Adrian Tomine creates the kinds of comics that you don't want to recognise yourself in. They're the polar opposite of power fantasies, and it's hard to find anything like a hero in his panels. But they make for damn good reading.
Released last week, Killing and Dying is the newest collection from the master cartoonist, whose work often appears on the cover of The New Yorker. Tomine's art and dialogue render the awkward silences and icy fission that lurk under relationships on the brink. Tomine pulls drama from the flat greyness of everyday life. His vignettes are the arguments you hear through neighbours' walls, the dude crying by himself through his facepaint in a sports bar, the arsehole twentysomething who snarks his way through every interaction. Killing and Dying's six short stories all focus on characters at crossroads in their lives and look at how their stifled desires affect the people around them.
I interviewed Tomine eight years ago for his graphic novel Shortcomings. That book's main concern was the tensions caused by interracial dating. I wound up telling him the story of a horrible break-up I had, which culminated in the non-black girl I was dating leaving a pack of Oreos outside my apartment door. She used to tease me by calling me an Oreo — black on the outside, white on the inside. My retorts telling her that she didn't get to define my blackness (or anyone else's) were only fuel to the fire. Tomine chuckled at my story, and I've lived in a state of morbid curiosity that my anecdote would wind up in his work. It hasn't. Not yet, anyway. But that's the kind of thing his comics portray.
Tomine's work cuts, because it's centered on characters that you could either mock or pity. In the wake of each response, readers will likely feel the nagging urge to interrogate their own reactions and the work's proximity to their own life. Are you the delusional middle-aged weed dealer in "Go Owls," telling himself he's got it all figured out by living "off the grid" and dodging all manner of adult responsibility? Or is it the prickly nuclear family in the title story that comes uncomfortably close to your own life?
The most surprising and appealing aspect of Killing and Dying is how Tomine switches styles for each entry. "Hortisculpture" takes the kids-with-grownup-angst conceit of Charles Schultz' Peanuts and double-inverts it, using the gag-strip format to punctuate the parade of humiliations suffered by a gardener/artist. "Translated from the Japanese" shows the journey of an estranged Japanese mum to the United States from the first person, using only ambient environmental scenes to underscore the alienation of moving across the world. The dreamy pastel colorwork in Amber Sweet runs counter to the hell suffered by the main character due to her resemblance to a porn star. "Intruders" happens in a strict grid-like page layout that works both as an homage to Japanese cartooning great Yoshihiro Tatsumi and as a metaphor for the emotional strictures binding a military vet as he stalks his old home.
Even when you've read Tomine's work for years, the gut-punch turnabouts and simmering implosions that his characters go through still shock and surprise. They're like life in that way. The things you dread arrives to make a fool of you. The cosmic joke of trying to run away from one's self gets a laugh. Hopefully, there's some sympathy to be had, too.