A.O Scott (NYTBR) calls Killing and Dying "... one of the saddest and most perfect things I’ve ever read.'

“Adrian Tomine’s ‘Killing and Dying’” / New York Times Book Review / A.O Scott / December 3, 2015

“Graphic novel” is a perfectly serviceable phrase, but it expresses an unmistakable and unfortunate bias, emphasizing the literary identity of a given book at the expense of its visual essence. Pictures are more than prose carried out by other means. And there is some category confusion when it comes to a book like Adrian Tomine’s “Killing and Dying.” “Graphic short story” doesn’t sound quite right, but how else to describe the half-dozen vignettes in this collection, each one bristling with acute observations and piquant ironies? These tales — pocket epics of romantic, creative and social frustration set in recognizably drab, drably picturesque American landscapes — certainly invite comparison to the work of words-only short-form masters like Raymond ­Carver, Ann Beattie and Mary Gaitskill, and for that matter O. Henry himself. You can almost forget you’re looking at drawings.

Which is of course testimony to the skill of the draftsman. Tomine’s lines are so clean and precise, his compositions so natural-looking, that it’s easy to treat his images as transparent vessels of meaning, the cellophane wrapper enfolding the tart, bright candy of the plot. But even his smallest, plainest panels are heavy with subtext, thick with unstated emotion and full of the kind of information that can never quite be conveyed in language.

You may have noticed this effect — a characteristically Tominean blend of clarity and mystery — in his New Yorker covers, which can resemble movies masquerading as casual snapshots. “Bored of Tourism,” from 2007, showing a young woman on a double-decker tourist bus refusing to be distracted from her J.D. ­Salinger book as everyone else gawks at Radio City Music Hall, is a tour de force of youthful disaffection and literary commitment. The same might be said for “Recognition,” a cover from earlier this year that showed a man and his young daughter happening on a discarded copy of the father’s book in front of a Brooklyn stoop. The child’s glee and the father’s mortification are painfully and comically at odds. The autumnal colors and falling leaves hint at a darker, deeper significance, an intimation of mortality amid the brownstones.

Death would seem to be a more overt concern in a collection called “Killing and Dying,” but in fact it creeps in around the edges, casting a sometimes barely perceptible shadow. The title story looks conventionally comic-strip-like: four rectangular frames to a row (with an occasional double-wide panel); five rows to a page; neutral tones and a mundane setting. A teenage girl with a stutter dreams of performing stand-up comedy, and her parents offer up differing responses. Mom is supportive. Dad is skeptical. And then, about 12 pages in, around the midpoint of the story, there is a white space, a single blank panel near the left-hand margin, at the edge of what’s known in the trade as the gutter. It took me a second to realize what that whiteness signified, and to understand that a completely different narrative, entirely unacknowledged by the characters, had been unfolding in front of my eyes. Under the dialogue balloons and the daughter’s feeble jokes was a ­chronicle of illness, grief and denial. It’s one of the saddest and most perfect things I’ve ever read.

The father in “Killing and Dying” is not such a bad guy, but his grouchy sarcasm has a way of undermining his better, gentler instincts. The awfulness of men — rendered more in rue than in rage — is the thread that binds these six pieces together. Male inadequacy is not a new subject for Tomine. It bubbles up in the otherwise lighthearted, autobiographical “Scenes From an Impending Marriage.” It sits at the anxious, lacerated heart of his earlier graphic novel “Shortcomings,” a breakup story set among young intellectually and artistically inclined Asian-Americans in the Bay Area. In that case the protagonist, Ben Tanaka, did not try to be a selfish jerk, but he succeeded all the same, and ­Tomine’s scrutiny of his dealings with women was both unsparing and sympathetic.

The guys in this new collection have shortcomings of their own, both individual and collective. But “Killing and Dying” also shows a new kind of ambition for ­Tomine, a willingness to experiment with both narrative and pictorial form. The title story is striking because of how subtly it encodes its under-story in familiar-­looking pictures of people interacting. “Translated, From the Japanese,” a wrenching and elusive tale of family disintegration, shows none of its characters’ faces, emphasizing their detachment from one another, and their longing, by showing us glimpses of what they might see: a broken light fixture; an airport baggage claim; a city at night.

“Amber Sweet” concerns a young woman, in college and after, whose resemblance to an Internet-famous porn star wreaks havoc on her dating life. Because they can’t see her without picturing Amber Sweet, men can’t recognize the narrator for who she is. And the reader, male or female, is implicated in this confusion, since for most of the story we neither know the character’s name nor see her doppelgänger’s face.

“Amber Sweet” is told in bright colors and wide frames, and though it is built around a kernel of loneliness it is also comparatively gentle, even whimsical. The other stories, witty though they are in structure and visual execution, take a harder, sadder look at the failure of men to recognize or understand the women in their lives. In the first one, Harold, a temperamental landscaper with a family to support, burns up time and money developing a pointless new art form he calls “Hortisculpture,” which is as ugly as it sounds. His delusions dominate the story, but what it’s really about is his marriage to a woman he depends on and takes for granted. Her face is the one you ­remember.

The same is true of the young woman in “Go Owls,” who meets an older man at an A.A. meeting and falls into a sometimes abusive, sometimes sustaining relationship with him. He talks almost the whole time — he’s endlessly self-dramatizing and manipulative, full of schemes and opinions and desperate apologies — and almost convinces you that he’s the one who deserves your attention. Until the very last page, in which he finally shuts up (not by choice) and you find yourself, once again, in a state of uncomfortable revelation. What you were looking at and what you thought you saw were two very different things.

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