Hitting a nerve

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Consumerism and the counterculture collide hard on Telegraph Avenue, where political posters fill the space between chain stores. Three kids in hooded sweatshirts crouch on the sidewalk: “Can you spare some change ... for pot?”

Away from the clamor, inside Cody’s Books, a few dozen people have gathered to meet a reserved young man who could be a chemistry T.A. with a good haircut. He’s discussing “Optic Nerve” -- his chronicle of lonely, good-looking Bay Area denizens who hold down negligible jobs and struggle to connect. Adrian Tomine, who lives nearby and seems dressed for anonymity, has spent 12 years producing a comic that has more in common with the spare, disillusioned short stories of Raymond Carver than with Batman and Robin. Visually, his style is not far from that of Dan Clowes, whose “Ghost World” comic was made into an art film last year: a mix of the clean lines of 1950s magazine ads with touches of film noir and a careful, almost documentary realism.

This summer, Tomine released a hardback, “Summer Blonde,” that collects his last four issues, tales of a harried telemarketer who meets her dream guy while making prank phone calls, a nebbish writer who returns home to seduce an old crush’s less appealing sister, and a smooth ladies’ man who’s unceremoniously humbled. The only character rendered without sympathy is Carlo, a guitar-toting Casanova who would not look out of place at SkyBar or Erewhon. “He’s just the sort of young, good-looking ... extrovert that makes me sick,” a rumpled character tells his shrink. Despite the jaded tone of the work, the frames are drawn with an intense concentration and meticulous detail.


Comics and “graphic novels,” as non-superhero comics are sometimes called, have been discovered lately by the intellectual mainstream, from Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-winning novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” the tale of two comics creators, to the New Yorker’s recent Comics Issues. The critical success of Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World” made the reclusive Clowes a cultural hero rivaling Robert Crumb. And films from “ Spider-Man,” “Road to Perdition” and “Men in Black” all originated in comics. Comics are reaching out of their subculture like they haven’t in years, and Tomine’s work is one of the reasons. Obscure rock musicians have even begun to take notice. “He really has the best taste of anyone I know,” says Eels leader Mark Everett, who’s hired Tomine to draw record covers.

As the Cody’s crowd stares longingly, the thoughtful, self-contained and coolly detached Tomine, 28, has no trouble stepping back from his own life, from his work, from his upbringing. “I think there was part of them,” he says of his parents, both academics, “that would’ve preferred me to be outdoors and making friends and stuff.” Of his very short, frustrated career drawing “Optic Nerve” as a studio art major at the nearby UC campus: “They were waiting for me to put some ironic spin on it, like I was commenting on lowbrow culture or something.” Laughter. Of the arduous, solitary life of a cartoonist: “It’s not like ‘Chasing Amy,’ ” he says of the Kevin Smith movie, “where your drafting table is up against your best friend’s, and you’re giving each other high-fives over the table.” More laughter. “It’s why cartoonists go crazy in old age.”

Few cartoonists have hit this hard this young. Perhaps as a consequence, Tomine is both beloved and hated in the comics subculture; the letters page in his comic book is a gallery of hatred, fawning and almost academic close-reading.

With 16,000 copies of his latest issue of “Optic Nerve,” Tomine is one of the five top sellers among alternative comics and the bestseller for Drawn & Quarterly, his Montreal publisher. He’s also one of the best regarded in the business, along with Clowes, Art Spiegelman (“Maus”) and Chris Ware (“Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth”). Besides releasing “Summer Blonde,” he’s included in the new, Dave Eggers-edited “The Best American Nonrequired Reading.” And starting this month, Drawn & Quarterly’s comics will be distributed by Chronicle Books, allowing Tomine’s work to get outside comic shops, where it seems increasingly uncomfortable.

After the reading, the cartoonist sits at the head of a long queue of admirers waiting to get their books signed. For the most part it’s a well-behaved crowd -- Tomine is all too familiar with fans who are physically trembling, who come to act out in public or to pass on a strange, deeply personal artifact. But a good third of the crowd seems to want something from him, from a corduroy-clad guy who puts out a comic about erotic spanking, urging Tomine to revive a favorite character, to a well-coifed man with a French accent who wants to interest him in creating work for cell-phone screens. Tomine, who may be the only writer in America who exudes a tangible fear of spelling his devotees’ names wrong, handles them all with cordial distance.

Not everyone in Cody’s tonight is a fan. Two skinny blond girls, about 8 years old, wander by; both seem to be recovering from recent perm and dye jobs. “Why do they want him to sign their books?” one, in a Princess University T-shirt, asks dismissively. “Oh,” responds the other. “He’s some famous author guy or something.”


Feeling like an outsider

Tomine grew up all over the West Coast, splitting time between a psychology professor mother who moved every few years and his engineering professor father in Sacramento. As a teenager he lived in Germany, because of his mother’s teaching stint, though he never learned German, and he felt like an outsider even in the places he lived the longest.

