A revolving cast of modern-day archetypes—the lonely geek, the misunderstood teen, the shallow hipster—tackle relationship issues ranging from drunken high-school hook-ups to racial-sexual politics in writer/artist Adrian Tomine’s searing slice-of-life series.
If hip indie flicks like Lost in Translation and Garden State share space on your shelf with character-driven comic book soaps like Astonishing X-Men, then Optic Nerve should be a sight for sore eyes.
Tomine’s got the chops to make him a highly sought-after artist outside of comics—he’s done illustrations for The New Yorker, ad campaigns for Perry Ellis and rock posters for Weezer (see below)!
As any Spider-fan will tell you, Peter Parker’s battle scars courtesy of the Lizard and Venom pale in comparison to the emotional damage of seeing his lady love Mary Jane walk out the door—or worse, watching his beloved Gwen Stacy fall to her untimely death. Emotional problems are just a heck of a lot more relatable to a reader than running out of web fluid.
That fact might make writer and artist Adrian Tomine the Stan Lee of psychological drama. His one-man anthology title Optic Nerve, which has been published by Drawn & Quarterly since 1994, eschews spandexed heroics for the more intimate (and more dangerous) showdowns between jilted lovers and warring friends. Battle lines are drawn in the bedroom, not in the streets. And with issue #11 on the way in April, followed by a new hardcover collection called Shortcomings hitting shelves in September, now’s the time to open your eyes to Optic Nerve’s war within.
“It’s the quality of the execution,” says Nerve fan Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, “Lost”) of the series’ appeal. “With his words and images, Tomine can make a seemingly mundane conversation between two teenagers infinitely more compelling than my most outrageous action sequence.”
Superstar scribe Brian Michael Bendis agrees, calling Tomine’s work “truly inspiring” in a 2004 Secret Stash special report in 2004. “I think he really is one of the most original voices in not only comics but in modern commercial art.”
That original voice often offers stunning insights into the behavior of the reader, and perhaps even Tomine himself.
“My writing is usually a conflation of personal experiences, observations and invention, so I’m sure some elements of my own personality enter into the equation,” Tomine says. “But I don’t consciously sit down and think, ‘How can I express my own feelings through some made-up characters?’ I think some writers can do that successfully, but my process is a lot more intuitive and elusive, even to myself.”
Tomine began drawing as early as age four. While still in high school, was inspired by such observational indie classics as Love & Rockets and Eightball to begin self-publishing Optic Nerve and marketing its pithy vignettes to a small readership. In 1994, Drawn & Quarterly took over distribution duties, leaving Tomine to focus exclusively on the content.
In any given issue, Tomine will explore everything from road rage to the distance in intimacy. His characters are often misunderstood, introspective and dissatisfied. In “Alter Ego,” main character Martin shuns his girlfriend for a mysterious woman who sends him a postcard; in “Summer Blonde,” introvert Neil is jealous of neighbor Carlo’s prowess with women; in “Smoke,” a young woman decides to nullify her scorned-lover letter by setting fire to the mailbox in which it resides.
A trademark of Tomine’s work is ending stories on an ambiguous note: Phone calls are unreturned, sentiments are unanswered and his characters are left to ponder their own fate. “It’s not like I have these perfect, tidy Hollywood endings written for my stories, and then I perversely chop them off just for stylistic purposes. Often a story will just form in my head, and sometimes I’ll have an idea for an ending that seems appropriate, and I trust that instinct.”
While his earlier tales sometimes numbered only two pages in length, issues #9-#10 have featured a serialized story, “Shortcomings,” about Asian American Ben Tanaka’s stress over a distant girlfriend and subsequent guilt over his attraction to white women. The final chapter of the three-part saga wraps up in April’s issue #11; Ben makes the not-so-wise decision to track down his estranged mate in New York. According to Tomine, the unflinching story demanded an unprecedented format.
“The reason I broke away from my typical format of self-contained short stories was the desire to challenge myself a bit, and to throw myself into a situation that seemed a little daunting,” Tomine says. “In total, this story took me five years to create. It’s a manageable goal to finish a 32-page comic, and then another one, and then another one, rather than just sitting down and working for 96 pages straight.”
The pace is classic Tomine. Years have passed in between issues of Nerve, which only serves to make each installment all the more desirable among his fans. And while some of those fans are slavishly devoted, others find fault in what they describe as overly simplistic, “angst-y” stereotypes. Tomine often publishes their incendiary letters in the book.
“Any letter that departs from discussing the work and starts focusing on me personally is pretty strange,” he says. “But generally, I appreciate the effort that it takes to write an actual letter in this day and age, and I can’t help but feel somewhat gratified by any kind of strong response, even the brutal ones.”
Aside from his commercial work for publications like The New Yorker and advertising agencies, Tomine isn’t about to pull a Frank Miller and head to Hollywood anytime soon. “[Movies and novels] sound intriguing, but I’m satisfied with making comics. I’m always happiest when I’m working on my own comic book, so I’m looking forward to getting back to that soon.”
For readers who haven’t been able to grab each issue, or find themselves catatonic over the inevitable long wait for #12, four compilations are available: 32 Stories (collecting Tomine’s self-published work), Summer Blonde (issues #5-8), the September-shipping Shortcomings (#9-11) which D&Q calls their “biggest release ever,” and Vaughan’s personal favorite, Sleepwalk (#1-4).
“Sleepwalk is pretty damn brilliant,” Vaughan says, “and has been stolen by every girl who ever dumped me.”
Take note, comics fans: Keep your Shortcomings in a safe place.
THE LAST WORD The bombastic icons of the industry are all well and good, but it’s talent like Tomine’s that cements comics as an indelible part of the pop culture landscape. With its razor-sharp insight into the human condition and its myriad failings, Optic Nerve is a melancholy masterpiece.
Adrian Tomine in Wizard