“Drawing outside the box” / Star Tribune / Eric M. Hanson / December 21, 2007

Standouts among this year's graphic novels -- starting with Adrian Tomine's "Shortcomings" -- nicely depart from the autobiographical themes that have overtaken the genre.

Writing recently in this year's edition of the "Best American Comics" anthology, cartooning cult god Chris Ware noted that there has been a backlash against the navel-gazing and self-indulgence that, some people say, rule comics today.

"Admittedly," he wrote politely, "a preponderance of autobiographical work has accrued" lately, as a legacy of such indie pioneers as Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar.

In general, I'd agree, but it's not the case when looking at the best of what's published, at least this year.

Leading that pack is Adrian Tomine's "Shortcomings" (Drawn & Quarterly, 108 pages, $19.95), probably the best work of this great writer/artist's career.

With the feel of a particularly good talky dramedy, the book tells the story of a Japanese-American couple in their early 30s whose relationship has hit a post-collegiate milestone: live together and idle, evolve or die on the vine.

Lead character Ben Tanaka is one of the year's great literary creations: negative and perpetually unsatisfied, cynical and not overly ambitious, too soft for real work and too smart to commit to a career, and too real to be wholly unsympathetic.

He's adrift and stiflingly critical of everyone around him, including his lovely girlfriend, Miko, whose tolerance for Ben's b.s. is mysteriously long-lasting and might have reached its limit as she prepares to leave California for an internship in New York City.

Ben has a thing for blond white girls, which Miko discovers when she finds a porn stash in a desk drawer. It's one of many ways Tomine uses the book's spare plot to explore racial and sexual dynamics subtly without breaking narrative stride.

"Look," Ben says. "Let's not make a big deal out of this. If it bothers you, I'll throw [the movies] out. I got them a long time ago, and. ... "

"Well, the thing that kind of bothers me is that all the girls are white," Miko says.

"That's not true," Ben says. "Look ... there's a, uh, Latina girl in this one ..."

Says Miko: "How would you like it if I was obsessed with pictures of big, muscular African-American men?"

"Yeah, right. ... " Ben says. "You reach for your pepper-spray the minute you see a black guy walking towards you on the street!"

Ben's friend, Alice Kim, provides a measure of caustic comedic relief to his soul-numbing ennui. Born in Korea, a lesbian and the daughter of conservative immigrants, Alice brings Ben to a wedding even though his ancestry is Japanese and her family despises Japanese people because of World War II.

"Still," she says, "I'm sure my family would rather see me with a Japanese boy than a Korean girl."

"So rapists and pillagers are preferable to homos," he says dryly.

"Everything is preferable to homos," she says.

Plotwise, not much happens in "Shortcomings," beyond people moving in and out of each other's lives, which in the end is what defines a lot of single people's lives in their 20s and 30s: just so many people come and gone, each day a door opening slowly on change.

"Shortcomings" is Tomine's richest and most rewarding read, packed with the most human characters he has ever created. The art is spare and meticulous, more refined than ever. Some might find it a little too stiff, the compositions of each panel too much the same from one to the next. But I think it's the perfect, uncluttered complement to the fine writing it illustrates.

War and beasts

• Also terrific this year from Canadian comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly is Israeli writer/artist Rutu Modan's "Exit Wounds" (172 pages, $19.95). It's the story of two people drawn together in contemporary Tel Aviv to check into the disappearance of a man who led separate identities as a father, ex-husband and lover.

• This summer, D&Q published Joe Matt's brave and weird book, "Spent" (124 pages, $19.95). It's the story of a porn-addicted chronic masturbator and misanthrope (named Joe Matt) who lives in a rooming house and is so lazy he chooses to pee into empty bottles rather than making the trip down the hall. I can't say I really liked "Spent," but (considering the author is known for doing brutally autobiographical work) I admired its naked honesty.

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