SPOTLIGHT SERIES: Adrian Tomine

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Like most things I liked when I was 16, I first got into Adrian Tomine’s comics because of my older sister, who let me borrow her early issues of Optic Nerve. The series began as a set of self-published mini-comics, Xeroxed and distributed by Tomine when as a teenager in Sacramento. By the late 90s, though he had left his own adolescence behind, his protagonists generally hadn’t. They are introverted, creative, awkward souls, and unsurprisingly, the world they inhabit felt closer to the one I lived in than Dawson’s Creek did.

Fast-forward a decade, and Tomine’s illustrations regularly appear on New Yorker covers; in the world of graphic novels, he’s a household name. He published two books in 2011: an illustrated collection of the trials and tribulations leading up to his marriage, and the long-awaited Optic Nerve #12. In between the two, I had the opportunity to pick his brain on fatherhood, his aversion to e-books, and the evolution of comics over the past decade.

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Rumpus: So much has changed in comics since you started publishing. If a teenager these days feels alienated and needs something to relate to, do they even walk into comic book shops anymore, or are they doing something on the Internet that I don’t even about?

Adrian Tomine: I guess I’m afraid it’s more the latter than the former. Look, there’s no denying that comics have moved dramatically into the mainstream in North American culture in the last 10 years, and for someone like me who’s always tried to make a living at it, it’s been great, I’m very grateful for it. But at the same time, it’s not a subculture-y thing anymore; it’s something that’s in the New York Times and the New Yorker. And with this sort of increased visibility, there’s more money going around in the industry, and it changes a lot, in terms of who gets into the business as a creator, who sticks with it, and who gets pushed out. And I do think it’s sort of too bad that what once was a safe haven for truly eccentric, outsider artists is no longer that thing. But there are definitely pros and cons. You could also look at it as bringing in a more diverse crowd.

Rumpus: Ten years ago, it was always part of the conversation that graphic novels didn’t get any respect as an art medium. And that’s changed with your success, with what Art Spiegleman’s done. Daniel Clowes gets movies made.

Tomine: I’ve certainly benefited from it. Just in terms of being able to be a professional artist, but also it’s nice to not have to dread introductions. “What you do for a living?” It used to be easier just to tell people that I was a magazine illustrator than try to explain that I did comics, but not the kind of comics that they were used to, and no, it’s not pornography, etc. And now people even of our parents’ generation are familiar with the term “graphic novel,” which is kind of amazing.

Rumpus: One thing that feels like it hasn’t changed much is that it still feels like a very male-dominated field.

Tomine: Yeah. I think that’s changing, for sure, but there’s such a long history… I think it’s going to take a while to balance things out. I think in terms of getting new artists who are not in that sort of stereotypical teenage boy demographic; there’s been a lot of progress recently. And I shouldn’t make a definitive statement about this, but my impression is that the main impediment to progress in that regard is the number of people who are choosing to make a go of it. I think, to its credit, this is one of the last forms of popular entertainment that I don’t sense to be discriminatory in any way. I think there’s this general hunger for greater diversity, where publishers are really excited about finding different voices than what has been done.

Rumpus: Growing up in Berkeley, the specificity of Berkeley locations always added an extra fun layer for me since so much of your earlier work took place there.

Tomine: It’s interesting. When I was working on Shortcomings, the process that I was going through in my real life was moving away from the Bay Area and to New York, and it was this drawn-out process of going back and forth. Working on that book, it wasn’t intentional, but I think wound up having kind of an emotional thought process where in some ways I was saying goodbye to the backgrounds of the old places I was drawing, and looking forward to new ones. And now, the book I’m working on now (Optic Nerve #12) is the first thing I’ve done entirely in New York, and totally by surprise, it seems like most stories are taking place in California.

Sometimes it can be sort of emotional for me if I’m trying to envision the setting for a story. I’ll go “I don’t know why, but I feel like this should be in this certain neighborhood in Sacramento that I remember.” And now you can go on Google maps and basically walk through that neighborhood. There’s something satisfying for me in being able to draw the precise kind of crappy architecture that I had in my mind.

Rumpus: You’re a father now. Have you thought about your daughter reading your comics for the first time when she reaches a certain age?

Tomine: Yeah, I don’t like that idea. I’ve thought about many different things with regard to her growing up and most of them are very disturbing and unsettling to me. It’s not like there’s any content in my work that’s controversial, I don’t think she’s going to be disturbed or grossed out or shocked by anything I’ve done. I guess the real fear I have, which will most likely prove to be correct, is that she’ll grow up to be smart and cultured enough that she’ll look at my work and be critical of it. Like, Oh, this is a little repetitive, or, why were you wringing your hands over such juvenile concerns? Get over it!

That’s heartbreaking to envision. It definitely occurs to me, but I don’t have to really face that for some time. There’s an alternate reality I get to live in for a while, where I can do a quick doodle of a cat face with a crayon and she’ll be delighted by it.  But then, a lot of the cartoonist friends I have are older and have children, and I can’t think of a single one whose children have grown up to be rebellious. I think we joke about it – us being who we are – that for our kids to be rebellious they’d have to be, like, football-playing accountants or something.

Rumpus: When you’re working out of the house, especially, you can imagine that she might absorb some of that creativity or at least an appreciation for art just kind of by osmosis.

