Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary
















July 22, 2007


CR Sunday Interview: Adrian Tomine

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I first became aware of Adrian Tomine when he was a mere 20 years old, the year the accomplished debut issue of his Optic Nerve was released by Drawn & Quarterly. I quickly discovered he had been around a few years by then, with a tremendously popular mini-comic bearing the same name as his comic book and a recurring strip in the Tower Records store magazine Pulse! Now just past its 11th issue, Optic Nerve has become one of the most popular comic books of its kind in industry history. That it continues to be published today in a form recognizable to someone buying its first issue, while other artists have concentrated on bookstore-friendly formats, and some have moved away from serial comics in any form, may make Optic Nerve a kind of last alt-comic standing. In addition to his comics, Tomine has placed a considerable amount of illustration work in magazines and on CD covers, most prominently and frequently at The New Yorker. He also edits the Yoshihiro Tatsumi book series at D&Q.

Tomine's latest story, serialized in Optic Nerves #9-11, is the longest he's ever attempted. It will be published as the graphic novel Shortcomings this Fall. Tomine plans to support the book with a tour. Among its many virtues, Shortcomings features dialog work to stand with anyone's in comics. Tomine has wiggled free from the precise and perhaps overly-measured line readings that characterized his early comics for more vibrant back and forths that emerge from character and mirror the potency and even inanity of real conversations.

This interview was coordinated for this weekend in part to remind fans, Direct Market retailers and booksellers that Shortcomings is on its way, and the cartoonist himself not far behind it in support, hopefully to a venue near you. Ask for it by name and appropriate code:

* Shortcomings, Adrian Tomine, Drawn & Quarterly, hard cover, 112 pages, ISBN: 9781897299166, Diamond Code: JUL073524, Diamond Code: $19.95.

I enjoyed talking with Adrian, and wish him the best of luck with this new book and all such projects in the future.

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TOM SPURGEON: I've noticed that you begin a lot of your pages with a figure directing our eyes from a still point left towards the right, and end with firm stop of a character or line at the right side of the last panel. How much attention do you pay to page design, and what elements are important to you in creating a page?

ADRIAN TOMINE: That's an interesting observation. You might be picking up on something that I'm doing intuitively, or just by accident. I probably don't pay as much attention to the overall design of my pages as I should. I guess I have some vague aesthetic standards in the back of my head when I'm composing my pages, but for the most part, I think I'm focusing more on the content of the story. Someone like Chris Ware or Dan Clowes can make the design of a page actually accentuate or deepen the content without distracting from it, but obviously I'm not on that level, and I'd hate to run the risk of someone looking at one of my pages and immediately thinking, "Gee, what a clever page design! Now let me force myself to read it."

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SPURGEON: Optic Nerve has a remarkable letters page. How do you select what runs?

TOMINE: As I'm working on an issue, I save any interesting mail I get in a binder, and then when I'm putting the issue together, I go through a surprisingly involved and considered process of picking and arranging the letters for print. My main criteria is "Will this be interesting to read?" I try to keep my own ego out of it as much as humanly possible, and just run with anything that seems intriguing or amusing.

SPURGEON: What percentage of material do you run?

TOMINE: I get a lot of mail that, for a variety of reasons, just isn't going to see print. Not to discourage the kind, polite letter writers out there, but I don't think anyone wants to see a letters page comprised entirely of articulate, effusive praise. Of course, I love getting letters like that personally, but it feels weird to flaunt them. In terms of percentages, I'd say I probably end up printing about one out of every fifty pieces of mail. Keep in mind that my comic comes out very infrequently, so I end up with a lot to choose from.

SPURGEON: How do you feel about the confessional tone in the kind of mail that you receive?

TOMINE: I'm consistently surprised and flattered by it.

SPURGEON: Why do you think you continue to run letters when so many people have moved away from it?

