The argument about whether comics is high art ended long ago with the coining of the term “graphic novel.” Those of us who lived through the 1980s know how important it became to market comics in a way that bespoke maturity while separating this supposedly adult-oriented fare from the bright panels of Marvel and DC. Touchstones emerged like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, heralded more as timely works of dystopian fiction than superhero books. Likewise, Art Spiegelman’s Maus popularized the graphic memoir and Daniel Clowes’ coming-of-age storyGhost World really solidified the novelistic claims of the comics art form. Each of these works forced comics into mainstream conversations about literature, and now it is Adrian Tomine’s turn to elevate the short form with his short story collection, Killing and Dying.
There is a bit of Clowes in his cartooning, but also the clean compositions of Lynn Johnston’s daily cartoon strip “For Better or For Worse” and the simple expressiveness of Chic Young’s “Blondie.” Tomine subverts expectations from this association to the daily newspaper of yesteryear. Daily comic strips were the most disposable and innocent of art forms, but he mines their grammar for poignancy. Tomine works with economies of words and line in every panel to guarantee that his characters are never overwhelmed by unnecessary information. These are tales of everyday people, all moving very subtly through their ordeals. Everything happens through the images and dialogue. Time shifts without the benefit of a box that explains that three months have passed. Tomine doesn’t waste any space with such stage directions. You are expected to pay attention because these unaddressed shifts in time add depth to the stories in jarring ways. The perfect example is the one that gives the collection its name.
When it begins, “Killing and Dying” appears to be the story of a father who doesn’t fit in with his family. His 14-year-old daughter, a stutterer, announces that she wants to be a standup comedian and her mother is immediately supportive of the idea. While they look for comedy classes, the father, a bit of a schlub, feels like he’s the only one who sees reality. This is just another in a string of identities that his daughter is trying on and that his wife is too willing to support. He cannot keep his sarcasm to himself, often causing his daughter to cry, but she takes the class anyway. It comes with a performance night and when the mother and father arrive at their seats, we see for the first time that the mother is gravely ill. Her head is covered with a scarf and she is walking with a cane. In one panel, all her desperate fawning over her daughter and peacemaking she attempts between her husband and child is redefined. She is dying; father and daughter will only have each other, and this new urgency is devastating. After the mother is gone, the child takes her comedy dreams to an open mic night while her father sorts through his worry and grief. One of them learns acceptance. The other has a hopeful ending.
Tomine again plays with the unannounced passage of time in “Go Owls.” It is the story of a woman who sleeps with the first guy who is nice to her at a 12-step meeting. She is an addict. He is a dealer. Together they fall into the kind of codependent love only open to the self-medicating. His name is Dennis Barry and he is gregarious enough that you can see why she’s looking past his meager prospects and potbelly. They move from meeting to sex to cohabitation, and then the narrative halts when Dennis becomes violent. There is an underlying dread to the rest of the story while we wonder if this small-time charmer will attack his girlfriend again. The Owls, the local baseball team, figure prominently into the story. She is wearing a T-shirt with their logo on it when Dennis, a rabid fan, picks her up and they end up at an Owls game with the open question: Will she leave him?
“Intruders” is about a broken vet with nothing but time. Another violent drifter, he tries to reclaim his life by living in the apartment he once shared with his ex-wife while its new resident is at work. Like its protagonist, the pages are very controlled, precisely—almost claustrophobically—laid out in nine-panel spreads. It is the story of man going mad until he quite literally decides to rejoin society. It bookends the collection with the first and funniest story “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture’,” which explores the God-given right of every American to try to get rich off the ugliest, most impractical thing he can think of to the detriment of his little world.
All across America, adjunct professors are reading papers they assigned about the American short story. They will have asked their students to endure Salinger, Carver, Paley and possibly Alexie and Diaz—the usual suspects when discussing the evolution of the American short story over the last 50 years—but while these are all worthy authors with deserving works, the survey is once again incomplete. Adrian Tomine has created one of the great works of American literature. With Killing and Dying, he has evolved the short story anew.