Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Freaks, Geeks, and Other Unlikely Heroes: A Talk With Adrian Tomine

Written by Julie Fishkin
If I had known Adrian Tomine when I was in high school, I would have definitely become obsessed. I would have written circuitous and twee letters to his fan club, and I probably would have sent him my zine, just to see if my quirky world appealed to him as much as his did to me. I would have looked for traces of me in every weirdo character, from the disaffected creative types, sharp-witted lonely girls and strangely neurotic dudes, to the unabashedly mean jerks. His world is very serious and very peculiar. Having learned about Tomine's work a few years ago, I started reading Optic Nerve, his graphic novel series, and suddenly, it seemed to be everywhere, ubiquitous in an underground sort of way. I even saw an issue in a tiny hippie trance bar in Jerusalem last summer. Fortunately for me, and many of his Sadie-reading fans, he recently agreed to a Q&A, and I finally got the chance to poke around his brain.
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If I had known Adrian Tomine when I was in high school, I would have definitely become obsessed. I would have written circuitous and twee letters to his fan club, and I probably would have sent him my zine, just to see if my quirky world appealed to him as much as his did to me. I would have looked for traces of me in every weirdo character, from the disaffected creative types, sharp-witted lonely girls and strangely neurotic dudes, to the unabashedly mean jerks. His world is very serious and very peculiar. Having learned about Tomine's work a few years ago, I started reading Optic Nerve, his graphic novel series, and suddenly, it seemed to be everywhere, ubiquitous in an underground sort of way. I even saw an issue in a tiny hippie trance bar in Jerusalem last summer. Fortunately for me, and many of his Sadie-reading fans, he recently agreed to a Q&A, and I finally got the chance to poke around his brain.

Julie: What inspired you to make your first comic and how old were you? You must have always been creative and artsy but was there one particular circumstance that made you sit down and come up with these characters or was it not like that at all?

Adrian: I was making comics, or at least some primitive version of them, before I could actually read or write. I have an older brother, and he brought a lot of comic books into the house, and I just got obsessed at an early age. In terms of the kind of stuff I do now, the big turning point was when I discovered the comic Love and Rockets. I was about thirteen or fourteen, and it just opened my eyes to the now-commonplace notion that cartooning is a medium, not a genre, and I could use it to tell any kind of story I wanted.

Julie: Did you have a whole group of friends with whom you shared this talent/passion with back in Cali, where you grew up?

Adrian: Not until I was pretty old. When I was a kid, comics were kind of a secret nerdy hobby of mine, and I didn't really share it with anyone, except for maybe my brother. When I was about twenty, I had the good fortune of meeting a couple of cartoonists whose work I admired, and we've been great friends ever since.

Julie: How did Optic Nerve come to exist? Are the characters based on people you know?

Adrian: Optic Nerve came to exist when I took a sketchbook I'd been drawing comics in down to a Kinko's and made the first little zine incarnation of it. In the early days, I would draw more directly on my real experiences, so yes, sometimes real people would make their way into the stories. Now I'm working in a more fictional way, so if anything, characters tend to be based on myself to varying degrees. Drawing comics is a fairly isolated, solitary endeavor, and it seems to create and/or react well to extreme narcissism.

Julie: Some of these characters are pretty lonely folks, like that girl who kept reading the personals and seeing herself in them and thought she was being stalked until she gave up on reading them altogether. Others are just plain assholes, like that jerk who took the copy job and was a total prick to everyone there. And then others I just feel bad for. Are all these characters and stories just part of the Tomine psyche?

Adrian: The unlikability of the characters is a fairly common criticism of my work, and all I can say is that I think I'm sort of out of step with a lot of the world in that regard. For one thing, I don't dislike these characters as much as some of the readers do. For another, I've never based my appreciation of a comic or book or movie on how much I like the characters. But it's a common enough complaint, so I understand that I need to modulate those tendencies in my work if I don't want to drive the audience away entirely.

Julie: Are you coming up with story plots and visions of what they should look like simultaneously?

Adrian: Yes, but the content usually takes up more of my thought process than what characters will look like. I think I have a fairly good memory for the way people dress or cut their hair or whatever, so when I have to draw a new character, it's not too hard to come up with the details.

Julie: The way you draw these characters is also pretty distinct and not constant. So when a character makes an odd facial expression, it really stands out. I'm thinking specifically of that story about the writer who gets a postcard from some chick he had a crush on in high school and decides to go looking for her only to find her younger sister. He basically ends up dating this little girl and being, well, creepy. In one scene, the girl is describing something with all her antics and makes this cute face where her tongue sticks out. I thought that was so cute and memorable because it seemed to be such a departure from the otherwise standard facial expression. Was this deliberate? Do you even know what I'm talking about?

Adrian: Not sure what you mean about "pretty distinct and not constant," but I do spend a lot of energy trying to get facial expressions and gestures down on paper. These things can only be described with words in prose fiction, and are often out of the writer's control in film, so to not exploit them in comics would be kind of a waste.

Julie: Also, since we're discussing specific stories, I have to ask about that story with the couple watching their neighbors across the way have crazy kinky sex…and the guy eventually tells the girl she can't see it, she must NOT see it, and the story ends...well, you must have a vision of what it is these neighbors were doing. What's so shocking and appalling that you couldn’t even draw?

Adrian: The thing I always try (and usually fail) to explain to people is that some of my more elliptical stories were not crafted that way out of perversity or affectation. They're just what they are. I think there's an assumption that my process involves writing out complete, conventional narratives and then cutting important parts out just for the heck of it. I guess it's kind of hard to articulate since we're so trained to think of narrative art in a specific way, but I feel like there [are] a lot of other art forms where the things that are absent are not questioned so much.

Julie: I really like how deadpan your characters are. Sure there's humor, but mostly it's very straightforward, even disturbingly so. Why the long face? Just kidding, but seriously, why such brooding darkness?

Adrian: Because I'm a depressive person, and I want to bum everyone out. Just kidding. But seriously!

Julie: Has any of this actually happened to you? Maybe that guy who missed his plane and had to catch a flight the next morning, but instead of going home or to his girlfriend's, he roamed around like a stranger and stayed at a hotel just a few miles from his own house. He convinced himself that disrupting the routine of others means scaring them and conjured up his own demons and dismal thoughts. Is this autobiographical?

Adrian: Sometimes I'll be reading a book and wonder how autobiographical the story is. But then I realize that the answer to that question would only satisfy some gossipy side of my personality, and it wouldn't really enhance my experience of reading the book. I think we're too focused on the people behind the art these days, sometimes at the expense of the art itself.

Julie: You also have a keen understanding of the teenage mind. Is it because you remember it so well? Was it a good time for you?

Adrian: It's probably less that I have a good memory and more that I'm just an immature person. And no, the teenage years weren't especially good times for me in terms of socializing, but they were useful in terms of getting me started on this weird hobby that I've managed to turn into a job.

Julie: Is there any special fondness for a certain age group in terms of the characters you create?

Adrian: Not really. My natural tendency is to write about people who are similar to myself at that moment, but I'm trying to break out of that a bit in my upcoming projects.

Julie: Do you think you have a specific audience for your work? Who do you think is more inclined to love Adrian Tomine in terms of comic lovers? Is there a niche? Is it the troubled creative type who understands this world perhaps too well?

Adrian: I think I used to have a more specific audience, but I'm glad that in recent years, it's diversified quite a bit. The truth is, authors end up with a kind of skewed perception of who their audience is, because they base it on the subset of that audience who shows up at book signings. There's probably all kinds of people out there who've read one of my books, either liked it or didn't, and left it at that.
 
Illustrations and photo courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly

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