TOMINE: Here's one theory, and you'd probably have some insight on this: it might be that the comics letters page has been virtually wiped out by the internet. I've never published an email address, and I think that's sort of forced people to write me real letters, and that process generally requires a little more thought and effort on the part of the writer. I get the impression that once you start getting email feedback, the amount of dashed-off/inane/offensive responses increases exponentially. Also, I think there's probably a small gratification that can come from seeing one's letter in print and making a point publicly, and I guess some people get that same gratification from posting on message boards or writing online reviews. In any case, I'm very grateful that people still send me letters. The ritual of going to my p.o. box has been such a constant part of my life over the years that I'd be sad to see it go.

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SPURGEON: I think your dialog work in Shortcomings fairly crackles. Have you ever made a point of studying film, stage or comics dialog?

TOMINE: Thanks, that means a lot to me. If by studying you mean like formally, at school or something, then no. But as a fan of books and movies, then, yes, quite a bit. I've always gravitated towards authors or filmmakers who put a real emphasis on dialog. Those are the kinds of things that I keep going back to, and discovering new things about. You hear it said of certain artists that they have a "natural gift" or an "ear" for dialog, and I wonder if that's true... like, does this stuff just come easily and naturally to them, or do they just work harder on it? Because in my case, I know that all the dialog is really thought out and revised and even kind of "performed" out loud. I sweat over it.

SPURGEON: How do you approach writing a comic in terms of working in dialog? Is it something you write in advance? Is it something for which you have a rough idea when you decide on visual elements?

TOMINE: I'm sure it varies depending on the project. Shortcomings is the most dialog-heavy thing I've ever done... the whole story pretty much depends on what the characters say (or don't say), so that was given top priority in the writing of it. That was one of the luxuries I enjoyed about doing a longer story: I didn't always feel the need to strip every conversation down to the most bare-bones, concise version, and my hope is that will give a little more veracity to the story. So the process involved a lot of back and forth between roughing out little thumbnails of the visuals, and then going back to my notebook or computer and refining the dialog, and then trying to make it all fit together.

SPURGEON: How much writing and rewriting are you allowed given the fact that you have a visual element with which to contend?

TOMINE: Even though I just referred to the greater freedom I had with this story, I was still somewhat constricted by the fact that the story was comprised of three chapters, each 32 pages in length. So I'd occasionally have to use a little brute force here and there to make something work, but I also trusted myself to make last minute changes, sometimes even as I was putting the lettering down in ink.

SPURGEON: Are you as dedicated as you seem to the serial comics format? Because you can argue that Optic Nerve is sort of the last of its kind -- the last successful, regularly published showcase comic minus a spine. Do you think you reach a different audience for having your work available in that way? Do you ever see a time when you might not have a comic book?

TOMINE: In general, I have a hard time with change... even when it's largely positive, like the way the comics industry has been evolving in the last few years. I'm thrilled to see big "graphic novel" sections in bookstores now, but at the same time, I still like comic books, and I like buying them at comic stores. I don't know if this process of serializing and collecting stories will always remain viable, but I'd like to try to stick it out as long as possible.

imageI know a lot of the changes that we're talking about here are dictated by economics, and especially by what the large bookstores deign to place on their shelves, but I really wish we were in a situation where the content of the comic could dictate its form more. It seems like right now, everything has to be published in book form, and I think that really changes how a work is received. Apparently it's not much of a price difference between printing books hardcover or soft-cover now, so now everything is a beautifully produced hardcover with a belly-band and a dust-jacket or whatever. And I know that for an artist, that's a virtually impossible-to-pass-up opportunity. Who wouldn't want their work to be so beautifully presented? That said, there've been some good comics recently that I think have actually been hindered a bit by their fancy presentation. Maybe that's just my own weird perception, but it played into how I wanted my previous book Scrapbook to be published. I thought the work inside was perfectly suited to a soft-cover production. I'm not trying to be falsely modest here... I honestly thought that if it came out as a deluxe hardcover coffee-table book, the content just wouldn't hold up.

