The Annie Hall of Asian-American Graphic Novels


Every chapter of Adrian Tomine’s new graphic novel Shortcomings—a collection of issues nine to 11 of his astounding comic seriesOptic Nerve—begins with 30-year-old Asian-American protagonist Ben Tanaka observing what he perceives to be pretentious art. He scoffs at the sentimental award-winning film of the “Asian-American Digi-Fest,” feigns interest in an absurd performance-art band, and stares with bewilderment and disgust at an exploitive photo exhibit. But does Ben obsess over the flaws of others to avoid dealing with his own?

Besides his chronic negativity and cynicism, at the core of Ben’s troubles is his disintegrating relationship with his girlfriend, Miko—an intelligent, attractive, patient woman whose only crime is her growing involvement in the Asian-American film community. “Why does everything have to be some big ‘statement’ about race?” Ben asks. “Don’t any of these people just want to make a movie that’sgood?” But race is a predominant theme in Shortcomings—particularly the way Ben fetishizes white girls. After finding Ben’s porno stash, Miko says, “It’s like you’re obsessed with the typical Western media beauty ideal, but you’re settling for me.”

Shortcomings follows Ben from California to New York City as he attempts to sort out his love life, and in many ways, the story and its characters bring to mind Woody Allen’s masterpieceAnnie Hall—with the cities reversed. It’s easy to picture Diane Keaton and Allen when Miko accuses Ben of being “pathologically afraid of change.” And Ben is full of witty one-liners, such as, “Well, in this case, my superficiality could’ve overpowered my snobbery.”

Like Allen in his prime, Tomine is a master storyteller with a keen understanding of life’s bittersweet contradictions, and his meticulous drawing style further evokes the confusion and loneliness that his characters experience as they navigate the murky waters between adolescent fantasy and the less glamorous reality of adulthood. When they’re not speaking, their facial expressions scream their true longings—making it easier to view their shortcomings as mere symptoms of being human.