Adrian Tomine’s comic book, Optic Nerve, has been running for just shy of two decades. The California-born cartoonist began publishing it through Drawn & Quarterly in 1994, when he was just 20 years old. The beloved series, now on its recently published thirteenth issue, has spawned several acclaimed books collections of its stories, including Sleepwalk and Other Stories and Summer Blonde. His last graphic novel, 2007’s Shortcomings, compiled a three-issue storyline from the comics that dealt bluntly with issues of sexual and racial insecurity without compromising the mix of cutting humor, intricate illustration, and emotional gut punching that’s come to characterize his work.
Now living in Brooklyn with his wife and young child, Tomine is two-thirds into a new Optic Nerve arc that’s seen him experimenting with format, style, and character voice. Newspaper funnies page comic strips share space with short stories rendered in lush, full color, next to page-long autobiographical sketches of dark and funny self-deprecation. This weekend, Tomine appears alongside dozens of noted authors at the Brooklyn Book Festival to promote his excellent new material. We talked to Tomine about the effect fatherhood’s had on his work, the stylistic shifts of his latest issues, and the persistence of physical objects in an increasingly digital world.
What neighborhood in Brooklyn do you live in?
I live in Park Slope.
Have you lived there since you moved to New York?
No, we’ve moved around to different parts of Brooklyn. We lived in Fort Greene for a while, too.
How have you liked Park Slope?
It’s good. We have a four-year old kid, so we’re kind of the target audience for the neighborhood.
How has having a kid effected your work routine?
Hugely. I work from home, so I’m just kind of always working around what’s going on with my kid. When she was a baby, I could really only get work done when she was sleeping, or if my wife took her out of the house for a little while. Now she’s older and she’s going to preschool, so I can have my days to get back to work again.
Do you think it effects the work itself, or mainly just the work routine?
I’m sure it affects the work itself in a variety of ways, too. For many years I was very comfortable doing the kind of work that I wanted, at the pace that I liked. Being able to support myself, basically. Now I’ve got more people to be responsible for, so that affects things to a degree. But also, most people will describe the impact on them as people once they have children, in terms of how you relate to the world and how you view your own parents. Hopefully, if someone has a good experience with parenthood, it can make them a more empathic person, which I think is very useful to artists or writers.
I think with some comics, it’s really easy to assume that characters are speaking in a voice that’s very similar to their creator. With your recent stuff, except for the brief autobiographical strips, that’s not the sense I’ve gotten. I was wondering how you go about building a character?
Gosh, I have no idea. I think if what you’re saying is true for some readers, that’s a good complement for me. That not every character just seems like a thinly-veiled stand-in for my own personality. To a degree they are. In the way that I work, where I’m doing all the writing and all the drawing myself, it is a trick to get other opinions, other thoughts, other voices in to the work. That’s the thing, especially with the last few issues of my comic, that I’ve been striving for. To not make it seem so much like the navel-gazing of one man. (laughs)
In Optic Nerve 13, the lead character’s dirtbaggy boyfriend guy, for example. I didn’t assume that was too much of yourself? Unless maybe there’s some dark current that you are exploring?
It’s sort of a long-standing line of inquiry, people kind of wanting me to describe how autobiographical each story is, or if I actually said that, or if I did that, or if those are my words, or whatever. I think part of the goal for me, especially with these last couple issues of the comic is to hopefully move away from that. I know I sort of set myself up for that with some of the earlier, more autobiographical stories that I did, and by some of the elements of the book Shortcomings, where it seemed as if it was autobiographical or that the character was more closely connected to me than he was. So, I understand that. I’m hoping that now people will start to be less interested in me as the person who created the stories, and more interested in the stories themselves.
Issues 12 and 13 of Optic Nerve seemed to bring a real switch in format, a different way that they look and are set up. I was wondering if...especially with issue 12...if shifting the style to a more traditionally cartoony look was part of trying to get a bit more distance in the way that people perceive it?
