SHORTCOMINGS and 32 STORIES reviewed by The Houston Chronicle

“Collection of comics shows Adrian Tomine's growth as an artist” / The Houston Chronicle / Andrew Dansby / May 29, 2009

Hand Adrian Tomine a business card and a pen, and he can sketch out a fully realized narrative on the back.

The young artist is as deft as anyone working in comics today at creating efficient but arcing narratives full of zippy dialogue that rings true and simple panels infused with information.

The most recent case in point is the excellent Shortcomings, new in paperback. What could’ve been a simple event (just a breakup, really) ends up being a sullen musing on race, region and inadequacy.

Tomine is also daring enough to create characters like protagonist Ben Takaka, who are more relatable than likable.

Even more intriguing is a new edition of 32 Stories, Tomine’s previously anthologized Optic Nerve mini-comics, which he began inking as a teen. Though they’d been collected in a single book edition, this slip-cased set breaks them back up into seven separately bound volumes complete with price tags and original reader letters.

Tomine’s original introduction from 1995 is included with its fantastic opening sentence: “The book you hold in your hands would not exist had high school been a pleasant experience for me.”

A new short introduction written more recently finds Tomine still a little uneasy about putting this early work out for consumption. Must be like looking at a yearbook photo, right? In a cheeky turn, he’s put his own yearbook photo — awkward smile and all — on the front of the introduction with a story about how another cartoonist put it on the Web against his wishes.

He’s grown less protective about his past now. And as for the minis themselves, they remain a document of a developing artist. Even the earliest and roughest of them (such as “Adrian Tomine’s 10,553rd Dream: Steph the Lure!”) features the mix of wit and bullied awkwardness that would inform his subsequent work.

Some of the obvious touchstones are here: “Back Break: A True Story of Pain” includes a couple of Ralph Steadman-y frames. But Tomine isn’t above calling himself out. In the intro he mocks Optic Nerve No. 7 for its obvious debt to Daniel Clowes, whose moody bluntness remains an influence, albeit one Tomine has absorbed and learned from in developing his own style and voice.

And even that Clowes-heavy No. 7 includes the brutally concise introvert’s nightmare “Stammer,” which crams a lifetime of social awkwardness into just nine drawings, several painful thought bubbles and a short, icy exchange of words.

Andrew Dansby is an entertainment columnist for the Chronicle.

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