Simply put, Adrian Tomine is one of the best artists working in comics today. His “Optic Nerve” series, first published in 1991 and still running, has evolved radically over time, from the deeply felt but angry rants of a teenager — Tomine was only 17 when his first stories appeared — to the calm, meticulously crafted mature work collected in “Killing and Dying,” which will be published by Drawn & Quarterly on October 6.
Once known for his detailed realism, Tomine works on a larger canvas in “Killing & Dying.” The premise of “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as Hortisculpture,” the first piece in the book, borders on the absurd, while “Go Owls” and the title story are tightly woven, inventive narratives, with beginnings, middles, and ends, that seem to inhabit worlds of their own. Then there is “Translated, from the Japanese,” a moving meditation on death and memory conveyed through a few terse images and minimal words.
ARTINFO spoke with Tomine about the creative process behind his work, how having children has changed his stories, and his reluctance to give up on the comic-book pamphlet form.
In your stories, do you typically map out the narrative first, or do you begin with an image or a line of dialogue?
I intentionally approached each story in “Killing and Dying” in a different way, and that includes the writing process. So “Translated, from the Japanese” began with the narration, and the images came later. And “Go Owls” was definitely built around several ideas for scenes that I’d envisioned. But in a broader sense, almost all my pieces begin with a long process of just thinking about the story and turning it over and over in my mind. That’s really where the hardest work takes place, and until the story is finished, it’s just like this low-grade obsession that I mull over whenever I have a spare minute. Especially with these shorter pieces, I feel like most of the writing is done before I actually put pen to paper.
How do you decide what gets put in an issue of Optic Nerve? Do a lot of ideas get left behind?
The book was the end goal for me while I worked on the last three issues of Optic Nerve, so I was always conscious that each of those stories would be read in the context of the others. Even if I had some burst of inspiration and wanted to do something very different, either formally or tonally, I knew it would have to wait until “Killing and Dying” was completed.
A lot of the stories in “Killing and Dying” involve family dynamics. Have getting older and having your own family influenced your work? Was there a conscious change?
Absolutely. I think having kids has been the biggest influence on my work since I started publishing. But I don’t know if there was a conscious change, or one that I strategized. It’s more like, when I sat down to write these stories, I was suddenly coming from a very different perspective and mindset than even a few years prior. The only conscious aspect to all this is that I’ve tried to be aware of some of the artistic pitfalls that can come from being a parent. It’s only natural that you turn into a mess of sentimentality, but I’m really trying to absorb as much as I can from this new phase in my life without totally contradicting the work I did before.
I would love to hear your thoughts on “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as Hortisculpture,” which feels like a very personal story, especially since comic-book artists must still struggle — although less than in the past — to achieve recognition from the larger art world.
I’m always a little apprehensive about “decoding” fictional stories. I think there’s this fascination with analogies or allegories and trying to clarify what everything is a stand-in for. I know I’m constantly thinking about that when I’m reading a book by an author whose personal life I know a little about. But I think that’s best left to the readers to consider, and it does the story a disservice if I just come out and say, “Yeah, it’s about me and the difficulties of being a cartoonist.”
When you’re working on a new story, do you think of it in relation to your previous work? Are there things you’ve wanted to do but felt were too close to something you’ve done in the past?
Definitely. It’s horrible to think that you’re competing with or working in relation to the 20-year-old version of yourself. Because, at least in my case, that version of me was an idiot in a lot of ways, and I think he squandered some pretty good material! I would honestly be elated if I could wave a magic wand and eradicate my back catalog and then have a fresh crack at some of those ideas.
Why continue Optic Nerve? Is there pressure to move away from the pamphlet format and exclusively into hardcovers? I know you address this in issue 12 of Optic Nerve.
I’ve stuck with the format mainly because I’m a fan of it as a reader but also because I have a pathological fear of change and I’ve been on this cycle of putting together issues of a comic book since I was 16. I wouldn’t say there’s an explicit pressure on me to move away from this format. . . . D+Q has always been very generous and accommodating. But at the same time, I haven’t sensed that anyone is really rallying behind me to stick with it.
Do you plan to continue with your current working method?
I can’t get too specific right now, so I’ll give you as honest an answer as I can: yes and no