Tomine: That’s the best you could hope for. I do think it’s getting more and more rare in this country to raise a kid with the attitude that creativity is something valuable. The idea of trying to make the effort to produce something, to put something out into the world, rather than just taking in all the stuff the world’s putting out at you…I think it’s harder for each generation. Even I just feel completely separate from teenagers today who have access to the Internet. And I’m amazed that this interest in video games has never gone away. It just keeps growing.  When I talk to people who have teenagers now, their rooms are filled with screens. There are their phones and their DVD players and TVs and all these things to produce distractions for them, and I think it would be hard to find the time to create something. I think that’s really changing something about adolescence.

There’s also an immediacy to everything that has changed everybody’s expectations. Now if I can’t get a hold of somebody on their cell phone I’m, like, angry with them. And in my mind, all the things that I really value in terms of art, really good novels or films or comics, I know they all take a long, long time to create, and they take a lot of concentration and dedication…and I just feel like the training for that is becoming more and more rare when people are used to seeing things like YouTube clips, and being able to acquire things instantly. I get nervous about the effect that the high speed of everything will have on creativity. It’s already sad for me to see that a lot of young aspiring cartoonists are putting stuff on the web, doing animation on the computer rather than making zines or mini-comics, which seem to be going the way of the dinosaur.

Rumpus: What do you make of the whole world of online comics?

Tomine: Basically, I know there’s no turning back the clock, and it’s sort of pointless to mourn what has passed, but I don’t know if the alternatives now really replicate the learning experience that I had, in terms of what I gained from making mini-comics. There were certain components of it that are completely gone because of being able to just throw stuff up on your blog the minute you’re done with it.

And also, as a consumer now, it’s weird that when I used to go to a book signing I would leave with a stack of pamphlets people had made to show off their work, and now I just leave with business cards where people have the URL to their websites. And I never go home and take out those business cards and go to those websites. But if there was a mini-comic here in my hand, I’d read it while I ate my lunch. I’m also probably one of the few remaining holdouts who hasn’t consented to making the e-book versions of all my work, which is annoying to some of my publishers.

Rumpus: What do you have against e-books? What do you think it changes about how you read a comic?

Tomine: I think a lot of the bells and whistles that become available to you would be impossible to resist for some people, so it’s just never going to be a real stand-in version of your comic. People will have to take advantage of the ability to have sound, or zoom in and out, whatever it is.

One thing that heartens me about New York is I went to the Strand looking for a couple of books recently and it’s shocking, and great, to walk into a bookstore 20 minutes before closing and everybody’s carrying an armload of hardcover books up to the counter and plunking down their money for it. And they still seem to have classic used-bookstore employees, eccentric people who would rather be reading a book but they have to work at the store.

In terms of e-books, though, I haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of it yet, but for some reason everybody I know seems to want to engage me on that topic, or convert me. I think there are a lot of people who just want to hear me embrace e-books or finally say, ‘OK, I bought an iPad and it’s awesome!” There are a lot of people who would get a kick out of it, that’s for sure.

Rumpus: Which freaks you out more, being compared to Raymond Carver [I can’t find any original attribution for this – some people say it was Dave Eggers at first but nothing I can fact-check] or when people call you the voice of a generation?

Tomine: Oh, God. If I had to pick, probably the second one. The first time I did a reading/signing thing at Cody’s, the woman who did the introduction said something like that, and I wasn’t the only one cringing. I remember looking out into the audience and seeing people’s faces and people whispering to each other, and thinking like “Ugh, can we just cancel the whole thing? I can’t go out there after she said that.”

The Carver one doesn’t come up that often anymore, that used to just embarrass me because I was such a fan of his work, and I was so clear-headed about the fact that I wasn’t working in the same ballpark as him. That’s probably even more complicated now since that biography of him that came out. Which, I guess in the author’s head, the point was to paint a true portrait of this guy, but it seems like main effect was to bum out anyone who was a big fan of his.

Turns out a lot of the stuff that I was a big of fan of about his work, he was opposed to or it was the work of his editor. And you know, he was not the best husband, not the best father, and so coming to it as a writer and a father and a husband I kept thinking “There has to be some kind of other aspect of his life that I could aspire to,” and then, oh no, he fucked up there too. So I guess in the future, if someone makes any comparison, I’ll just keep my fingers crossed that they mean it in a complimentary way, with regard to his work, and not his life as a husband and father.

Rumpus: Ideally, they’re not calling you an alcoholic who cheats on his wife constantly.

Tomine: It was especially painful for me to read the stuff about his relationships with his children as I was, you know, bottle-feeding my six-month-old daughter. And then I was just recovering from that and I see there’s a memoir by the son of Andre Dubus, who’s a writer in his own right, and I’m like, OK, I’m not ready for this. But then, the older I get the more I realize, if you found out every single thing about the personal life of most artists you love…well, in my case, most of them are just drunks.

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Since this interview, Tomine has published Optic Nerve #12 to overwhelmingly positive reviews. He promises fans will not have to wait as long for the next issue as they did for this one.

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This piece was edited by Melissa Tan
Spotlight series editor, Paul Madonna

Emma Silvers is a writer living in San Francisco. More from this author →