“A lot of cartoonists have that in common,” says Tomine, sitting in a cafe surrounded by students. “It’s like the life of an Army brat; you never make any strong connections with people.” Tomine says the cartoonists he knows -- Clowes and Richard Sala (“Evil Eye”) are among his best friends -- all have similar temperaments: “kind of soft-spoken and reticent, pretty cynical, black sense of humor, a fascination with human foibles. We’re all kind of more observers than participants.” As he put it at Cody’s: “My friends and I say, ‘Never trust a socially adept cartoonist.’ ”

Tomine’s high school experience, he says, was rigged by his moving with his mom to Sacramento a few weeks before his freshman year began. He started with no friends and gained little ground from there. Tomine remembers the other students as affluent white kids; he drove a yellow van to school that backfired so loudly it set off the car alarms on his peers’ new BMWs.

“A lot of the things that made me unhappy as a kid led to things that make me happy now,” he says, with characteristic even-handedness. “In high school all I wanted was to have a lot of friends, or to go on dates with girls, and because none of that was happening, I had a lot of time at home. Speaking now, at 28, I’m grateful,” he says, the rare artist who lives entirely from his art, along with illustrations for the New Yorker and indie-rock records. Had he been presented with a choice -- misery now and artistic success later, or teenage glamour with an uncertain future -- the cute girls and convertibles would’ve won in a second. “I would’ve said, ‘Forget the art, no contest.’ ”

When he started drawing a comic book at 15 -- after years eavesdropping on the corny superhero comics his older brother, Dylan, brought home from 7-Eleven -- he was in a vacuum, not even sure where to get pens and paper. In 1987, he stumbled upon the Hernandez Brothers’ “Love and Rockets,” one of the first alternative comics with its combination of magical realism within an L.A. punk-rock setting, and saw that the medium didn’t have to concern superheroes in tight costumes. He kept his interest to himself. “It was bad enough as it was. I certainly wasn’t going to be, ‘And by the way, I like comic books!’ ”

But soon after creating “Optic Nerve” and selling photocopied editions at a local shop, he began to hear from other readers, and the attention spurred him. He got letters describing his debt to Carver, and picked up his stories for the first time, responding to their emotional bleakness, unresolved tone and “the tiny, small things charged with some kind of emotion.”


High school’s trial behind him, Tomine headed to Berkeley, where he intended to become an art major. “It didn’t take me long to totally hate it,” he says, explaining how his comics were dismissed while a wooden box filled with a feather and news clippings was deemed politically charged high art.

“The thing that had the strongest impact on me, over my life, is ‘Peanuts,’ which looks nothing like what I do. People sell it as if it’s this uplifting, fun-loving thing. But if you read it, it can make you cry. I still can’t quite understand how such a neurotic, original person like Charles Schulz became the most mainstream, widely embraced figure of all time.”

Tomine is known as a “literary” cartoonist. “He’s the guy who creates comics as though he’s a mainstream novelist,” says Clowes. “He really thinks in those terms.” Switching his studies to English, he was drawn to thorny work -- Nabokov, the Bible, Chaucer -- and enjoyed the rigor they required. “Peeling back layers, seeing what’s beneath them. That’s how I felt when I had ‘Lolita’ taught in a class, that there’s this whole other art beyond constructing a plot or creating interesting characters.” About this time, as a college sophomore, he hooked up with Drawn & Quarterly.

“Adrian is kind of an anomaly in alternative comics,” says cartoonist Sala. “It’s almost straight from the Art Student’s League circa 1950. His work is that disciplined and, in a way, conservative. There is a total absence of expression or cartoon-y experimentation in his latest work, which is ironic because it makes his art so individual and instantly recognizable.”

Tomine used color imaginatively, and his drawing captures the surfaces of West Coast post-graduate life, but the best thing about “Optic Nerve” is its storytelling. Like a songwriter, he works in miniature, finding gestures and phrases that define his characters, who are almost instantly recognizable. He also gets loneliness and disconnection pitch-perfect.

Dan Raeburn, the Harold Bloom of the comics world, praises Tomine in an essay in “Summer Blonde” that reads like a manifesto from 1919 Paris. “He’s a very shy guy,” says Raeburn, who calls Tomine’s style collegiate noir. “I’d describe him as nice. He tries as hard as he can to be as outwardly normal and average.”


Spartan and disciplined

Standing in his immaculate apartment, Tomine is surrounded by books by Tobias Wolff and Chekhov, walls lined with intricate, retro comics and vintage “Peanuts” paperbacks. His exacting taste led Clowes to describe him as “a very picky guy, at a very early age.” While he’s known in the often nostalgic cartoonists community as the scribe least likely to own a big stack of 78s, he still seems stuck in time.

“I think my natural tendency is to be like a vampire and to steal material from people’s lives,” says Tomine, who’s considering his own, in part thanks to his 10th high school reunion so his thoughts about it kept him up all night. He feels 30 approaching and has reached a plateau with a following, a serious girlfriend and more illustration work than he can handle. While some artists might plan to dive into screenplays or TV, Tomine’s dedicated to “Optic Nerve,” which requires so much work that he averages a page a week. Spartan, disciplined, he’s a comic-book ascetic.

With eight issues and three books behind him, Tomine’s planning his next “Optic Nerve” as part of a larger cycle, three or four issues, with Asian American characters; he wants to appease fans who’ve suggested he was ignoring his Japanese heritage.

His goal, Tomine says, is to mature without going soft, to take criticism without pandering, to escape the trap of those who become too successful too young. “Not that I was ever that huge a Michael Jackson fan,” the cartoonist says with his usual flatness. “But here’s someone who could definitely use some input from the outside world.”