With the release of his fifth graphic novel, Killing and Dying, the acclaimed cartoonist continues to offer a nuanced portrait of modern American life.
In the 1990s, Adrian Tomine was the independent-comics scene's brightest young thing, thanks to his one-man anthology Optic Nerve. Two decades later, he's proved that all the acclaim and hype he received at such a young age was warranted. Now considered one of the medium's most respected talents—Wired called him "one of the great graphic novelists of our time"—the Brooklyn-based cartoonist returns this month with his fifth book, Killing and Dying (Drawn & Quarterly). A follow-up to 2008's critically acclaimed graphic novel Shortcomings, the beautifully illustrated book collects six interconnected stories about a delusional horticulturist, a woman who discovers she has a porn-star look-alike, and the father of a wannabe stand-up comic, among others. Dealing with powerful issues like love, family, and death, the collection offers up an achingly nuanced portrait of contemporary American life that's easily among the year's best comics.
Details caught up with Tomine to talk about the book, how marriage and family changed his work, and what's next.
DETAILS: After a sustained story like Shortcomings, what was it like shifting back to short stories?
Adrian Tomine: It was actually a conscious decision after finishing Shortcomings to get back to shorter work and to allow myself the freedom to approach each story in a different way, which is not the experience you get when you are working on a graphic novel for a 100 or more pages.
DETAILS: Optic Nerve, which the stories in Killing and Dying are taken from, has existed for over two decades now. How has the series changed?
Adrian Tomine: The one constant thing about it, aside from the silly title I stuck it with, is that it's been the central focus of my creativity. I might be doing illustration projects on the side now—or when I started, I was in high school, so I had homework—but when it came down to the main thing that I was concentrating my creative energy, that was all encapsulated within Optic Nerve. It started out as a lot of short and rough autobiographical or semiautobiographical strips, basically the kind of thing I do in my sketchbook now. Now it's evolved into something a little more polished and thought-out.
DETAILS: Has being married and having children affected your work?
Adrian Tomine: For obvious reasons, I'm grateful for the way my life has turned out. From a more selfish, artistic point of view, it's been a great way out of what was starting to feel like a dead end, artistically. For so long, I lived a very specific life of being in the Bay Area on my own, going out to shows, and that kind of stuff. At a certain point, not only was I tired of that life, I was tired of writing about it. I think that the huge changes that have come from moving across the country, getting married, and becoming a parent were really a gift to me artistically, guiding me to other types of stories and characters I wouldn't know how to write otherwise.
DETAILS: Even though you live in Brooklyn now, there's a very California feel to the book. Was that a conscious move on your part?
Adrian Tomine: Yeah, I didn't want to make it too explicit and call the book California Stories, but in my mind, that's one of a couple things that connect the stories. They all take place in a fictionalized version of the type of California town that feels like home to me. That's not the beach towns, the big cities, but more these smaller suburban places like Fresno and Sacramento and parts of the East Bay. It's a dreamlike version of these towns where I imagine most of these stories taking place.
DETAILS: Your art feels more playful in Killing and Dying than in previous work. Was that something you were going for?
Adrian Tomine: To some degree, it was just a response to Shortcomings and working in that same rigid style for several years. I feel like when you're making a short story collection—and this is me basically talking about prose as there aren't a lot of comic short-story collections—you can show off your range, where everything is kind of wildly inconsistent by design or everything is exactly the same, like a Ramones album, but they're great in the same way. I felt like what I wanted to do was have it lean more towards the former, but I wanted it to, on a pragmatic level, look appealing and interesting when someone stumbles upon it in a book store.
DETAILS: You regularly contribute covers to The New Yorker now. Has that had any impact on your comic work?
Adrian Tomine: It's supported it to a degree, which is nice. But there are times when I'll have very terrible experiences doing advertising work. That makes me feel grateful that I can retreat to my world of comics, where I have full freedom and a great publisher that lets me do whatever I want. In the case of The New Yorker, where I'm really just working with two or three people that I've known for years, it elevates my work and opens my mind up to possibilities that I wouldn't have come up with on my own.
DETAILS: Whose work inspires you creatively today?
Adrian Tomine: I know, as a fan of music and film, there's often a little bit of a learning curve, an early peak, and a slow decline. I think that, for whatever reason, comics is one of the few mediums that buck that trend. When I was a teenager, I fell in love with the work of Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, and the Hernandez Brothers—all of whom are still producing great work, if not better work. It's also been really inspirational for me in the last five years or so to see this sea change in the culture, in terms of how comics are viewed and, as a result, who gets involved. I'm now 41, and there are teenagers doing work wildly different from anything I ever did and are coming from a whole different set of influences. For someone in my position, you have the choice of either calcifying and saying, "Oh, I just like Robert Crumb and that's it," or opening up to everything that's happening and taking inspiration from it. And that's the path that I've found myself on.
DETAILS: You've never hidden your interest in film. Have you ever thought about branching off into movies?
Adrian Tomine: I do. But without getting too specific, it's not completely in my control. I suppose if I wanted to just do a totally homemade, micro-budget film, I could probably get something like that done. But anything more ambitious than that involves a lot of other people and a lot of other people's money. It's a tough time for the type of movie that appeals to me. It's not like I'm writing a bunch of spec scripts for Marvel Studios. I think in the eighties or nineties, there was a lot of that kind of work showing up in film—with very mixed results, of course—but there was some sort of support for that, where you could have a movie that was about human interaction. I feel like TV is filling the void and becoming a better place for really kind of specific styles and visions from writers and directors.
DETAILS: Now that Killing and Dying is done, what's next?
Adrian Tomine: I would hate something be in print and not come to fruition. [Laughs] I don't think I'll ever be completely done with making comics. It's been the only thing in my life that I've put so much work and care into and trained myself to do. But I am enjoying the position that I'm in right now. For the first time in 20-something years, I don't feel like I have to hit a deadline for the next issue of Optic Nerve, nor am I under any kind of contract with any other publisher to deliver a book yet. I can afford it, and if it's not completely irresponsible, it's sort of appealing for me to relish this moment and do whatever appeals to me, rather than something I feel obligated to do.