Illustrator Adrian Tomine's Latest Book Straddles Line Between Humor and 'Bumming People Out'

Adrian Tomine and his latest book, Killing and Dying.
Adrian Tomine and his latest book, Killing and Dying.

In 2009, Adrian Tomine had had it with graphic novels. His previous book, Shortcomings, was an extended graphic novel that made both the New York Times and Publishers Weekly "Best Of 2007" lists, but the scope of the project had taken its toll.

“It took me a long time to do it, and there were certain points where I felt kind of locked into the style I'd set up for it,” says Tomine, a Brooklyn-based cartoonist and illustrator. “That I had to draw it in this very detailed, precise way, and I had to maintain that for one-hundred-something pages. At times it started to feel more like a chore than a pleasure.”

He followed up Shortcomings with six graphic short stories published in his comic, Optic Nerve, which he has put out off and on since 1991.

“I wanted to have the freedom to approach each story in a different way in terms of writing or drawing, or even the materials that I used in to create the pages,” he says.

His new book, Killing and Dying, collects those stories and puts those stylistic variations to good use. The first story, "A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture’,” is the story of a landscaper who wants to be taken seriously as an artist, but his ambition collides with the limits of his own talent. It’s a subject that could be deeply depressing — the first strip ends with the character imagining a noose — but Tomine handles it with a light touch.

“I was starting to get the sense that the best way to tell this guy's story was not to be really grim and highbrow but for it to be a series of jokes.” Reprints of old comic strips suggested the format: four-panel “daily” strips, with longer Sundays. The can’t-win protagonist recalls the trials of Charlie Brown, and Tomine indicates the passage of time with subtle changes in character design, a la Gasoline Alley.

Leavening darker moments with humor — and underpinning sillier moments with sadness — is a hallmark of Tomine’s work. “If you spend your life trying to draw comics, one of the first things that you learn is that it's really easy to get kind of cheap laughs,” he says. “People are naturally predisposed to laugh at a comic strip, so if a kid draws a comic strip where a character falls down, the gut reaction is just to laugh at it. Then as I got older, and was doing more of the kind of stories that I'm doing now, I discovered that it's also really easy to bum people out.”

“I started to feel like either one of those easy routes was not a fully successful use of what the comics medium can do, and it wasn't really the kind of stuff that I like to read,” says Tomine. “So a lot of this book was intuitively trying to figure out some balance between the dark and the light.”

Much of that balance lies in how the drawing style plays off against the content. “Go Owls,” for example, tracks a dysfunctional relationship that starts at an AA meeting, yet despite the relationship’s trajectory, the story has a somewhat winsome air. “It would be a very different kind of story if I drew it realistically, but I drew it in sort of a simplified, cartoony style,” says Tomine. “Same thing with any of the stories. There's a balance between the artwork and the writing and the coloring that I hope will be more complex than just funny or sad.”

The title story, “Killing and Dying,” treads similar ground to “Hortisculpture,” — a would-be artist’s reach exceeding her grasp (in this case, a stammering teen trying her hand at stand-up). The plot foregrounds the young comedian, but as it progresses, we see her mother’s health deteriorate in the background — all in a tight, unforgiving grid of 20 panels to a page.

Tomine’s linework gets a larger showcase in “Translated, from the Japanese,” a moving letter from a mother to her child. Tomine first attempted to tell the story conventionally, but it didn’t take. “When I started drawing the actual characters, and stripping away the more nebulous quality that I had in my brain, I felt like I was messing up the story,” says Tomine. Instead, none of the main characters are pictured. The letter’s text flows over detailed, subjective shots of a flight from Japan to California, images that play out like memories of a long-ago trip: the back of an airplane seat, the outside of a Denny’s.

The story became an opportunity for Tomine to imbue his comics with the level of illustrative detail that he’s able to give his covers for The New Yorker, drawing the pages at nearly three times the size they’d see print. “The panels are bigger, and a lot more complicated; the coloring's more realistic. It was just sort of another experiment for myself.”

Tomine took a different approach for the collection’s final story, “Intruders,” about a lonely soldier breaking in to his old home; Tomine mimics the look of the soldier’s notepad by drawing at a much smaller size. With less reduction, the resulting line is chunkier, drawing the reader into the story with the intimacy of a partner in crime.

Another story, “Amber Sweet,” is almost like looking at “Intruders” through a funhouse mirror. The solider in “Intruders” is unseen and where he’s not supposed to be; the lead in Amber Sweet is always seen where she isn’t, and explicitly so — she keeps getting mistaken for an Internet porn star who shares her features. There’s nothing textually to link any of these stories, but they all seem to whisper to each other between Killing and Dying’s covers.

It’s a notion that pleases Tomine, who initially considered making the stories interlink, before abandoning the idea. “I had the suspicion that if I was writing intuitively and basically remained the same person, that inevitably there would be echoes and similarities that would connect.” 

Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine is available from Drawn & Quarterly. Tomine will appear with Charles McGrath for a discussion at 92nd St. Y on Oct. 22 at 8:15pm. Tickets are $22, $15 for audience members 35 and under. Click for more information.

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