Adrian Tomine and I were both English majors at UC Berkeley in the nineties. We undoubtedly roamed the corridors of the English department in Wheeler Hall at the same time, along with the future actor and fellow English major John Cho. We were all dreaming of telling stories or being in stories, and I wish there were some alternate past in which we all hung out and encouraged one another and said, Go for it, dude!
I would have been a fan of Tomine’s work back then, given how much of a fan I’ve been of his work since his early Optic Nerve comics. I have all of his books, which is more than I can say for almost any other writer. He’s a natural storyteller who brings together a clean line in his drawing to fit the spare lines of his stories. He’s also a master of the short form, from anecdote to short story and short novel. As someone who has suffered through writing a collection of short stories, I can testify that simply because a form is short does not mean it is easy. If anything, short forms are harder because the storyteller has to be concise and must know what to leave out as much as what to leave in.
Tomine knows what to leave out. The absences in his work, from what is not drawn and what is not said, make the presences stand out even more vividly. One thing absent from much of his earlier work was his status as an Asian American, which he begins to gesture at in his midcareer efforts, such as the story “Hawaiian Getaway” and the hilarious Shortcomings. What is refreshing about his approach to Asian Americans is his lack of sanctimony. Instead, he treats Asian Americans with his trademark astringency and satire. I’m all for it. I love my fellow Asian Americans, but our necessary convictions and beliefs can easily turn into pompousness and a painful lack of self-awareness. As someone who is both inside and outside of Asian America, Tomine sees through and draws from these blind spots, mixing sympathy with skepticism in just the right dose.
Now, in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, Tomine returns with the storytelling style his fans have come to expect, but here he foregrounds his own Asian American life. Not that being Asian American exhausts the meanings of his life or his art—far from it—but it is one meaning, and he extracts a lot of humor from it, the way a dentist extracts a tooth. There’s some numbness and pain involved, but if there’s blood, you, the patient, and now the reader, don’t see it. This is the terrain of microaggression, sublimated response, and understated ambition that Tomine explores with the precise touch of a dentist gazing perpetually into a mouth, doing the crucial work of the quotidian. It’s lonely work, indeed, but by dwelling for so long and so thoroughly in the loneliness of his art, Tomine brings us close, terribly close, to the halitosis of being human, to the emotions we might prefer to keep at a distance.
What do you like to be called as an artist?
I’d probably say “cartoonist.” But if I’m meeting my wife’s extended family and they want to say, Oh, we heard you’re a graphic novelist, then I’d happily go along with it.
In a review of your previous book, Killing and Dying, Chris Ware said you write comics for adults. There’s still a lot of misunderstanding about the work you engage in. Is that frustrating?
Compared with how frustrating it used to be, it feels like we’re living in a fantasy world. Even ten years ago it was so different. Now there’s a pretty good chance that if I meet someone and tell them I’m a cartoonist or a graphic novelist, they’ll be interested and polite, as opposed to being confounded or put off or, like, protecting their children. The most interaction I have with random people is through my kids’ school. And in Brooklyn, it’s almost a boring, conservative job, like, Oh, he’s a graphic novelist? Well my dad’s a full-time protestor—or something like that.
There’s a funny episode in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist where you’re the dad at your kids’ school getting asked to do show-and-tell about your work. And you do a poop sketch. But some brat tells the story to their parents, and then you’re humiliated by this email to all parents saying, “There was an incident today … ”
I probably made it sound much worse than it really was. Read More