‘That’s … that’s great, honey!” It’s in those ellipses—that gap between sincerity and well-meaning-ness—that Adrian Tomine goes to work. His male characters are often jaded, or abrasively cynical, or faltering in their efforts at enthusiasm, or just aggressively snarky in their face-off against modern life. And so it goes in Killing and Dying, collecting six stories which first appeared in Tomine’s comic series Optic Nerve. His hand-and-eye coordination—minimalist, carefully observant clean-linework; sharp glimpses into (mostly) men’s strained relationships or efforts at a cool, knowing remove from a sell-yourself 21st-century America—remains unerring. (And the brief flare-ups of racial anxiety or oblique racism here say much about some Americans’ liberal pretenses in the Obama era.)
“Hortisculpture”—a middle-aged lawn-care guy obsesses over fusing sculpture and plants—merges the four-panel newspaper strip (and every seventh strip here’s the full-colour Sunday comic) with the melancholy, middle-age angst of some adult graphic novels (see, for instance, Daniel Clowes’ Wilson). The effect’s a wry poignancy, even an amusing pathetic-ness, as wannabe-visionary Harold frets, inwardly rages or lashes out (even driving his wife to, Peanuts-like, cry “Waah!”). The title piece sees a grumbling father, soon widowed, try to better deal with his stuttering teen daughter as her sole parent … only she’s slipping from his protectiveness. The Raymond Carver-like story “Owls” finds the sputtering pulse in the life of a deadbeat.
Tender tone-poem, “Translated, from the Japanese” unfolds in the stilted English of a Japanese mother’s letter to her Japanese-American child, the letter’s lines snippeted out among distanced glimpses of airplane, airport and various objects in LA places. This removed, melancholy tone’s amplified in “Amber Sweet”—a young woman’s haunted by her online doppelganger, a porn star—which doesn’t quite succeed because it’s too short, with the narrating main character left as a cipher. But the collection ends on the right note of mystery—”Intruders” is the ghostly story (with nesting-doll-layers of intrusion) of one man trying to feel incognito again.
The cover of Killing and Dying features a roadside Denny’s, nothing seemingly special yet an important meeting-place, in its small way, in two stories here. Sure enough, Tomine’s tales slip beneath mundane surfaces to reveal a life’s thoughtful sadness and peculiar struggle.