I'm not sure of the numbers, but it almost seems like D&Q is publishing my pamphlets as a courtesy to me, kind of like the way some record labels will still put out a very limited pressing of a band's album on vinyl just to appease them. There was some talk of even just saving the third chapter of Shortcomings for the book collection, but it was important to me to stick with the serialization, and I felt like I owed it to the faithful readers who had bought the first two chapters. And then when Optic Nerve #11 was published, I got all this angry feedback about how the time between issues, especially with a continued story, was just unforgivable! I actually got a letter from a guy who informed me that he was removing Optic Nerve from his "saver list" at the comic store because of my lazy work ethic. I thought there were some people who still enjoyed serialized publication, even if it meant a wait between installments, but maybe I'm wrong.

SPURGEON: Do you do any work on your comics when they move from serial form into trade form?

TOMINE: There is some slight editing and re-touching that's done, but I try to force myself to not let it get out of hand. I know myself well enough to know that it's kind of a slippery slope from making a correction here and there to becoming such an insane perfectionist that the thing never gets published. But there actually is a lot of work involved in that process from comic to book form that is largely invisible. I do all the production and design on my books, so I end up wasting time on things that pretty much no one will ever notice or care about, like "What color should the head-band be?" And just for the record, that's a reference to a part of the book's binding, not my wardrobe selection.

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SPURGEON: Do you read comics?

TOMINE:I still go to the comic store on a regular basis. I'm as big of a comics fan as I ever was, but it's a rare Wednesday that I end up buying more than one or two things.

SPURGEON: Are they any cartoonists you read now that you weren't reading five years ago?

TOMINE: Sure. Vanessa Davis, Jonathan Bennett, and Dan Zettwoch spring to mind. They're all relatively new artists (at least to me), and I'm really impressed by the work they've done already. I'm actually really impressed by the amount of new talent that's springing up in general, and the diversity of it. It really does seem like the improved status of comics in our society is attracting a wider range of talent than ever before.

SPURGEON: I ask this because you were so precocious in your development that cartoonists of interest that are around your age have kind of appeared behind you in a sense, after you'd been publishing a while.

TOMINE: Maybe, but I'm actually quite envious of the people who are just starting out now. It's a great time to be a new cartoonist, much better than even a few years ago. And not to impugn any of my books specifically, but I do think my "publishing career" began prematurely, and some of that stuff might've been better off relegated to the "practice run" file.

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SPURGEON: Now that you've done high-profile illustration work for a while, is there a development curve in that field? It's such a commercial endeavor that I've always wondered how much room you're given to improve and develop or even shift styles; is there anything you think is different about the work you're doing in that area now than what you were doing five years ago?

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TOMINE: One change that's happened in the last five years is that I've been lucky enough to develop a few really strong, comfortable working relationships, like with The New Yorker. So a lot of the confusion and worry and head-butting that can happen when you start working for someone new has kind of evaporated for the most part. I'm also fortunate enough that I can be a little more selective in terms of which commercial assignments I take on, so (at least for the time being), there's a much smaller chance that you'll see some illustration by me where you can just tell I was gritting my teeth to get that damn paycheck.

As far as shifting styles, it's much harder to pull this off in the illustration world than it is in the comics world, unfortunately. The first comics project I started working on after Shortcomings felt like a blank slate for me, and I took the opportunity to try some different things. Now, I'd be more apprehensive about trying that when the clock is ticking and I've got an assignment due for a client that's expecting a certain something from me.

imageSPURGEON: Has there been any effect on your art since moving to New York, either in terms of the proximity to certain opportunities or a different energy or feeling that might inform your work?

TOMINE: It's kind of hard to say, because I feel like I've gone through a lot of personal changes in conjunction with moving to New York. But on a very specific level, it really helped that I had moved to New York by the time I had to draw the part of Shortcomings that takes place here. When I plotted the story out years ago, I was living in Berkeley with no foreseeable changes on the horizon. So I figured I'd have to take a little research trip to NY to gather reference, and maybe even rely on some of my friends who lived there for help. And then, just in time, I ended up moving here! I'm sure that my work will be informed and affected by wherever I live to some degree, but the truth is that I stay home a lot, and when I'm sitting in my studio, I really could be anywhere.

