The debut album by Throwing Muses was released in 1986, at the beginning of my sophomore year of college. Back then I had a friend who listened almost exclusively to artists on the British independent label 4AD, and I wanted to have musical tastes as esoteric as his. He told me that Throwing Muses—who lived in Boston, like we did—was the label’s first American signing, and I bought their record without having heard a note of it, only moments after a clerk in the Harvard Square branch of Newbury Comics slipped it into the “new releases” bin. I reasoned that since the record had come from England, and Boston was the easternmost major port in the United States, I was probably the first person in America to buy it, and for a long time I went around saying this. At that time my friends and I played a lot of I-heard-them-before-you-did—I saw R.E.M. in a tiny club with only fifteen other people before they were famous—and naturally there was a little of this involved, but my proprietary feelings toward Throwing Muses were more personal. I had finally found the music that was meant for me. Read More
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.
Rebecca Gates’s former band, the Spinanes, released their first album, Manos, in 1993. Indie pop was in its halcyon days, and Manos reached number one on the college charts. Like Elliott Smith and Lois Maffeo—her friends and colleagues in the Pacific Northwest music scene—Gates sang opaque, suggestive lyrics in a gentle and ruminative voice. But her dense guitar and Scott Plouf’s propulsive drums (they were a duo, with no bassist) were also inspired by punk. Strand, their 1996 follow-up, expanded their musical palette with experimental sounds and more complex instrumentation. After Plouf left the band, Gates moved to Chicago, where she recorded a third and final Spinanes album, 1998’s Arches and Aisles, with help from members of such simpatico post-rock bands as Tortoise and the Sea and Cake.
Alison Bechdel’s first graphic memoir, Fun Home , told the story of her small-town Pennsylvania childhood, which was dominated by her often tyrannical father. An obsessive home restorer and closeted homosexual, he died a possible suicide just as his college-age daughter was coming out as a lesbian. Six years after Fun Home, Bechdel has published a second memoir in comics form, Are You My Mother? , but it’s more than simply the maternal counterpart to its predecessor. Thrillingly discursive, it’s framed by the artist’s struggle to create Fun Home and broker her mother’s acceptance of its public unearthing of family secrets. Bechdel recounts episodes from her romantic relationships, her beginnings as the cartoonist of the long running Dykes to Watch Out For strip, and her struggles, through fruitful years of psychotherapy, to come to terms with her sometimes difficult relationship with her mother. (The book may be one of the truest accounts of what it’s like to be on the therapist’s couch today.) Throughout, Bechdel plumbs the life and writings of Donald Winnicott, the British psychoanalyst who pioneered the field of object relations and stressed the importance of early mother and child bonding. Over lunch at New York’s Via Emilia, Bechdel confessed her childhood affection for “silly children’s comics like Little Lulu and Richie Rich,” which shows in the clarity and warmth of her artwork.
Emmy the Great is the stage name of Emma-Lee Moss. (The moniker was a university joke that stuck.) The twenty-eight-year-old Anglo-Chinese musician first began to attract attention in the mid-2000s, when a set of her acoustic demos, recorded for a school project, began floating around the Internet, and she subsequently became associated with a group of young London-based folk revivalists that included Noah and the Whale, Johnny Flynn, and Mumford and Sons. Her debut album, First Love (2009), was built around acoustic guitar and her bright, quavering voice. But her early songs also reshaped classic indie pop and girl-group tropes into funny, wordy tales of romantic disappointment: a boyfriend who whiles away his life watching back-to-back episodes of 24; a girl who has a one-night affair with a guy who plays her the song “Hallelujah” (“the original Leonard Cohen version,” the narrator makes clear). Moss’s new album, Virtue, is both more mature and more heartbroken. The songs were written around her real-life breakup with her former fiancé, who left her on the eve of their wedding to join a religious order. We met one July morning on London’s Oxford Street (“About to meet Serious Journalist from Abroad … At Top Shop. #igottopickthevenue,” she tweeted) and went to a Soho café.
Musicians often say they don’t want to explain their lyrics or talk about the autobiographical elements in their songs because they want the listener to be free to project his or her own stories onto them. But with this album you’ve talked openly to the press about the breakup of your engagement and how it led to these songs.
I graduated from college in the late 1980s with a degree in English literature and no real idea of what to do for a career. One afternoon I wandered out of Harvard Square after a movie at the Brattle Theater and saw the grand yellow Georgian mansion where the nineteenth-century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had lived. A sign said that it was open to the public for tours; they must hire tour guides, I thought. I imagined it would be pleasant to work in a dusky, book-filled house, tucked away in a quiet pocket of the world. I went inside and filled out an application.
When I got a call a few weeks later, it was to interview for an opening at a different, affiliated historic site: John F. Kennedy’s birthplace, a not so grand, actually kind of poky early-twentieth-century house in the nearby suburb of Brookline. I was a little disappointed, as I didn’t have much interest in the Kennedys. But I didn’t have any other employment prospects either, so when an offer was extended, I accepted. My parents were pleased, at least. I had grown up hearing from them about the shock of the Kennedy assassination, how they had gathered with friends in front of the television set and mourned for days—for four days, to borrow the title of a commemorative book my father had on our shelves back home.
The National Park Service maintained both Longfellow’s and Kennedy’s houses, and I was surprised to find that my title would be “park ranger,” something I had never thought I’d be. On my first day I was given a catalog from which I was to order a ranger’s uniform: flared pants and a shirt with epaulettes, both dull green and made of stiff, scratchy, nonbreathable polyester; and a broad-brimmed campaign hat, the kind that Smokey Bear wore. I was at war with my uniform and its hopeless lack of coolness from the beginning. When my half-hour break came around each noontime, I did a quick change into my civilian clothes in the bathroom before going to pick up lunch in nearby Coolidge Corner, where I might run into someone I knew, and another quick change when I got back. There was barely time left to eat.