TCJ Reviews Optic Nerve #14

“Shea Hennum ” / The Comics Journal / Chris Mautner / July 15, 2015

The central story in the latest issue of Optic Nerve (there are two, plus a one-page strip) is entitled “Killing and Dying”. It focuses on a small nuclear family: Mother, father, and teenage daughter. The daughter comes off as considerably shy and has a noticeable stutter. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, she announces to her parents that she wants to become a stand-up comedian.

The mother is extremely supportive about this, perhaps because she hopes it will bring her out of her shell. (It’s worth noting that we never once see the daughter interact with any of her peers.)

The father adopts what could charitably be called a more skeptical tone, declaring he’s “opposed to embarrassment” in a manner that quickly sends the daughter running up to her room. Clearly he’s concerned about putting his shy, awkward, and sensitive daughter in a situation ripe for massive amounts of public humiliation. But there also seems to be a more personal aspect to his concern, which mom witheringly sums up as, “You’re trying to protect yourself.”

While mom is an important (and occasionally haunting) figure in this story, the central relationship here is the one between father and daughter – the latter frustrated by her father’s passive disapproval while desperately (and often clumsily) trying to forge an identity for herself, and the former equally desperate to say the right thing and show support while failing horribly every time.

To say that this particular story cut close to the bone for me would be an understatement (and perhaps reveal more about myself than is appropriate for the purposes of this review). Suffice it to say there are conversations here that seemed to echo a little too closely ones I’ve had with my own family members. Tomine has long trafficked in stories about shame, embarrassment, and awkward relationships, but never in quite so stellar a fashion as he does here.

Part of that is because of the way “Killing and Dying” is laid out. Tomine holds to a tight 20-panel grid and tries to keep his characters in midframe and in the center of these small panels as often as possible. This does two things. Firstly, it helps create a sense of constriction and claustrophobia, which is important in a story where characters are willingly and unwillingly humiliating themselves in front of others. Secondly, and perhaps somewhat conversely, it gives Tomine room to draw out the dialogue, allowing for awkward pauses, subtle changes in facial expression, and significant gestures, all of which goes a long way towards increasing our affection for and identification with these characters.

As mentioned earlier, there is a second story, entitled “Intruders”. As with “Killing and Dying”, it involves a hapless character clumsily trying to maneuver his way through the world. In this case it’s a former veteran who tries to find some connection to the past and a defunct romantic relationship by surreptitiously sneaking into his old apartment when no one’s around. Things naturally go awry and the protagonist finds himself adrift yet again. While the visual style reminded me of David Mazzucchelli circa City of Glass, it doesn’t come as much surprise that the story is dedicated to the late Yoshihiro Tatsumi, whom Tomine, along with publisher Drawn and Quarterly, helped introduce to a Western audience. In tone if not entirely in style, “Intruders” echoes Tatsumi’s overarching themes of alienation, frustration, and loneliness.

Mention should also be made of the final comic included in this issue, a one page gag strip where Tomine (as he has for the past two issues of Optic Nerve) self-deprecatingly mocks himself for being stubbornly “behind the times,” which in this instance means a steadfast and almost priggish refusal to hop onto the social media bandwagon.

Such self-satire can get tiresome. How many times can you say, “Look at me making fun of my old man behavior. I’m so self-aware!” before your audience fires back with “Enough already”? Yet it’s hard to not delight in Tomine’s wry self-caricature, especially when it features him yelling at D&Q publisher Chris Oliveros over the phone that he’s “had just about enough of you and your outrageous demands!”

And indeed, there is something heartening and encouraging about Tomine’s steadfast refusal to abandon the traditional pamphlet format. In an age when even the ever-wistful Seth has adapted his publishing strategy to better fit the times, there’s something admirable about Tomine’s unwillingness to throw in the towel on a publication model that still seems old-hat to a lot of indie publishers and cartoonists (especially considering that a new issue of Optic Nerve has become an every-other-year sort of thing). I don’t want to overstate or romanticize the point, but I can’t imagine how either “Killing and Dying” or “Intruders” could be improved upon with the addition of more pages. Part of the strength of these stories lies in their shortness, which allows for no slack in the the tight emotional grip they hold on the reader. This comic is exactly the length it needs to be.

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