Miko Hayashi and her colleagues have worked hard to organize the Asian-American Digi-Fest, a little film festival in Berkeley, Calif., and now it’s time to screen the prizewinner, “Fortune Cookie Rookie.” The movie is just another piece of high-minded, low-budget hokum, but the Asian-American audience smiles and applauds at the fade-out — except for Miko’s boyfriend, Ben Tanaka, a grumpy, 30-year-old Japanese-American, who’s having none of it. After refusing to go to the after-party, he starts spewing his usual venom. “God, you drive me crazy sometimes,” Miko tells him. “It’s almost like you’re ashamed to be Asian.” To which he replies, “After a movie like that, I’m ashamed to be human!” Vaguely misanthropic and sexually insecure, Ben is the not-so-lovable protagonist of “Shortcomings,” a meticulously observed comic-book novella by Adrian Tomine. When Miko leaves Berkeley for an internship in New York, Ben finds he dislikes his own company even more than he disliked hers.
Ben is a fascinating, maddening character, a young fogey whose snobbishness doesn’t prevent him from enjoying DVDs with titles like “Sapphic Sorority,” much to Miko’s chagrin. She accuses him of having a thing for white girls, which really sets him off — and Tomine takes voyeuristic delight in capturing every gruesome facial expression of a couple in midargument. The author is an expert at hooking the reader without tricks or obvious effort, and you’ll be tempted to buzz through “Shortcomings” in an hour. But you’ll want to slow down to take in the detailed black-and-white panels that casually document the way we live now.
Tomine has always been attracted to love gone wrong among the hesitant young men and women of the bourgeois-bohemian set, but he gets his subject across in the unsentimental style of an anthropologist’s report. Unlike the more playful graphic novelists who influenced him, Daniel Clowes (“Ghost World,” “David Boring”) and the Hernandez brothers (“Love and Rockets”), Tomine isn’t given to flights of surrealism, rude jests or grotesque images. He is a mild observer, an invisible reporter, a scientist of the heart. His drawing style is plain and exact. The dialogue appearing inside his cartoon balloons is pitch-perfect and succinct. He’s daring in his restraint.
Tomine has been writing and drawing his “Optic Nerve” comic books since 1991, when he was a high school student in Sacramento. He hit upon his proud-to-be-mundane style toward the end of the decade. Before “Shortcomings” (working title: “White on Rice”), he put out three collections: “32 Stories” (an apprentice work), “Sleepwalk and Other Stories” (pretty good) and “Summer Blonde” (oh, yeah). Just about the only Asian-American to appear in his earliest comics was Tomine himself. In “Shortcomings,” the three main characters are Asian-Americans who explicitly address how they handle being in a minority. Once Miko leaves for New York, Ben entangles himself with two young blond women. A Philip Roth vibe reverberates through the volume as he and his friends question whether he likes blondes because of a subtle cultural brainwashing or his own hidden desire to assimilate. Tomine balances his antihero’s slow-motion fall from grace with the more hopeful story of his friend and foil, a Korean lesbian graduate student named Alice Kim, who stumbles upon true love after years of bed-hopping. Alice’s presence makes Ben a more palatable figure: he’s funny and relaxed when he’s with her. When she does an imitation of her immigrant parents, complete with Korean accent, Ben says, “What is this ... your Margaret Cho routine?”
Maybe because Tomine wasn’t fully formed when his first comics came out, his readers have never been shy about sending him letters full of advice and criticism, and he has seemingly taken a perverse glee in printing them on a regular letters page in “Optic Nerve.” “You always do stories about shallow people who feel lost,” went a letter published in the 2001 issue. “Shallow, immature people make for shallow, immature stories.” When he began using “Optic Nerve” to serialize the story of Ben Tanaka, there were more complaints: “I find your stories completely infuriating. ... I couldn’t help groaning.” And this, from another dissatisfied customer: “I have a challenge for you: write a story about beekeeping. Create characters who are interested in something other than themselves.”
Tomine’s complaining fans may have a point. You look at his stuff and imagine the sociorealist masterpiece he might produce if he were to engage in some heroic Steinbeckian research. On the other hand, he has done well with what he once called “thinly veiled autobiography,” and his latest investigation into matters of the heart has gently led him to the stuff of more obvious social relevance. In its mood and its analysis of how male sexuality is tied up with ethnicity and social status, “Shortcomings” finds itself somewhere between “Goodbye, Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Eventually, Tomine may have his “American Pastoral.” And his cranky fans, like Roth’s, will probably take issue with him every step of the way, until they give in at last.