For someone who reportedly hates being labelled an “Asian hipster Woody Allen,” cult graphic novelist Adrian Tomine sure fits the bill. Hanging out at his hotel room before his highly anticipated International Festival of Authors appearance (Tomine visited the festival three years ago, sandwiched between two political novelists), all the signposts of a serious New York artist are present—the thick-framed glasses, the sweetly meditative work about a self-obsessed youth in a distressed, long distance relationship, the jibes about West Coast culture. Tomine is a recent California expat, and his move from Berkeley to Brooklyn (spurred by a marriage to a longtime New Yorker) is the undercurrent to his first long-form graphic novel, Shortcomings, in which thirtysomething Bay-area resident Ben Tanaka must confront his friends’ and lovers’ “total hard-on for New York.”
“It’s on my mind a lot,” admits Tomine. “Especially as I was mulling over the decision to move. I kept going back and forth on these trips where I’d visit New York in the summer and think, ‘Oh my god, the weather here is awful and I can’t stand the humidity,’ and then travel back to Berkeley and complain, ‘Oh, there’s only three restaurants that I like to go to here.’”
“It’s an observation I’ve made from living in the Bay Area for so long. There’s always been this idealization of New York there, it seems to be the place where most people from the Bay Area go on vacation or want to move to, but then again, New York has always been the most mythologized American city. It’s made up for people like me, who’ve spent their childhoods seeing movies and reading books about it and have this fantasy version of the big city.”
Tomine began his particular brand of sharply outlined, intimately personal novella-like renditions of tortured relationships (both real and idealized) when he was 16, mailing copies of Optic Nerve to Montreal’s prestigious Drawn and Quarterly Press (publishers of Julie Doucet, Chris Ware, and Seth). The press ignored his letters for years before printing a small run that eventually grew to an exclusive contract with the artist. His mini-comics offered glimpses into the lives of protagonists you didn’t want to admit you (desperately) related to. Take Hilary Chan in Optic Nerve’s “Holidays in the Sun”—a pessimistic Delia’s mail-order operator who begins placing hateful phone calls to strangers as a kind of vicious entertainment. As a critic from Time revealed, “I worry about Hilary Chan in a way that I don’t worry about other fictional characters.” Said a fan in the next issue, “Poor Hillary…what a sad little bitch she is.” Now Tomine is illustrating full-page covers for The New Yorker.
Tomine’s portrayal of compromised humanity continues in Shortcomings. Ben Tanaka pursues his harbored fetish for white women once his Japanese girlfriend leaves for a New York internship. (Asks one woman: “Don’t you think is this just a sublimated form of assimilation?”) For Tomine, labelled a “Twinkie” by his Asian dorm-mates at Berkeley, he’s just speaking honestly on obvious racial issues that others would rather sweep under the rug—including an unfair stereotype about Asian penis size.
“For as long as I can remember, my work has always had a strangely polarized response… People either seem to say, ‘I fucking hate this! It’s garbage!’ or ‘It’s so great! I really loved it!’— and I’m always freaked out by either response. After ten years of this, it was really good preparation for how this book would be received…
“I first published this story in a serialized form in Optic Nerve, so I’ve received a responsein- progress—which isn’t always a good way to finish a work. There’s been a whole range of responses, really. Especially with Asian- American readers, people have come up to me at signings and said really negative things. No one is having an idiotic response; they think my take on stereotypes is at least…interesting. But instead of saying, ‘you’re a racist, Adrian!’ or even, ‘You’re an idiot!’ they’re asking, ‘Why did you even bring that up? Isn’t it better just to push it aside and not even address that?’”
Tomine spent four years creating Shortcomings, from illustrating Flatbush Avenue in twopoint perspective to sketching out the pages in stick figure form to making sure it would fit the page count. During this time, Adrian’s life changed immensely—including a move to New York, a marriage, and adjusting from his introverted “vampire” hours to his wife’s nineto- five work schedule, so he can’t help that the novel encompasses his own shortcomings, as much as those of his fictional character.
“Especially in the world of alternative comics, every step of the way is made by the same hand, and that is perfectly suited to the world of very personal storytelling. I mean, sure, other people have managed to convey very personal stories in other media, but to me it seems that the more hands that touch something, it can’t help but be compromised or diluted. The way someone experiences a comic is very personal, more so than sitting in an audience with a hundred people watching a screen…
“There are enough autobiographies strewn throughout my work. No matter what I do, people seem to read it as a straightforward autobiographical story of my life. A lot of people have approached Shortcomings that way—that I’m Ben Tanaka and that’s it. But it’s my own thoughts and personality that are spread out within all the characters, even the more minor ones.
“I certainly don’t abide by the saying that these characters started to write themselves and took on a life of their own…There was really specific ground of who Ben had to be, how he had to move within the story. But the Alice character was definitely inspired by friends of mine, especially the relationship she has with Ben. I’ve always had female friends that are much more outgoing, much more open, and often had better luck with girls than I have. It’s definitely a dynamic that I’m familiar with.”