November 2003

Mike Atherton


An Interview with Adrian Tomine

Adrian Tomine is the author of Optic Nerve, A critically acclaimed comic book that has grown since 1991 from self published and photocopied sheets to collected hardback edition. After three years of "filling orders, hassling store owners for the five bucks they owed me" while attending and graduating high school Tomine signed a contract with Drawn & Quarterly at the end of 1994 and his work found a world wide audience.

With D&Q now taking the burden of distribution, Tomine was free to concentrate on what he does best: write and draw the stories that have continued to hit the nerve of a growing literature hungry audience. Whenever I meet someone who believes that comic books begin and end with men in tights and women with back breaking breasts I pass them a copy of Optic Nerve.

Adrian recently agreed to a Bookslut interview and (despite my insistence that he lives in San Francisco) was candid and a pleasure to a talk to:

I'm not going to ask you where the title Optic Nerve came from. Is that a relief?

It's a relief, but I've grown very accustomed to answering that question. I just go on auto-pilot and explain that I came up with the name when I was very young, and that it means nothing, and that I'd change it if I could.

Well, thank you for agreeing to the interview. Is this kind of thing ever fun or is it just a part of the job now?

It's always a little surprising and flattering when people care about what I have to say. But it's definitely not my favorite part of the job.

Your stories seem to be getting longer. Is that a conscious decision or just a natural progression? Can we expect something on the scale of Craig Thompson's Blankets some time in the future?

It's definitely a conscious decision. I'm intentionally challenging myself, forcing myself to take on a task that I find fairly difficult. I honestly don't know how Craig did it... I'm about 1/3 of the way through a 100 page story, and already feeling quite overwhelmed.

How strong is the autobiographical element in your stories? Do you ever feel constrained in writing about people you know?

All of my stories are autobiographical in some way. It's usually not the way that people suspect, but every story has it's origin in real experience. I would love to be the kind of writer who can just make things up, but I don't think I have the intellect to pull that off and still make it seem true to life.

Do you ever find that friends and relatives are becoming more guarded around you?

I've had more than one person tell me some totally amazing, embarrassing personal anecdote, and then immediately say, "Don't use that in your comic!" If I didn't mind burning bridges, I could probably tell some pretty great stories. But the truth is, I generally just focus in on myself, the narcissist that I am.

I have heard you compared to Daniel Clowes and vice versa and I know you are good friends. Would you ever consider collaboration?

If we ever collaborated, I would just diminish his great work. It would be like The Beatles collaborating with The Rutles.

From the letters written to Optic Nerve and reading opinions posted online it seems that your readership really cares for and believes in the characters you create. Are you ever tempted to revisit any of them? Will we ever see Hillary Chan again?

I think it would be funny if I announced that I was going to revisit characters from past stories, but then focus only on the ones that no one ever wanted to see again. Like, whatever happened to that fascinating house painter who discovered his grandfather's old girly magazines? Or how about that intriguing friend of the struggling author?

Do you enjoy playing with your readers expectations then?

It's nothing I ever do consciously. I think it can be pretty dangerous territory when you start trying to either cater to or defy readers expectations. I generally just do what I want, and wait and see what kind of reaction I get. Usually the reaction is very polarized anyway, so it would be hard to know which way to go if I ever wanted to be a complete panderer.

Now you are successful is there anything at all you miss about being a struggling comic book author? Or to put it another way are there any drawbacks to your success?

Well, let's put my "success" into some kind of perspective. I still rent my college-era apartment. I drive a very old car. I have to take on commercial illustration assignments to help pay the bills. The only real drawback is the loss of privacy... you know, a guy like me can't just take a walk in the park. The paparazzi, the fans... it's a circus, I tell you.

Stalking aside I know that San Francisco can be a small place. Have you ever considered moving or is the place too integral to your work?

I don't understand that first sentence. Who says I live in San Francisco? But no, I don't think that Berkeley is too integral to my work... it's not like I'm a professional protestor/drug dealer/nudist or something. There's a few other cities that I think I'd be happy in. Okay, maybe one.

With the current vogue for movies based on comic books are there any plans to bring the world of Optic Nerve to the big screen? Would that be something you would enjoy getting involved with in the way that Daniel Clowes did with Ghost World?

I have this theory that maybe twice a year, some Hollywood producer goes into Musso and Frank's and starts talking about my comic. And then all the other agents and producers seated within earshot jump on their cell phones, and send an intern over to Meltdown to buy copies of my comic. Then several of these producers/agents all start calling me on the same day. It really does seem to go in waves like that. I'm not adverse to the idea, but I am fearful of getting stuck in one of those really clichéd, soul-destroying Hollywood situations where I lose all rights to my own work, and a really shitty movie comes out that's related to the comic just enough that it completely destroys any future I might've had in either the comic or movie business. And I'm not interested in animation.

Are you ever tempted to move away from the small personal stories you are so good at and just ring Marvel one day and say "Hey, I have this great idea for a Spiderman story..."?


The hardcover collection Summer Blonde had a great peephole cover. Was that your idea? Should we read something into that? Are we voyeurs?

I do all the design for my books, and I try to make it consistent with the various stories. I think that particular story was clearly about voyeurism and stalking, so the die-cut dust jacket seemed to make sense. Also, I like very simple, minimal cover designs, but then I see something like "Acme Novelty Library" and I feel like a big cheater, so that design allowed me to have it both ways: a virtually blank dust jacket with a detailed drawing underneath.

What's next? Are you working on something right now?

I'm about to finish up issue 9 of Optic Nerve. It's the first part (of three) of the longest story I've written to date. It sounds ambitious, but really it's like one of my usual stories that's been slowed way down.

So you have a new Governor. How do you feel about Mr Schwarzenegger being in charge of the economy and perhaps more worryingly the National Guard?

Are you serious? Is there really some politician named "Schwarzenegger"?