Las Vegas CityLife reviews Summer Blonde

“Blonde ambition: Adrian Tomine fuses literary resonance with sequential art” / Las Vegas City Life / Todd James Pierce / April 15, 2002

Last week, I made my monthly run to the local comic-book shop. I felt a certain masturbatory shame entering, what my wife calls, "the den of expired adolescence." As always, she's right. I found a pair of twentysomething skate punks thumbing old issues of Spider-Man and two skinheads checking out anime on VHS. Except for them, the shop was mine.

I was there specifically to pick up the new Adrian Tomine hardback called Summer Blonde - a collection of four long stories rendered in black-and-white panels so realistic and gritty they capture the feel of noir photography. Three years ago, if you were to tell me there were artists attempting to fuse serious fiction with comic art, I would've said, "Yeah, right, and 'Babylon 5' is a sophisticated retelling of War and Peace." But in fact, there are a handful of young artists doing just this - among others, Chester Brown, Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine. But because their stories are rendered in comic-art form, their books are lumped in with Batman and Archie. This is like lumping Schindler's List in with "Hogan's Heroes" simply because both are about war.

I made my way past the Dungeons & Dragons strategy guides, the Beetlejuice figurines, a rather dusty stack of Pikachu beanie babies. The woman behind the cash register was watching Japanese music videos, but when she saw me she retrieved my book from under the counter. She was vampirishly white, her tangerine hair in a 1970s bob - like Dorothy Hammel meets the Misfits. "This," she said setting Summer Blonde on the counter, "is truly the shit."

"Cool," I said.
Adrian Tomine's new book is his first foray into longer stories - those that exceed 15 or 20 pages. His two previous books, 32 Stories and Sleepwalk & Other Stories, collected shorter pieces that had been previously published in his ongoing comic, Optic Nerve. These earlier stories have often been compared to the work of American author Raymond Carver, because of their sparse details, their attention to character, the way their endings pivot on a subtle mood change or personal revelation. Tomine's stories are achingly intimate - like eavesdropping on strangers - and have the ability to expose a character's most private desires in only a few short pages. In his best stories, the final panel depicts yearning or despair through a gesture or a subtle change in facial expression.

The four stories in Summer Blonde move beyond Raymond Carver's influence. These are longer, more developed stories. In literature, we'd call them novellas. As always Tomine is drawn to the subjects of alienation, damaged love, urban angst. His characters often look to capture a larger, more emotional life that has eluded them so far.

In the first story, "Alter Ego," a twentysomething novelist, Martin Courtney, begins dating a high-school student who reminds him of the main character in his first novel. Like Martin's own characters, he is aware that he has settled for a small life: a girlfriend he doesn't truly love, a first novel he feels is derivative, a job ghostwriting cheap novels for a famous celebrity (read that as Ethan Hawke). He finds in this student the chance to correct the mistakes of his youth, to relive the period of his life that led to his current frustrations.

The middle two stories, "Summer Blonde" and "Hawaiian Getaway," are both tales of romantic yearning. In the first story, Neil falls in love with a girl who works at a greeting-card shop, a girl who later begins to date his neighbor. Unwittingly, Neil stalks her out of a sense of awkwardness and shyness, until the girl begins to hate him. In "Hawaiian Getaway," a lonely phone operator loses her job only to return to her sparse apartment where she makes prank calls to a public payphone just outside her window. Through these chance conversations, filled with sublimated anger, she gradually comes to know one young man who is able to see beyond the veneer of her hostility and to the source of these prank calls which are desperate attempts at love.

The final story, "Bomb Scare," follows a high school student, Scott, through the tangled woods of his parents' divorce while he himself struggles with his own sexual identity. Gradually, he falls in love with his co-worker, Cammie, the school party queen. Cammie is out of Scott's league, and he knows it. They'd never even talk if they didn't work together. But over the course of one semester, Cammie sees a softness in Scott, an honesty missing from the callous jocks she dates from school. In the story's final scene, she undresses for Scott and embraces him while topless, a gesture that is far more tender than any sex scene rendered in the book, a gesture that has the effect of helping Scott to understand who he will become.

A good deal of Summer Blonde's appeal rests in Tomine's ability to craft solid stories. He can lay out dialogue as smooth as any novelist. He knows exactly what to put into a story, how to slowly twist the plot. He also knows what to leave out. More so than his previous efforts, the stories in Summer Blonde are full of clean cuts between scenes - sharp, educated cuts that move the stories swiftly along. The art, too, has progressed beyond the art school edginess of his previous two volumes. The panels here have a new richness to them as though Tomine has stepped back to better account for the fullness of his created world.

Tomine is relatively young for his success (born in 1974) and is a semi-autobiographic chronicler of his generation. At the age of 17, he drew a monthly comic strip for the magazine Pulse! At 20, he was publishing with Drawn & Quarterly, one of the most respected houses for serious comic artists. At 21, he won the Harvey Award for "Best New Talent." His art has been featured in The New Yorker and George.

If you get hooked on his work, check out his first two collections, 32 Stories and Sleepwalk & Other Stories. And if that isn't enough, check out Optic Nerve, a magazine-sized comic that serializes most of Tomine's work before it is republished in book form. Optic Nerve runs about 32 pages and typically includes one novella-length story or many short stories. It sells for about $3 a pop, but you can subscribe to the next four issues for $10. See www.drawnandquarterly.com for subscription details.

If you aren't brave enough to venture into your local comic-book shop to pick up Summer Blonde, you can also find it on Amazon or www.bn.com. Better yet, you can find it at a few sites devoted to serious comic collections, one of the best of which is www.artbomb.net. There you will also find a list of other artists like Tomine, artists who successfully fuse the worlds of serious fiction and comic art. If you have some time on your hands, while at www.artbomb.net, click through not only Tomine's work, but also the work of his real world friends, Daniel Clowes (author of Ghost World) and Jessica Abel (Artbabe). You'll be surprised at what you find

Copyright 2002 Las Vegas City Life

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