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SHORTCOMINGS reviewed by The McGill Daily

Updated February 21, 2008

The end of something
Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel Shortcomings offers a quirky, stylized portrait of a relationship in disrepair
By Simon Lewsen
The McGill Daily
Thursday, February 21st, 2008

Ben Tanaka is the ultimate killjoy. He ruins heartfelt goodbyes. He laughs out loud in movie theaters during sappy moments. He interrupts casual conversations at parties with angry, irrelevant tirades. He’s not emotional enough when emotion is warranted and too emotional when it isn’t. It’s no wonder that his girlfriend Miko has doubts about their future together.

Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel Shortcomings chronicles the final days of Ben and Miko’s relationship. The characters undergo the worst kind of break up – that is, the prolonged, awkward, reluctant kind. Miko is confused. She is conciliatory at times and despondent at others. Ben responds to her pessimism with characteristic anger, but he is impervious to her attempts at reconciliation. Were Ben a more sensitive, accomodating character he might be able to save the relationship. He doesn’t.

The story follows a narrative trajectory that anybody familiar with Tennessee Williams will recognize. It begins badly and gets progressively worse. The final chapter is quietly devastating.

But for all of its bleakness, Shortcomings is a remarkably pleasing read. It is similar, in this sense, to Noah Baumbach’s 2005 film The Squid and the Whale. Baumbach provides a swift, brutal depiction of a family in the process of falling apart. Scenes of harsh realism are punctuated, however, with quirky one-liners, comically awkward conversations, and beautiful super-8 montages of the brownstone houses in Brooklyn. The film’s charm successfully outweighs, or at least dilutes, its sadness.

The same can be said for Shortcomings. Tomine works well with day-to-day banter. He has a sharp ear for dialogue and a penchant for humour. His drawings are compelling and precise. To call him a realist, however, would be to undermine the subtle magic of his work. Tomine’s subjects are far from being caricatures, but they are depicted with a slightly overstated, cartoonist’s touch.

Tomine aims to capitalize on the strengths of the graphic novel form, while also adhering to its limitations. “I think a lot of cartoonists are trying hard to replicate the feeling of sensory overload one gets at the movies” he says. “It is more useful to focus on the qualities that are inherent to the comic book medium.”

Tomine contends that, while movies immerse the viewer in a fictional world, graphic novels offer a more restrained, participatory form of storytelling.

Comics operate on a strange time scheme. Individual frames appear as frozen snapshots, but they are not. Narrative time actually passes within the space of a single image: one character speaks, and then another responds. It is testament to Tomine’s brilliance that, when reading his book, one finds oneself envisioning the characters’ movements with a remarkable degree of specificity and assurance.

Filling in the pictorial gaps is part of what makes Shortcomings fun. However, grappling with the work’s thematic omissions can be a bit more frustrating. For instance, the book takes a notably distanced stance on racial issues.

Tomine, who is a fourth-generation Japanese-American, has faced pressure from journalists to comment on race in his work. “For a long time, critics have wanted me to get on a soapbox and say things that we can all agree on” says Tomine. “I wanted a story that would satisfy that desire to a certain degree, but also frustrate it.”

When dealing with race, Shortcomings is more faltering than declamatory. Issues are broached, only to be sidestepped with cute one-liners or overshadowed by more immediate narrative concerns. Tomine isn’t concerned with grandiose analytical statements; rather, he’s interested in the messy, convoluted role that race plays in his character’s daily interactions.

In one particularly memorable scene, Miko discovers Ben’s hidden porn stash. She is upset because “all of the girls are white.” Ben defends himself, with characteristic insensitivity, by appealing to the facts: “That’s not true. Look…there’s a, uh, Latina girl in this one.” The conversation that follows is so patently childish that it would be absurd to read it as social criticism. The real issue at hand is Ben and Miko, and their seemingly endless ability to talk on without ever reaching resolutions.

In fact, resolutions are persistently absent in Shortcomings. The book’s first two chapters are set in The Bay Area, while the third and final act takes place in New York. I won’t reveal exactly what happens there, but I will say that the book ends with the image of Ben on a lonely return flight across the continent. He stares apprehensively out of the window as the airport control tower recedes into the distance. The scene calls to mind a similar East-West sojourn at the opening of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. In the novel, Hollywood producer Monroe Stahr travels across the southwestern desert towards Los Angeles, and experiences a similar combination of insecurity and expectancy. One never finds out precisely what happens to Stahr since Fitzgerald died before completing the novel. Shortcomings is similarly incomplete; however, unlike Fitzgerald, Tomine’s omission is deliberate.

“I was consciously avoiding a typical resolution,” says Tomine. “We don’t know what will happen to Ben beyond this, we just know that this chapter in Ben’s life is over. We know that life will go on, but we’re not quite sure how.” This is, undoubtably, a fitting ending.
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