While it’s no secret bookstores are vanishing, there are still several, including the iconic Harvard Book Store, that are dedicated to connecting the masses to entertainment, education and culture. The Cambridge, MA landmark, which regularly hosts visiting authors, recently opened its doors to two creators who masterfully mix words with pictures: Adrian Tomine and Leanne Shapton.
I’ve been a longtime fan of Tomine, a writer and illustrator perhaps best known for his comic book series Optic Nerve and his artistic contributions to The New Yorker (many of which are collected in the terrific New York Drawings). Killing and Dying, Tomine’s latest collection of short stories, continues to showcase his slice of life storytelling and emotive, clean line art.
I was unfamiliar with Shapton, but the new printing of her book Was She Pretty? might appeal to anyone who’s ever loved and lost. A true graphic novel, the title feeds off jealous feelings no human is immune to and pairs sketch-like drawings with just enough text to give readers a sense of various exes.
In addition to readings, this February 4 event featured a Q&A moderated by comics scholar Hillary L. Chute. The topics covered, which ranged from reader feedback and social media to race and the comic book art form itself, would have surely appealed to aspiring creators, hoping to carve out their own space in the growing comics field.
If I’m describing you and you regret missing out, then you’re in luck, as I was fortunate enough to attend this event. Here are four takeaways you may find interesting, based on what Tomine and Shapton had to say:
Despite Donald Trump’s war on political correctness, there are still those who make a point not to offend others. This topic came up while Tomine and Shapton were discussing what titles they’d give themselves. Are they cartoonists? Graphic novelists?
Although some might assume “graphic novelist” sounds less offensive than “cartoonist,” Tomine, who isn’t whipping out Sunday comic strips, thinks “graphic” doesn’t necessarily relate to comics. Chute added that a suggested title for her book of interviews with comic creators was “Graphic Encounters,” which certainly gives readers a very different impression of what the content of this book could be.
Many people are quick to put creators in a box. Perhaps the lesson here is don’t rush to define someone (including yourself) or his or her work.
You wouldn’t think mainstream comic publishers would have to resort to marketing gimmicks to get the word out about the likes of Spider-Man and Batman. And yet, Marvel and DC can’t seem to go long without relaunching their biggest series or dragging them into companywide crossover events.
But how much does marketing factor into an artist like Tomine’s thinking? He admitted that early on, he would put more thought into Optic Nerve covers, as he was competing with flashier titles like Marvel’s Avengers. Today, however, he said he just throws some letters on the covers of his single issues, or floppies, figuring that the people who are going to buy them will seek them out, regardless of their appearance.
When it comes to a collection like Killing and Dying, though, Tomine said he feels as though he has an obligation to his publisher. From the title Killing and Dying to the bold print on the cover, Tomine was focused on creating a look that would grab customers’ attention in bookstores and pique their curiosity.
On Social Media
While many of Tomine’s short stories focus on fictional characters, he still produces the occasional strip about his life. There’s a great 20-panel story in Killing and Dying that explores Tomine’s feelings toward social media.
“Don’t you know anything about me? I’m the cool, nostalgic, “retro” guy who bucks the system…” Tomine says in the strip.
As social media seems to be a requirement for today’s aspiring creators, I asked Tomine and Shapton to share their thoughts on websites like Facebook and Twitter.
Tomine said that he now has an Instagram account that he uses to promote his work and appearances. But the artist admitted he feels awkward and almost apologetic when promoting himself online and is amazed when he sees artists posting about their work one day, and their punk band the next.
“It’s almost as though artists are now allowed to be fully formed human beings,” Tomine joked.
Shapton (who has a Twitter account) added that many artists tend to be shy, and individuals who feel comfortable posting a lot online are like the shouting guests at a party.
As someone who doesn’t feel 100 percent comfortable using social media in a time when daily listicles beat the importance of being social-friendly over my head, Tomine and Shapton’s words were comforting to hear.
On the Comic Book Industry
Tomine may not have a Twitter account, but he does have a PO box (the address, along with some very colorful letters, appear at the end of Optic Nerve issues). As his work is not market-researched and free of editorial input, he said the feedback he receives allows him to get a good sense of how readers are responding to his stories.
And though Tomine works in complete isolation, focused on putting his own experiences and human interactions to the page, he realizes he’s no longer the outsider he may have been when he entered the comics field. “We’re not Spider-Man,” he said, but comics have truly met creators such as himself halfway.
Another testament to how far comics have evolved since Tomine was making books only his immediate family would read is the fact that you can see creators like Shapton and himself speaking at a bookstore and attracting a sizable crowd.
These were just a few of the takeaways from the Harvard Book Store. And Cambridge wasn’t the only city to receive a visit from Tomine and Shapton, as their tour brought them to Montreal and Toronto as well (heads up, New Yorkers – they’ll be at 192 Books February 16).
Definitely keep your eyes peeled for creator events at your nearest bookstore or comic shop because, speaking as a fan, getting to meet and interact with your favorite writers and artists can be just as awesome as reading their latest work.