In terms of illustration work, I can't say definitively, but I have this sneaking suspicion that the very thing that I'd been afraid of when I lived in California is true: it helps to be in New York. I don't even know why this would be the case in the era of email and FedEx, and maybe I'm wrong, but it does kind of seem that way.

SPURGEON: You expressed some trepidation when you first started Optic Nerve #9 about doing a 100-page story, and even kidded after completing the first third about it being just like one of your short stories, but slowed down. What is your perspective on the length and ambition of the work now that it's completed? Was that a comfortable length, do you feel you achieved what you wanted by doing a piece that long? For that matter, is it something you want to continue or something where we might see you go further?

TOMINE: I'll be honest: doing this story wasn't easy for me. I think maybe I should've refined or streamlined my drawing style a little bit for something of this length, because by the time I got to the third chapter, and I was trying to draw Brooklyn architecture in two-point perspective, I kind of wanted to blow my brains out. But now that's it's done and I have a printed version of the book here in front of me, I'm glad I did it. Doing a single book-length story has been a goal of mine for many years, so I feel really relieved that I've at least done one, regardless of what people make of it. I'm sure I'll embark on another long story eventually, but there's a lot of things I've learned from this book that will certainly inform how I approach the next one. It sounds kind of silly, but there's a tiny bit of existential terror in committing to a long comics story. I deeply admire the artists who have finished long stories, or are currently embroiled in them, but it does scare me to think of being halfway through some multi-year project and just running out of steam.

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SPURGEON: I don't want to talk too much about any autobiographical factors in your work, and you've been fairly straightforward in the past that you've drawn on elements in your own life. Now that you're building a body of work, can you describe what kind of element you're drawn to that might turn into a story? Is it a character type, a situation, a relationship, an offhand comment... is there any continuity between works of that nature, or does your life inform your work from a variety of perspectives?

TOMINE: When I was first starting out, I took my inspiration from my very immediate surroundings, with not a lot in the way of processing. The most extreme case would be like, "I had to change a flat tire today and I hurt my back. I'll do a story about that!" Even when my work started to get a little more fictionalized, I was still drawing heavily on my own very recent personal experiences. And now I realize what a luxury that was. Especially after Shortcomings, I feel really self-conscious about what I choose for subject matter due to the fact that each new thing is basically viewed in relation to the things that came prior. One of my goals now is to trust my imagination and creativity a little more, and not always feel so dependent on first-hand experience for inspiration.

SPURGEON: Do you feel that sometimes people overemphasize your characters as mouthpieces for what you yourself believe to be true?

TOMINE: Definitely, especially with regards to this story. I've sensed that some readers have had a negative reaction to aspects of Shortcomings because they're assuming that the characters' views are my views. I have a lot of letters that angrily take me to task for things that these fictional characters said. I guess it's partially my fault for making the main character kind of look like me, but even still, I definitely misjudged how some readers would approach this story.

SPURGEON: Are you ever tempted to sound off in that way through your work?

TOMINE: It could be argued that, in a way, I do sound off through my work, but I don't think it's as simple as using characters as direct mouth-pieces for my opinions.

imageSPURGEON: I was struck re-reading the comics what a major and likable presence Alice is, almost to the point that she seems a co-lead at times in terms of what I took away from the story. Did you intend for her relationship with Ben to become kind of a through-line with which the contentious nature of his other relationships are compared? In other words, I'm kind of interested why you anchored the book with that friendship rather than making Ben a loner.