Yeah. To me Optic Nerve #12 is like the first real work of cartooning that I did after finishing Shortcomings. I had a couple other books come out in the interim that were either collections of illustration work, or reprints of other stuff. But to me, when I started working on issue 12 of Optic Nerve it was sort of a new starting point. I wanted to do something that could be criticized in a variety of ways, but not for being a repetition of the work that I’d done prior. I had a sense that people might not like this, or it might not be funny, or it might not be good, but it won’t be the same. That was kind of comforting to me as I slogged along on it.
How do you think about balancing a single issue with different stories, and what effect the combination of those different pieces will have?
It is something that I think about, and it gets a little more complicated with each issue. I’m working on issue 14 now, which will be the third in this series that I’m doing. When you start a new story you’re sort of considering what else might be in that issue, but you are also considering what else might be in the previous issue or the next issue, because these stories will all eventually be collected in one book. When I started issue 13, I thought, “Well I don’t want to do something in the format of a newspaper comic strip, because I just did that in the previous issue, so I’ll just rule that out right now.” When this book comes out collecting these stories there’s not going to be one kind of coherent overriding theme to the whole thing, but there will be sort of a rule that I placed on myself that each story will be set up or told or drawn or colored in a different way from the others. I am trying to avoid that repetition from story to story.
Can you give us any insight into the process that goes into a New Yorker cover? Are those pieces always solicited by them, or do you ever just bring them things that you think might work?
It’s both. There have been times when I’ve been given a specific theme to consider, and there’ve been times when I’ve just had an idea out of the blue that might work for them. Or some combination thereof.
Do you give a certain significance to folks like yourself, Chris Ware and Dan Clowes all occasionally giving covers to the New Yorker? Does that lend a certain amount of status or respect for underground comics, do you think?
Well, unfortunately, I don’t think me, Dan, or Chris would consider ourselves underground anymore.
Sure, but that was your start, at least.
The New Yorker is interesting because it has this position as being kind of a well-respected literary magazine. I think there’s a tendency to think of that as at odds with cartooning, which is considered more low-brow art form or something, but the truth is the New Yorker has had a very long history with cartoonists, and cartoons since its inception. I think that there might be some people who’ve been reading my work or Dan’s work or Chris’ work or, you know, Robert Crumb’s work from the very beginning, so they see some sort of arc from the point of where we first started getting published to being on the New Yorker cover. But everybody who’s in the New Yorker had some sort of humble beginning. I don’t think that there’s anything particularly unusual about it.
There seems to be a real tension in music or comics or whatever, between people who are still really enamored with physicality and people who are fully embracing “the cloud,” like we’re all sort of pushed to. Or who are actually now sort of turning against the real world. I’ve seen people who are really against paper now, and they love their e-books so much. There’s strong opinions all around.
Your strong opinion, I take it, is still strongly slanted towards the physical?
Yeah, but I’ve gone past the point of trying to will the world into the place that I want it to be. From my own personal reading and viewing and listening, I don’t feel impeded. I can buy all the books that I want. All my favorite cartoonists are still working on paper. I can buy records very cheaply if I want to. You kind of have to be realistic about things. If I’m just kind of looking out for what my own tastes and interests are, I think things are fine. In terms of society in general? Things are changing rapidly and there’s nothing that can be done about it, really. So there’s no point in complaining about it too much.
Do you take comfort in something like the Brooklyn Book Festival where everybody is sort of geared towards celebrating real things?
Yeah, I do. I have been a guest at other literary festivals, or comic conventions or things like that, but it’s interesting to me that the name of this has the word “book” embedded in it, so that it’s not about any one kind of content. It’s not about literature or children’s books or comics, or anything specific. It’s about the format, and it’s a format that’s very dear to me. It’s an event that I sort of look forward to every year, not necessarily because of my own professional involvement in it, but just as a person who really loves books. I don’t know, there’s some sort of life-affirming experience to seeing that many people of all different backgrounds and ages choosing to spend their weekend afternoon looking at books.