Four sections comprise the 14th issue of Adrian Tomine’s one-man anthology, Optic Nerve: the narratives “Killing and Dying,” “Intruders,” the letters page and a one-page autobiographical strip on the inside back cover. Each component is thematically distinct, but they’re all drawn together by Tomine’s affinity for pinpointing and elucidating some of the most uncomfortably universal emotions that mark the human experience.
“Killing and Dying,” which appears to be related to five other stories in Tomine’s impending collection of the same name, occupies the majority of this issue. The story centers on a couple and their teenage daughter, and as we learn, the title refers to two things: “Killing” in the colloquial sense (“You killed it”)—a reference to the daughter’s stand-up comedy aspirations—and dying in the literal sense, a reference to the wife, who is dying from an undisclosed illness.
Laid out in a consistent 4×5 grid and rendered in Tomine’s signature line—thin, unwavering and solid with a touch of stylization—“Killing and Dying” is told through a series of vignettes, engagements between parents and child regarding the latter’s future. Tomine coats his pages in a khaki-inflected palette, lending the scenes an unaffected solemnity.
The writer and artist places much of the narrative weight on dialogue and facial expressions, but what’s concealed is a misguided man trying to engage his child. His wife is the nucleus that brings them together, and as she becomes less physically capable of maintaining that role, the husband and daughter have to reorient themselves to the new dynamic. Watching this father’s physical discomfort is awkward at times—devastating at others—and Tomine’s ability to communicate emotions makes for uncomfortable and anxious beats. But it’s a certain clumsiness to his stories that makes them human and relatable.
The second story, “Intruders,” is dedicated to the late manga luminary Yoshihiro Tatsumi, whose influence is felt deeply in the way the story unfolds. A man returns to an apartment that’s no longer his to try and recapture a moment of his life. The finer points of its plot are more ambiguous, more open to interpretation; the reader never gets a good sense of who this character is. It stands in stark contrast to the more emotionally precise “Killing and Dying,” which clearly communicates its intended affect. “Intruders” is more kinetic, and its murkier authorial intent is matched by a looser aesthetic. Lines aren’t solid, figures aren’t as defined. There’s no color to the story either. The aesthetic is a little softer—almost like it’s just a tiny bit out of focus.
The letters page continues Tomine’s sardonic streak, as almost all the letters are hate mail, which segues smoothly into the intentionally farcical back-cover autobiography. Inarguably the source of the issue’s lightest moments, the strip is laid out even more densely than the “Killing and Dying” pages, and it descends deeper and deeper into parody as it progresses, detailing Tomine’s reticence to join social media.
While each component of Optic Nerve #14 stands alone, they’re all very Tomine. But the defining characteristic of Tomine’s work isn’t his aesthetic or his penchant for short stories: it’s his characters.
His characters’ lives are only seen through these quick vignettes, and everything we learn about them is gleaned entirely from obscured facial expressions. They move through the world like their shoes are made of lead, and the mesmerizing power of Tomine’s stories is that each character’s struggle to take each heavy, hard-fought step is given the weight and time it deserves. Their struggles and emotions are universal, and they serve as a mirror to the audience. His work may make some readers cringe, and that’s not why everyone reads comics. But pushing past that, there may be a rewarding experience that’s different for you than it was for me.