Part of the pleasure of not buying into digital modes of reading remains the physical experience. It’s about holding a book in one’s hands, turning the pages and hearing the hiss of the spine as it opens and shuts. Killing and Dying succeeds as work of such sensual satisfaction. The hardcover edition is wrapped in a layer of clear plastic, a flourish of design that gives the book a sleek, 21st century feel. The pages inside are thick, making each one seem like a unique work of art. It comes as a relief that Adrian Tomine’s short stories live up to their presentation. Broken into six chapters, their subjects vary but their quality does not.
“A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture,’” is a darkly comic tale of failed ambition. Harold is a pudgy gardener who dreams of becoming an artist. He invents a “vital new art form” that consists of giant clay tubes filled with plants. With encouragement from his wife, Harold deems art his life’s calling. He tries to sell his work but nobody’s buying. His wife touches his shoulder and says, “I think your work is beautiful,” but Harold doesn’t agree. Five years later, his creative outlet is more like a curse. He picks arguments, loses money and binges at 7-Eleven. “No one cares about art anymore,” he thinks, shoving chips into his mouth. An artist is supposed to “ignore and outlast criticism” but at the same time, Harold knows that his duties as a husband and father have been compromised. “Hortisculpture” is a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man, navigating the fraught line between dream and reality.
The wonderfully-titled “Amber Sweet” opens on a panel of clouds. “This isn’t the easiest thing for me to talk about,” the text reads, “but I just need to get it out there.” Already, Tomine has us hooked, proving that his talents aren’t merely visual. He’s a writer as much as he’s an illustrator. Told in the first-person, “Amber Sweet” follows a nice college girl who gets mistaken for a porn star. Her social life dissolves and she’s forced to drop out of school, escaping a past that isn’t her own.
“Go Owls” follows the joys and sorrows of a quietly abusive relationship. A man meets a woman at an AA meeting and they get coffee. He leans against the booth, extemporizing about his life like a man who’s seen it all. Tomine cuts to a panel of the couple lying in bed. It’s drawn from a bird’s-eye view and his positioning of their bodies replaces any need for exposition. The man is lying on his back with one arm over his paunchy stomach. The woman is on her stomach. She faces the pillow, processing a decision which she may or may not regret. The man is mostly a good guy, selling weed to suburban moms and trying to stay off the government’s radar and the woman goes along with him because she doesn’t have an alternative. The story ends on an ambiguous note and Tomine doesn’t tell us where the woman might be headed. After all, she’s not looking at us. She’s walking away.
In “Translated, from the Japanese” a mother address her son and neither character is seen. Tomine relies on the cold, practical scenery of the airport and the Los Angeles skyline to tell the story of a woman’s tenuous connection to her young son. Indeed, he has a gift for imbuing simple objects with emotion. That’s probably why he’s become one of The New Yorker’s go-to cover artists of the last decade.
The title story, “Killing and Dying,” is about a teenage girl drawn to stand-up comedy. While her mother supports her and tells her she can “do anything,” her father does not. Visual clues (hair loss, a cane) allow us to infer that the girl’s mother is dying of cancer, and with that in mind, her father’s disapproval transforms. It’s a symptom of stress. The girl’s routines are abysmal but for some reason, she doesn’t give up. Tomine’s title is a play on words; comedians are “killing it” when they’re successful, but no attempt at humor can overcome the death of a loved one. In the end, the resolution is subtle. Tomine raises the graphic novel into uncharted levels of emotional maturity.
Tomine is an artist who draws inspiration from the ordinary. He sets his stories in strip malls, middle-class homes and dive bars. His characters are dreamers stunted by obligations, addictions and illnesses. They are trying hard to be good but it isn’t easy, and Tomine observes their day-to-day lives with empathy and insight.
What’s most striking about Killing and Dying is its originality. We’re familiar with comic books and literary fiction but the graphic novel remains a nascent genre and our perception of what subject matter suits the form continues to grow. We’ve seen the Holocaust (Maus), sexuality (Fun Home) and the Islamic revolution (Persepolis), but Tomine touches something new. He tackles marriage, love, work and death, and he does it with an eye for detail and an ear for dialogue, down to the perfectly-timed sigh. Unlike Harold, the inventor of “Hortisculpture” who squandered his life on unwanted art, Tomine’s talent is on full display, and Drawn & Quarterly has given it the publication it deserves.