a boy and a girl spot each other through the windows of subway cars headed in opposite directions. They’re both reading the same book—potentially perfect for each other, they’re destined not to meet. The image sums up what makes city life frustrating but also thrilling: the possibility of romance around every corner, the sense of isolation in a crowd, the higher-than-usual incidence of bookish hotties. Tomine began contributing crisp, colorful artwork to the magazine in 1999 and has continued to produce covers that often gently send up urban reading habits. The newly released New York Drawings collects the entirety of Tomine’s New Yorker work, along with his illustrations for other periodicals, book jackets, and album covers.

But commercial illustration is only one part of Tomine’s career. The thirty-eight-year-old artist began publishing comics as a teenager. His stories of young misfits and malcontents, serialized in his semiregular comic book, Optic Nerve, have been collected in book form as Sleepwalk and Other Stories, Summer Blonde, and a full-length graphic novel, Shortcomings. His short, funny, loose autobiographical comic strips pop up throughout his books; last year’s Scenes from an Impending Marriage narrated Tomine’s wedding preparations in the style of classic newspaper funnies.

A West Coast native, Tomine moved to Brooklyn eight years ago. We met one evening at a pastry shop near his home in Park Slope.

It seems obvious that by now your New Yorker work has given you more visibility than your comics. How do you feel about that?

It definitely reaches a broader audience. At this point there are a lot of people who know me through The New Yorker and have no idea about the comics I do. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising to me. I’ve separated the two jobs in my mind quite a bit, and that’s been useful. I’m sometimes a cartoonist and there’s an audience for that, and I’m sometimes an illustrator and there’s an audience for that.

But there must be some relationship between the two.

The art editor in charge of the covers at the New Yorker is Françoise Mouly. She’s very familiar with the eccentricities and personalities of cartoonists, so working with her is very easy. She knows how to criticize and cajole and encourage and praise a cartoonist in all the ways that will make him feel productive and comfortable. There are some illustrators she uses who are purely illustrators—like, for the food issue, they’ll have a nice painting by Wayne Thiebaud of a slice of cake. But I think she tends to gravitate toward cartoonists and narrative artists, and she holds them to a bit more of a storytelling standard. From the first cover I did for her, she was adamant that the image didn’t have to contain a gag per se, but had to have something that could be read visually—some suggestion of a story or message that could be gleaned from spending more than a second glancing at it. I don’t know if she would have hired me if I were just a guy with my middling drawing ability.

How many of your images of New York life are based on incidents that you’ve actually seen?

Almost all of the images in the book have some root in observation. I arrived in New York in 2004, after living on the West Coast for thirty years. Anything I knew about New York was through a filter of movies or comic books or novels. Especially when I was first taking on these assignments, I was conscious of my lack of authority. Certain artists capture New York very well because they’ve lived here their whole lives and can sit in their chairs and think back to some memory and put that down on paper. But I felt more like a reporter going out into the field and trying to capture what he sees. There are a few that were invented on a tight deadline, just in my studio, and I feel they have that fakeness you might see in a movie that’s set in New York but was actually shot in Toronto. My default version of New York is far more artificial than when I actually go out and get the details right.

Do you sense a different mood or tone to your New York work, as opposed to your Optic Nerve comics set in Northern California?

For a lot of the time I was in Berkeley I was single, I was living in a kind of collegiate apartment by myself—it was like a protracted summer vacation. So at least in hindsight I have gloomy emotions attached to Berkeley, whereas I started coming to New York because I was dating someone, and it was very exciting and romantic. Now we’re married and I have a daughter who brings me great joy, so I think that really tips the scales. I associate New York with a lot more happiness in my personal life, and I’m sure that plays a part in the artwork. If I had been dealt a different hand and my experience in New York was a real struggle, that would start to come through in the work, and I’m not sure that’s what The New Yorker wants to put on its cover.

I feel like I can almost identify the book in the couple’s hands on the “Missed Connections” cover.

People have discussed this quite a bit online actually. There’s a Malcolm Gladwell book that gets referenced a lot.

Did you have a specific book in mind?

No, and in fact that detail was a last-minute addition that came about from conversations with Françoise. I had that basic image but the books were blank, and she had the idea of making it so that they’re reading the same book.

That cover came out in 2004, but I think today the boy and girl would both be reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids. In fact it has that same little square image in the center of the cover.

It does, that’s true. Strangely that might be the closest one to it in terms of the actual design.

In “Bored of Tourism,” I’m pretty sure that’s Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger.

That definitely is a Salinger book. It has those diagonal stripes in the corner. It seemed like the right book for a gloomy teen to be reading on a tour bus.

And then both books show up in the window of “Read Handed.”

That’s right. You’re the first person who’s brought that up.

Was that conscious?

It was. They kept giving me assignments to do these book-related illustrations, and I thought, this is an opportunity to tie some of this stuff together.

Almost all of the characters in your Optic Nerve comics were in their teens or twenties. Now that you’re in your late thirties, do you find it more difficult to use younger people as your material?

I find it less appealing. The next book I put out is basically going to be a collection of short stories. I knew I had a kid coming along and my time was going to be fragmented. So I had to break it to my publisher—it’s not a graphic novel, it’s not an issue-oriented memoir, there’s no connective tissue to sell this whole collection with. Sorry! But as I started working on it, my present concerns and circumstances started to find their way in. In a totally subconcious way, it seems like it’s headed toward being a book about parental anxiety. Having a kid has surprised me—I almost feel like it’s a time-travel thing, where I’m thinking of the present as much as I’m projecting into the future, and it’s also making me reconsider a lot of my interactions with my parents from the past.

Would you like to return to the long format of Shortcomings some day?

That’s a good question. The most impactful comics that I’ve read are the ones where the artists swung for the bleachers and tried to immerse you in their world. I’m very envious of that accomplishment, and to be honest I still think of Shortcomings as being like a novella at best, or a warm-up to something much more ambitious, when the playing field includes Building Stories and Jimmy Corrigan and David Boring and Maus—all these things that are just out of my reach at this point.

At the same time I don’t know for sure that comics are necessarily the best and most efficient medium for achieving those experiences, and that all cartoonists are going to excel at that goal. I think now that that’s become the ideal accomplishment, we’re starting to see artists of a lesser caliber than some of the ones I’ve mentioned who are aiming for that goal and falling short or getting frustrated with the process, or maybe stretching out something that would have been more potent as a smaller thing for the sake of having a thicker spine. I could eventually decide that I fall into that category—that I work better in little concentrated doses. We’ll have to see.

Maybe every cartoonist has his or her own natural narrative length.

If you were to go back in time and talk to the people who invented cartooning, and were doing it for newspapers, and told them that there were going to be guys who were going to do twenty-four-page long stories, they would think that was a strange use of the medium. And if you then said, they’re going to try and inject that with a singular vision and personal experience and do six-hundred-page long stories—I mean, their heads would have exploded. We might see when we look back that there were a few exceptional cases who could take this form and mutate it into something that it really wasn’t meant to do, and could do it with extreme grace and insight.

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