Austin American Statesman reviews SCRAPBOOK!

“Love gets graphic ; Vintage and modern romance comics are two-dimensional, but deep” / Austin American Statesman / Jeff Salamon / June 13, 2004

Twenty-five years ago, the British band Gang of Four signaled its break from rock tradition by getting impatient with silly love songs. "(M)ost groups make most of their songs about falling in love or how happy they are to be in love," read the liner notes to the band's agit-punk debut, "Entertainment!" "You occasionally wonder why these groups do think about it all the time . . ."

It's a different story in the world of comic books, where ambitious writers avoid the ubiquity of superheroes by writing about . . . yes, love.

Or, more often, the absence of love; most alternative cartoonists are no more willing than three-chord Marxists to gurgle on about how giddy they are.

In his comic book "Optic Nerve," Adrian Tomine has specialized in this absence, drawing chalk outlines around self-pitying, lovelorn bodies. These bodies can be found in familiar places: hugging a pillow, hunched over a cigarette, sitting by a phone that refuses to ring.

If that sounds like a series of static poses, it is; not much happens in these stories. People start off in one place and then spend their time confirming that's where they belong.

Tomine's protagonists express their passivity by expressing as little as possible. Their faces have a slack blankness that will remind plenty of readers of Dan Clowes' drawings in books like "Ghost World." Most of the time, it's other people -- jocks, party animals, make-out kings -- who get to look happy or angry. Tomine's sad sack antiheroes are so disengaged they often don't communicate in word balloons, preferring instead to speak in the captions above the panel. That's a device that usually expresses omniscience, but here it implies distance, as if these characters, for all their self- absorption, live apart not only from the people around them, but from themselves as well.

Tomine's latest collection, "Scrapbook: Uncollected Work, 1990- 2004" (Drawn & Quarterly Publications), is what it says it is: a gathering of odds and ends done over the past 15 years (basically, Tomine's entire life as a cartoonist). There are 60 pages of spot illustrations done for venues like The New Yorker and record covers for bands like the Eels, all of it handsome and spare and retro- modernist in a Wallpaper magazine kind of way. There's also a sketchbook full of posed nudes, still lifes and people on the street.

But the heart of the book is the first section, a grouping of comics that stand outside the "Optic Nerve" canon -- false starts, rough drafts and stories done for other publications. And like "32 Stories," his 1995 collection of early strips, it tracks Tomine's stunning growth as a cartoonist.

Between 1991 and 1994 Tomine's work improved at a remarkable pace; his line grew surer and cleaner; his stories more complex and less dependent on gags and genre conventions. The secondhand noir, undigested realism and "and then I woke up!" endings of early, one- note strips like "Sleepwalk," "Night Sounds" and "A Rock 'n' Roll Dream" soon gave way to longer, more nuanced narratives.

It's one of the ironies of Tomine's work that he's capable of a mastery that his slacker characters shrink from; as he has grown, they've stayed the same. In fact, Tomine turned 30 last month; he is, by any measure, a successful professional -- precisely the sort of person who gets short shrift in his work. That distance may sound like a recipe for condescension or counterfeit self-pity, but Tomine never veers in that direction. Because the workings of mercy are central to his art, his observations have grown at once sharper and more humane.

Retro romance

Vintage romance comics took on hipster credentials in the early '60s, when Roy Lichtenstein isolated single panels and blew them up to the size of paintings. The most familiar image, found in such Pop- Art classics as "Girl," "Drowning Girl" and "Kiss V," is of a young woman, jilted or lost in desire and usually tear-stained.

But as "Romance Without Tears: '50s Love Comics -- With a Twist!" (Fantagraphics Books) demonstrates, helpless, lovelorn women were not all the genre had to offer. The stories collected here, published between 1949 and 1954 in anthology titles like "Teen-Age Temptation," "Teen-Age Romances" and "Pictorial Romances," were the work of one writer, a little-known man with the improbable name of Dana Dutch.

Where the reportedly tough-talking Dutch came up with the idea of proto-feminist romance comics is a bit of a mystery. But though the scenarios, filled with varsity lettermen, seedy gigolos and wholesome sailors on leave, are sort of hokey, Dutch's women are clearly modern types -- levelheaded gals clued in to the fact that American society is about to offer them more options than housewife, slattern or old maid.

Critical theorists often bend over backward to provide feminist readings of even the sappiest romance comics, asserting that, like those screaming teenyboppers at Beatles concerts, they gave voice to a repressed female sexuality. But Dutch's heroines were the real thing.

Love in tights

It's not widely known that the inventors of romance comics were Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, better known for their work in the superhero mold (they created Captain America). Andi Watson's "Love Fights, Vol. 1" (Oni Press) takes place in an alternate dimension where the two genres are one. This collection of the first six issues of "Love Fights" focuses on Jack and Nora, a young couple who meet cute and go through the usual break up to make up. But context is everything; in this world, caped crusaders fly through the air and make men like Jack feel utterly inadequate. This interweaving of the prosaic and the heroic has popped up in other comics recently -- Kurt Busiek's "Astro City" and Brian Bendis' "Powers" come to mind - - but "Love Fights" is different because it's a romance book that's been invaded by superheroes rather than a superhero book done up in lipstick.

The generic heroes who slug it out in the background -- the Flamer, Hocus Pocus, the Gene Team -- may spend their time defeating creatures from other universes, but Watson is more interested in how they deal with, say, a paternity suit or an infidelity.

"Love Fights" is winningly good-natured, as breezy as Tomine's work is mordant. In Watson's world, at least, all's fair in love and intergalactic war.

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