Two from Adrian Tomine – Sleepwalk and Summer Blonde
by Adrian Tomine
Published by Faber & Faber (UK), Drawn & Quarterly (US)
(Possibly one of the most stereotypically Tomine sequences I could find to open with; beautiful lines & miserable, emotionally disconnected characters working out their problems. From Sleepwalk by Adrian Tomine.)
I’ve followed Adrian Tomine’s work since picking up the first issue of Optic Nerve and throughout his published works he delivers is a glorious sense of observational melancholy. His comics portray the lives of the people around you, albeit people most likely to be found in a young, intellectually upward mobile area of urban America. Tomine does tend to focus his attention on a certain section of modern society – and there are many critics of his style, seeing nothing in his work but the worst excesses of slacker youth; Generation X in comic form, as they look through his pages and bemoan that they’re filled with generic characters, all emo girls and boys who can’t grow up.
But I don’t hold with that reading of his work at all. He is, to my mind, so good at his particular style of storytelling – the observational short story, eavesdropping on snatches of people’s lives, before leaving before the story has really finished – and that’s the particular quirk of Tomine’s storytelling that I most enjoy; the way each of his stories fades in at one particular moment in a life, paints a portrait of a some series of events then quietly fades out. There’s rarely a beginning or an end with Tomine’s work, just a series of snapshots where we’re merely visiting these lives, observing the small yet important moments of love, of hate, of sadness, all through the eyes of Tomine.
And just as his writing creates an instant portrait of his subject, Tomine’s artwork, so crisp and so sparse, does just the same. He’s not the prettiest of artists, not the most visually dynamic and occasionally his work lapses into nothing more than a series of static images, stripped of any narrative flow, but when he gets it right, which he does more often than not, his art is a perfect compliment to the ennui and melancholy of his tales; simple, beautiful portraits of the lives he’s telling stories about.
16 tales from the first four issues of Tomine’s Optic Nerve comic. Featuring a variety of characters, although still leaning heavily on a younger, angst ridden emo type, Sleepwalk’s tales offer us snatched glimpses into other people’s lives. There’s also the desperation of a forgotten lover trying to rekindle his one great love, the inconsolable sadness of a grieving widow reliving the tiny memories she cannot leave behind, a young man observing his life from outside himself after missing his flight, a lonely, angry young boy’s Fourth of July spent watching others having fun and much more. All carefully, quietly played out by Tomine.
One of the longest tales in Sleepwalk is also one of the best; Dylan & Donovan are twins accompanying their ageing hippy father on a family outing. The characters are poorly done, lacking originality and more crude stereotypes than rounded personas. But tellingly, that doesn’t matter. It’s the emotive sense of awkwardness that Tomine creates that makes the story so readable and compulsive and to manage that with such stereotypes is very impressive.
(Tomine in darker mood from Sleepwalk. Perfect illustration of his tendancy to fade into and out of a story, leaving us nothing but a snapshot of an event or a life.)
Tomine also shows a far darker side in some of these stories, with moments of almost unbearable discomfort, such as the road rage episode of Pink Frosting and it’s sickening ending or the perfectly pitched sense of crushing embarrassment and helplessness of a shared bus journey in Hostage Situation. And then there’s Drop, shown in it’s entirety above, just one page, four panels that ends so surprisingly suddenly and sums up that jump in, observe and jump out nature of Tomine’s narrative style.
There’s nothing comfortable in Sleepwalk, yet everything is familiar. Tomine’s art style here is yet to find it’s final form and there are experiments with shading and textures that fall a little flat, yet throughout it all, whatever the art, the stories ring true as we peer uncomfortably into lives not that far off the ones we know. It’s beautifully done by Tomine.
The four stories in Summer Blonde come from issues 5-8 of Optic Nerve. Gone are the small vignettes that I loved in Sleepwalk and in their place are four longer stories, although still no longer than a standard comic, 30-ish pages or thereabouts. And although the spirit of Tomine’s stories is still the same, touching on isolation, loneliness and modern urban life, the extra pages give Tomine more room to flesh out his characters and their motivations. We’re still merely passing through these lives we’re so voyeuristically observing, but in these longer stories there’s an annoying, nagging feeling that Tomine is overdoing the misery, making the studies seem just a little too staged, a little too rehearsed and choreographed to squeeze the maximum amount of voyeuristic enjoyment from the miserable lives of his key players.
While both volumes of Tomine’s work are enthralling reads and there are moments when he really does sit well at the top table of book published comic artists; the Wares and Clowes of this world, it’s Sleepwalk where I think he nails his style. Those 16 stories, the way they act as mere snapshots of life, seem to serve Tomine’s strengths as a storyteller far more than the longer form stories he tells in Summer Blonde.
However, both books have moments of heart-stopping truth, where it’s impossible to deny the sheer power of the stories he’s capable of telling, as somewhere in these pages, you’ll recognise a situation, something you’ve done or something that’s been done to you. That’s something special. But to tie that ability to craft such realistic and true stories with an ability to make his stories so open, so readable, so beautifully haunting and memorable – that’s master storytelling. And when he manages that, that’s Adrian Tomine at his best.
Faber and Faber have published two volumes of Tomine’s work in the UK. Previously only available in the UK through imported volumes from Drawn And Quarterly, the inclusion of Tomine amongst the select band of artists given the respectable book publisher treatment should see his evocative, inconclusive stories of loneliness, disillusionment and sadness reach the wider audience they most definitely deserve.