TOMINE: I'm glad you say that, because I agree that Alice is almost as much of a main character as Ben. She certainly seems to evolve more over the course of the book, and she's the one who ends up with a more conventionally happy ending. She was important to me because I wanted to show that there was at least one person in the world that Ben could get along with and be kind of likable around. I don't know if anyone would've stuck with the story if I made Ben a total loner! And on a practical level, it was necessary to have at least one relationship in which Ben could express his true feelings a little bit and just be honest, especially in a story with no thought balloons and no narration. I guess I've just known a lot real life Alices, so it was fun to try to get that character down on paper.

SPURGEON: I know that you do your own design work; is that a driving passion or just something you prefer to do? Do you have design influences? How did you settle on the snowball look, the hidden and obscured faces of Optic Nerve #9-11?

TOMINE:I've always been interested in design, and I feel like it's an integrated part of the cartooning process, not just some ancillary duty that I agree to take on. One of the things that I love about Drawn & Quarterly is that they are on the same page about this, and they really let me do whatever I want. I think if I had to hand over the design step of the process to the publisher, I wouldn't even want to do the book at all... it would just be too disheartening.

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SPURGEON: Can you reflect on the experience of editing the Yoshihiro Tatsumi books with D&Q? I'm specifically interested if working that closely with that material has had any effect on the way you look at your own work, and if there was anything memorable about having him visit the United States last year.

TOMINE: The Tatsumi books have been one of the most fascinating and rewarding projects I've been involved with, and the fact that they even exist (aside from my involvement) is like the fulfillment of a long-held dream for me. As a fan of Tatsumi's work, and as someone who can't read Japanese, I've been wanting to read these stories since I was a teenager.

imageI'm not a good judge of whether or not working on the books has affected my own comics directly, but I do know that the process of editing them has forced me to think about the language of comics in a more objective and analytical way than ever before. At least for me personally, it's the kind of engagement that's nearly impossible to have with my own work, and it's very enlightening.

And when Tatsumi came to America last year, I think that was easily the greatest time I've ever had at the San Diego convention. Okay, maybe that's not saying much, but it was one of the highlights of my life, to be honest. It was pretty amazing to see the crowds of people lining up to meet him. I got the impression that it was a bit overwhelming for him, but also very gratifying to finally meet so many enthusiastic, genuine fans of his work. And on a more personal level, I just loved hanging out with him. I kept thinking that he was just like all my other cartoonists friends: very kind, polite, opinionated, and maybe a little bit uncomfortable being anywhere other than at the drawing board.

SPURGEON: After Shortcomings sees its release, what can we expect from you next?

TOMINE: The project I jumped into right after finishing Shortcomings was my contribution to the next Kramers Ergot, and that was the perfect thing for me. It's a self-contained short story, it's full color, and each page is huge. It's exactly what I wanted to do after working on Shortcomings for five years. It's a weird little story called "My Porno Doppelganger."

The next big chunk of my time is going to be taken up by the least creative aspect of being a cartoonist: promotion. I'll be spending a good portion of the Fall out on the road, doing signings and talks in conjunction with the release of Shortcomings. And then after that, I suppose it's back to Optic Nerve, which will almost certainly be something different than it was before.

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* cover to Shortcomings
* photo of Tomine by Peter Stanglmayr, provided by Drawn and Quarterly
* full page from Shortcomings (Optic Nerve #9)
* panel from Shortcomings (Optic Nerve #11)
* panel from Shortcomings (Optic Nerve #9)
* panel from Shortcomings (Optic Nerve #10)
* panel from Shortcomings (Optic Nerve #10)
* panel from Shortcomings (Optic Nerve #10)
* portrait of Batman provided by the artist
* art from New Yorker featuring In the Mood for Love
* art from New Yorker featuring Sean Penn
* image from Yoshihiro Tatsumi
* image from Yoshihiro Tatsumi
* (below) self-portrait, provided by Drawn and Quarterly
* (bottom) art from New Yorker featuring a bar scene in Chinatown

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Shortcomings, collecting Optic Nerve #s 9-11, Drawn and Quarterly, hardcover, 1897299168 (ISBN10), 104 pages, September 2007, $19.95.

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