My New Obsession With Adrian Tomine

Sometime last fall, in one of the less prominent corners of a blog I had begun to read regularly, I remember hearing about a new graphic novel called Shortcomings. On any other day I might have noted the title and author in that portion of my brain lovingly labeled “must-read”. It is in this area of my mind that books and movie recommendations go to quietly and secretly die, never again to bother me with their presence.
But this particular day was different as the interwebs were clogged with boredom, so I clicked through the link to an interview by web mag The Believer. I had never heard of the site before, and had no knowledge of this “Adrian Tomine” or his work. The artists and writers discussed in the interview were (with a few exceptions) completely unknown to me. I really had no good reason to proceed, but the page hooked me with the kind of tasty morsel only a good quote can provide:

“THE EXPERIENCE OF READING A COMIC SHOULD NOT BE THE TIME IT TAKES TO TURN EACH PAGE.”

It stated this in what had to be the only font capable of making full-on capslock mania look good. Carefully centered under the Tomine’s name, title and self portrait, I had already spent more time thinking about that one sentence, about how and if it would change for your standard comic book/strip, about what it meant about the value of comics in the face of other forms of media, and whether or not I agreed with such an assertion to begin with, than I had even planned to spend scanning the interview. But now I was intrigued, and with half a dozen newly formed article ideas in my head, I pressed on.
Luckily for me, the article was interspersed with samples of Tomine’s work. Great funny awkward emotional things they were, and I loved them all. These, coupled with a humility I have come to expect rarely from artists, had easily convinced me by the last sentence, that I must not only read Shortcomings, but read it immediately, and if even possible, yesterday. Had it not been for an impending class, I may have succeeded in such a path too. Reluctantly, I re-shelved it in that “must read” part of my brain, with more honesty than I had ever done before. This, I decided, was to be the exception to the typical mental execution of “things I should read”. I packed up everything and left for class, where I promptly forgot all about it.
It wasn’t until a full month later when the book crept back into my brain. Again I made the same vow as I had before, but again, it was futile. It was only after the fifth occurrence of this that I finally decided to stop what I was doing (my semi-cold ramen noodles could wait), and marched over to my computer where I promptly and without the slightest hesitation, ordered a copy on Amazon.com’s impossible website. It was only then, comforted by the knowledge of the book’s eventual arrival, that I returned to my lunch. The book probably sat on my dresser for another three weeks before I picked it up.
The first night I began it, I found myself so attached that when my girlfriend insisted that 2:30 AM was an ideal time for me to go to bed, I think I actually grunted, loathe to be interrupted. I finally conceded after the fourth poke to the ribs and a foul glance loosed in my direction. The following morning, my first conscious thought was to finish where I had left off. It didn’t take long, but I found myself finally satisfied upon completion.
I mention all this because, for me, Shortcomings had developed into a sort of unknown ideal. It had become so hotly anticipated, that there was no way it was going to stand up to my own hype for it. It was severely handicapped right out of the gate. But despite this, the book managed to not only meet the high standard I had inexplicably set for it, but far exceeded it as well.
The main character is Ben Tanaka, a misanthropic wannabe hipster who also happens to be Asian. Typically that last bit would be irrelevant if not for Ben’s painfully forced ambivalence about it. While those around him insist on his aversion to race issues, he vehemently denies any such avoidance. At the same time, his extreme criticism of everyone and everything around him inevitably creates conflict. As if this weren’t enough, he also strains his relationship with his all-too-forgiving (to a point) girlfriend by casually flirting with other girls (or as she points out, “white” girls).
Ben possesses so many irredeemable traits, you’d expect to have little sympathy for him. Yet that’s just the thing – if nothing else, Tomine knows how to make you care about an asshole. You get to see the moments where Ben is thrown off balance by his awkwardness or overcompensation, and his defensive cynicism falls. Beneath is someone who secretly clings to and relies on those few who can stand him, the whole time panicking because everyone else is moving on with their lives except him. His own exterior attitude of superiority toward everything undermines this dependency in such a tragic way that you can’t help but feel bad for him.
I don’t want to go too in-depth because the book isn’t terribly long, but it is definitely worth a read or two (or three… or four). It wasn’t until just yesterday, when I returned to the original interview, that I gleaned an additional tidbit that I had previously missed. Namely, that Shortcomings is actually just a handful of issues of Tomine’s serial comic Optic Nerve. The rest are collected in their own books, and while I don’t currently have them in my now giddy hands, the cold unfeeling Amazon.com webpage assures me that I should have them inside two weeks. Until then, I’ll have to appease my eagerness with the unavoidable and highly anticipated re-read(s) of Shortcomings.

Addendum: The aforementioned interview can be found here. Definitely give it a read – there are so many more interesting things in it than what you just spent your time reading here.