Adrian Tomine, the artist behind several New Yorker covers, will publish a book later this year titled “Killing and Dying.” It is the newest collection of his comic-book series “Optic Nerve,” which Tomine began self-publishing at the age of sixteen. I spoke with him recently about how the series has evolved over the years, the new respectability of graphic novels, and the connection between making comics and drawing covers.
Can you talk a bit about “Killing and Dying”?
“Killing and Dying” is the name of one of the stories in the next issue of “Optic Nerve,” about a family—there’s an illness that has to be dealt with, and there’s also a burgeoning interest in standup comedy that has to be dealt with. A lot of the story is about certain questions one faces as a parent: how to handle hardships, and how much to encourage and support the whims of your children. In a way, it was an attempt to confront some of my fears as a husband and as a father.
You started “Optic Nerve” as a teen-ager, and now you’re married with two children. Can you discuss some of the ways your comics have evolved over time?
It’s absolutely chilling to think that I’ve been working on a comic-book series called “Optic Nerve” since I was sixteen. I mean, I was embarrassed by that title by the time I was seventeen! I’m usually just thinking about my work on a day-to-day basis, focussing on immediate problems that need to be solved—how to draw a certain panel, or which colors to use in a cover image. And now, somehow, all those days have added up to almost twenty-five years.
I’m not the best person to analyze any kind of evolution in my work, but I do feel like it’s been an ongoing struggle to basically teach myself how to tell the kinds of stories that interest me in comics form. I’m still frustrated and confused about it, but maybe in a different way than when I first started out.
While a lot of your earlier short stories involved younger characters, often with themes of sexual or romantic conflict, your recent stories feature a range of characters, perspectives, and drawing styles. What are you now looking for in the stories you want to draw and tell, compared to then?
When I first started drawing the earliest incarnation of “Optic Nerve,” I hadn’t even been on a date; I hadn’t had a romantic relationship of any kind yet, so in a way I was almost writing science fiction. It was my pathetic version of trying to imagine what the future might be like! Now I’m forty years old and I’m married with two kids, and I live on the opposite side of the country, so I probably can’t help but bring a different perspective to the work.
In the beginning, I was writing almost exclusively about myself and my own experiences. And then that mutated a little bit into writing slightly fictionalized versions of my own life and experiences. When I started this book, one of the guidelines I put down for myself in a sketchbook was to not write about me—to invent and pick settings and characters who were not like me at all. Of course, now that I’m wrapping the book up I can see all kinds of autobiographical content throughout it. But I think the idea of finding common ground with characters who seem completely alien was a good challenge for me, both as an artist and as a person.
“Optic Nerve” is published as a pamphlet comic book. What’s your personal relationship with this particular format? Do you feel that it’s suited to the medium and to your work?
I’ve always liked the tradition of publishing work serially in the comic-book “pamphlet” format and then collecting that work in book form, so I’ve just stuck with it. It’s helpful for me to have a series of small deadlines rather than one monumental one, and it’s been very useful to hear feedback on my work as it progresses. I also just have a personal attachment to the comic-book format and some of the editorial and design components that come with it.
And, maybe most significantly, I am self-doubting enough that I’ve always liked the idea that people tend to approach comic books with kind of low expectations. At least, that’s how it felt when I first started publishing my work. Now, graphic novels are very respectable and held to much higher standards, and that’s a little terrifying.
Both your New Yorker covers and comics give us well-observed glimpses of people’s lives—even though, obviously, a comic shows a series of images with text, whereas a cover stands alone. Do you feel like there’s overlap between these two forms?
I do. Most of my comics are pretty evenly divided between words and pictures, and, if anything, I’ve put an emphasis on the writing over the years, letting the words do the heavy-lifting with the storytelling. So, to spend several weeks working on a single image for a cover—and thinking about how to communicate only visually—has been very instructive to me as a cartoonist.
Do you feel you’re heading in a particular direction with your comics?
I think two of the biggest influences on this book have been the birth of my daughters and the simple fact that I’m working in relation to all the stories I’ve done previously. Both factors pushed me in a direction that I hope is more empathic, less narcissistic, and less constricted by the traditional rules of comic-making. I think I’ve also just become more conscientious about what it is I want to do with the limited work time available to me. Not only do I have fewer hours in the day to work—and this may sound grim—but I’m also starting to feel like I have fewer days left in my life to work on this kind of stuff. So I’m trying to make each story count a little more.