There’s nothing frenzied or fanciful about the comics that Adrian Tomine has created over his 16-year career. Most of them first appeared in “Optic Nerve,” his yearly-or-so pamphlet series published by Drawn & Quarterly. A restrained draftsman, Tomine renders in meticulous detail the apartment interiors, coffee shops and movie theaters his vicenarians characters inhabit. “Optic Nerve’s” antecedents might be the “Love & Rockets” comics of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez and such down-market “realistic” newspaper strips as “Apartment 3-G.” Tomine’s people are drawn so as to look like real people, more or less. One of the many pleasures of reading him is the thrill of recognition -- he can precisely capture complex facial expressions that reveal a world of feeling. Tomine’s work may not have the eye-popping visual imaginativeness of such recent comics masterpieces as Chris Ware’s “Jimmy Corrigan” or Charles Burns’ “Black Hole” or French artist David B.'s “Epileptic.” But his aesthetic is as fully realized and his plots are more emotionally satisfying.
Tomine’s realism has earned him comparisons to such respected prose writers as Alice Munro and Raymond Carver. That may be something of a slight to the comics medium, the implication being that his work rises to the level of a higher art form. But it’s not untrue -- Tomine has a degree in English literature from UC Berkeley, and like much contemporary short fiction, his “Optic Nerve” stories have dealt with romantic and familial relationships. He emphasizes conversational dialogue and favors open endings. His facility with narrative came to fruition in four long character studies published in “Optic Nerve” from 1998 to 2001, which were collected in 2002 in the book “Summer Blonde.” Each follows a loner or misfit, such as Hillary, a depressed young Chinese American who makes crank calls to the pay phone under her apartment window, or awkward but well-meaning Neil, whose crush on a girl working at a local card shop turns obsessive and inadvertently sabotages her life. Tomine’s antiheroes may be messy, intractable or self-destructive, but he’s never less than wholly sympathetic to their plights.
After a career of composing the comics equivalent of short stories, Tomine has produced, in “Shortcomings,” his first full-length graphic novel. It was serialized in issues of “Optic Nerve.” Ben Tanaka, the novel’s 29-year-old Japanese American protagonist, is, like many Tomine characters, cynical and petulant -- a pill. In the opening scene, he grumps his way through an Asian American film festival screening that his girlfriend, Miko, has helped to organize. (Tomine is a gentle but unerring satirist; each chapter opens with the skewering of some fashionable art form, including performance art and the American Apparel chain’s advertising photography.) Sometime later, at home in Berkeley, Miko finds DVDs of white “all-girl action” porn in Ben’s desk. “It’s like you’re obsessed with the typical Western media beauty ideal, but you’re settling for me,” she tells him accusingly. Their relationship frays further when Miko leaves California for a four-month internship in New York and Ben becomes distracted by Autumn, a cute young blond he’s hired at the movie theater he manages.
Tomine achieved a mature visual style around 1998, with the first of the comics included in “Summer Blonde,” and his line work hasn’t changed much since then. That’s not a criticism; most comics artists find a style and stick to it. His challenge may be to find ways of evolving within the naturalistic parameters that he’s set for himself.
On a narrative level, “Shortcomings” is a leap forward. Tomine, who is remarkably sensitive to the lives of the women who populate his stories, surrounds Ben with an almost exclusively female cast, one of whom is his most immediately likable character to date. Alice Kim is a young lesbian who is Ben’s best (and only) friend and foil. She’s a scamp (“My goal is to at least make out with a hundred girls by the time I get my Ph.D.”) with a smart mouth that can land her in trouble: She gets suspended from school for threatening to kick a fellow student in the privates. Unlike Ben, Alice has a talent for landing on her feet. She too moves to New York, where she finds romantic success and makes a discovery that brings Ben east and to a series of revelations about Miko.
“Shortcomings” is also the first of Tomine’s comics to address race. His characters are perplexed when their sexual longings stray across racial and gender lines and cause confusion or pain.
“Tell me you don’t agree that when you see a white guy with an Asian girl, it has certain . . . connotations,” Ben argues.
Meredith, Alice’s kindly New York girlfriend, responds: “And when you see an Asian guy with a white girl, you think?”
“Good for him!” Ben counters. “Good for both of them!”
When Meredith asks Ben whether his fetish for white women is “a sublimated form of assimilation,” he answers, “You don’t have to turn this into a personal attack on me!”
Tomine’s virtue is that he doesn’t have an ax to grind. His approach is playful, letting his characters talk themselves in circles and follow their desires to their logical, heartbreaking conclusions. *