D+Q artists in San Diego Tribune

“Treasures lying in wait to be discovered” / Creative Reading / Robert Pincus / July 26, 2009

As Comic-Con has evolved into a juggernaut for the promotion of everything pop culture, it's easy to overlook one of the event's prime pleasures: the chance to learn about lesser-known writers and artists and often meet them, too.

My prime example: Adrian Tomine, who has developed into a gifted creator of sophisticated comics and graphic novels. If you don't know him for Optic Nerve, his series of urbane comics, you may have seen one or more of his illustrations for The New Yorker, Time and many other publications. They have a crisp, linear style thick with atmosphere.

Like Daniel Clowes, who also does covers for The New Yorker as well as his own acclaimed comics and books, Tomine has an understated visual style that combines wit, social commentary, psychological insights and elegant drawing. And like Clowes, he can write, too.

The year I met Tomine, in 2002, he had just come out with “Summer Blonde,” which assembled stories from issues of Optic Nerve into a book with a particularly stylish cover. Its four stories featured typical Tomine protagonists: sensitive malcontents in their 20s and early 30s who struggle to figure out what to do with their lives.

Tomine, born in 1974, concentrates on his own generation, though you never get the feeling that he is trying to make any sort of grandiose statement about people in their 20s and early 30s. He's intrigued by their singularity: a writer who succeeds with his first novel but develops a creative block for his second and becomes obsessed with a girl he adored in high school; a Chinese-American woman who loses her job, loses her bearings in her life and, then, as the story ends, begins a new romance and tries to face up to a death in her family.

He was something of a comics prodigy, too, self-publishing the first seven issues of Optic Nerve before signing on with the now well-established publisher of comics and graphic novels Drawn and Quarterly. These early comics are now reissued in facsimiles of the originals, as “32 Stories: The Complete Optic Nerve Mini-Comics.” And while this is apprentice work, it's awfully good in that respect. Tomine would refine out his drawing style markedly, but early on, he could convey a lot about a face and he offered moments of keen insights about the marginal and the disaffected.

In high school, he counted himself among them. And he contributes a new charming self-deprecating introduction for this “box set” of the original comics, which appeared in book form a few years ago. (They are packaged in a nifty cardboard case.)

“If you're a 'glass half full' kind of person,” Tomine writes, “you might say that these comics are youthful, energetic and even enlightening in terms of the evolution they chart. If you're feeling less charitable, you'd probably describe them as amateurish, scattershot, affected and deeply derivative.”

Both views are true. And seeing them helps someone to understand how far he had traveled. In fact, his best book to date, “Shortcomings,” the story of a sarcastic, sensitive and troubled Ben Tanaka, has recently come out in paperback. Reading “Thirty Two Stories” and “Shortcomings” side by side bookends his evolution.

Tomine isn't appearing at Drawn and Quarterly's booth this year. But notable peers are. Today, from noon to 3 p.m., Jason Lutes will be signing the second book in his evocative saga of 1930s Germany, “Berlin, City of Smoke,” and Bob Sikoryak will be joining him during those hours to promote his new “Masterpiece Comics” book, which blurs the line between classic literary tales and vintage comics. (For example, Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray is recast as a dandyish Little Nemo.) Check out the publisher's blog for updates: drawnandquarterly.com/blog/index.php.

Fantagraphics (fantagraphics.com), another leading graphic novel publisher, has a significant list of writer-artists making appearances today, including Gilbert, Jaime, Mario and Natalia Hernandez (“Love and Rockets #2”) and Monte Schulz (son of Charles M., with his new novel, “This Side of Jordan”).

But leave time to seek out smaller presses like San Diego's Murphy Art Books (murphydesign1.blogspot.com), and you'll find publications that merge the image and the word in myriad other ways. And as was the case with my introduction to Tomine at Comic-Con, you are likely to come across the work of someone you'll want to follow in the years to come.

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