October 2004

Bryan Miller

fiction

Scrapbook by Adrian Tomine

Adrian Tomine’s Scrapbook certainly isn’t for the casual fan.

Not that Tomine is likely to have many casual fans. His comic book work, most of which has been published in his book Optic Nerve, tends to strike readers either as the mild pretentions of a whiny hipster or as subtle but powerful stories that tap deep into the secret emotional lives of the lonely and troubled.

Both might at times be right. Tomine is a master at using body language and beat-around-the-bush dialogue to imply all the things his characters can never say, and in doing so his characters often remind us of ourselves in moments of extreme volatility or weakness. Tomine is a chronicler of frailty and longing. A failed Optic Nerve story can read like the work of a lonely neurotic making vapid statements about the feelings of the beautiful and, more importantly, those who merely admire the beautiful and then obsess over this admiration with a blend of yearning and self-loathing. That said, I’m not one to think there are many failed Optic Nerve stories.

Scrapbook is a collection of pre-Optic Nerve comics as well as illustrations done for various commercial outlets both before and during his tenure as a self-published mini-comics artist and then cornerstone of the growing Drawn & Quarterly comic book empire. (Said empire, it should be said, is more a matter of rounding up most of the industry’s best talent and, unfortunately, doesn’t reflect publisher Chris Oliveros and his cadre of brilliant artists’ overflowing wallets; such is life.)

Tomine’s Scrapbook is divided into three sections: comics, illustrations and sketchbook selections. The most striking work in the book is in the illustrations section which is more contemporary and polished than the rest of the book’s material. Like his comic book work or not, it’s hard not to drool over his stunning linework. Tomine’s art isn’t as stylized as many of his contemporaries, but it’s every bit as distinctive. His work isn’t quite Toth-like in its minimalism, but it’s spare to be sure, every line as calculated and elegant as the last. The illustrations are almost all wordless (save for a trio of dry, New Yorker-style cartoons), allowing him to do what he does best: capturing just the right moment in time at just the right angle to reveal the complexities of a seemingly mundane situation. A tough looking teenage girl in punk attire casts a self-conscious glance sideways as she smokes a cigarette; a man looks over his girlfriend’s shoulder at his watch as he kisses her; a young woman looks at the reader with guilt-inducing eyes as she holds up a pair of discoveries, a bong and a porno magazine.

The illustration section is beautiful and likely of interest to a broad range of readers. The sketchbook and the comic sections, however, are most interesting as insights into Tomine’s creative process as well as a behind-the-scenes look at his progress over a number of years. Tomine began selling comic strips at age 17, and by the time he was in college he was publishing in notable venues like Entertainment Weekly. Even then his prowess as a draftsman was clear, although his writing wasn’t as mature as his art. Many of the early strips will strike anyone who finds Tomine overly angsty as particularly egregious. They’re laid out chronologically, though, and the last third of the section shows a greater command of narrative and a vastly improved competency with dialogue and pacing.

What shines through most of all in Scrapbook is an often-overlooked feature of Tomine’s work: his sense of humor. Perhaps nobody overlooks this more than Tomine himself. Optic Nerve, though wonderful, is relentlessly bleak, at least since Drawn & Quarterly began publishing it. Prior to that Tomine did work with different moods and tones more often, the best examples of which can be found in 32 Stories: The Complete Optic Nerve Mini-Comics. Scrapbook contains a bevy of similar pieces, and although none are as laugh-out-loud funny as the peanut allergy strip in 32 Stories, they are surprisingly deft. “My First Girlfriend,” Tomine’s brutally honest account of his failed romantic efforts in elementary school, is hilarious with Tomine casting himself as the baffled straight-man amongst a group of goofy know-it-all matchmakers trying to dictate his swingset rendezvous. Most of the good gags come at the expense of Tomine’s protagonists which, in his humor strips, is often himself. He’s the put-upon guy who can never come up with the right quip in time, never manage to put his best foot forward around women… or much of anybody. Rather than come off as more angst, however, these strips show Tomine poking fun at his own self-conscious, neurotic public image.

Scrapbook is a big, beautiful oversized book with some fantastic tidbits of information both in the introduction and in the guide at the end which plays like a director’s commentary. It’s a notable achievement when one’s take-the-money-and-run commercial work and outtakes are more interesting than most artists’ most carefully polished, intimate material.

Scrapbook by Adrian Tomine
Drawn & Quarterly
ISBN: 1896597777
203 Pages