By Adrian Tomine
I've been sitting on this book for a while. I've wanted to talk about it since I first got a copy, but I haven't really known how to approach the topic. This is one of the year's biggest books. The plaudits have been almost universally enthusiastic. This is obviously a significant work that places Adrian Tomine near the head of the class of modern cartoonists.
And yet . . . and yet . . .
I can't help but feel disappointed. Considering just how many very intelligent people have praised this book, I feel almost miserly. Now, I've certainly never been one to shy away from voicing unpopular opinions -- but the fact in this case is that I really, genuinely like Adrian Tomine. I think the first few issues of Optic Nerve, combined with the early minicomics compiled in the 32 Stories trade, are probably some of my favorite comics, ever. I like them that much: even though Tomine was nowhere near as masterfully skilled a cartoonist as he would eventually become, those early stories remain pretty powerful. Powerful, perhaps, because of the fact that his style was nowhere near as polished as it would become.
"I liked your old stuff better": what a cop-out, what a perfectly insulting thing to say to such a hard-working artist. Hardly the basis for any kind of measured aesthetic judgment. And yet, a funny thing has happened over the past few years: I've come to dread the release of new issues of Optic Nerve. I still buy them, I still read them, but every issue brings with it a faint cloud of unease, the unavoidable acknowledgement that something very essential has gone missing. He's obviously talented, and despite his slow work rate he's undeniably one of the most conscientious cartoonists currently working. He puts a lot of effort into his work, and it shows. But a long time ago it occurred to me that the hard work was a bit too evident for my comfort. And the solidification of Tomine's "mature" style also codified a number of reflexive "ticks" that had annoyed me from the days of his earliest work.
Tomine's style is almost crystalline in its accomplished form. There isn't so much as a single line throughout the whole of Shortcomings that at all out of order. But this sense of order exerts a repulsive effect on the reader. Tomine's dogged insistence on providing such a rigorously mundane perspective for his stories -- setting almost every panel at eye-level with his characters and never deviating from this design -- makes the book, frankly, a chore to read. Add this to the fact that Tomine has some of the least expressive brush strokes in the industry and the result is an overwhelmingly sterile reading experience. Honestly, it looks like he probably spends his free time perfecting his brush-stroke so that it looks indistinguishable from a Rapidograph line. I am reminded of the passage in Eisner's The Dreamer where Billy Eyron and Lew Sharp compete to see who can produce the thinnest, steadiest line, tracing over a single mark on a piece of paper repeatedly until one of them slips up and makes the line thicker . . .
I dislike Shortcomings for much the same reason as I was ultimately disappointed in issues #22 and #23 of Dan Clowes' Eightball, and why I've had a hard time getting excited about much of Chris Ware's post-Jimmy Corrigan work. This is High Formalism at work. But whereas both Clowes and Ware at least use their pinched formal mastery to involving effect (as in Clowes' disparate narrative shifts and Ware's tactile use of the comics' page as temporal maps), Tomine takes the asceticism one step further. His narrative is completely linear. The effect is very prose-like, inasmuch as Tomine seems to be very much in line with the notion of minimalist realism. There is a reason everyone always compares him to Raymond Carver, besides the tendency of blurb writers to repeat twice-told sentiments.
Is this the best use that can be made of the comics form? I wear my prejudices on my sleeve. I cannot say that this is not an excruciatingly well-constructed book, but the result is simply exhausting. I can't help but think that it's not particularly fertile ground for cartooning -- slow, labored, and pained.
I always agreed with the popular assessment that Eric Rohmer was the weakest link of the original "New Wave" filmmakers, and watching the entirety of his Six Morality Tales recently (thanks to their timely release by the Criterion collection) only reaffirmed this opinion. Rohmer had an ear for dialogue, but absolutely no eye for moviemaking at all. Of course, his adherents would say that that's hardly the point of Rohmer's work: he is defined by nothing so much as his dogged resistance to superfluous aestheticism. Be that as it may, his films are nonetheless a trial to sit through. I have no trouble sitting with rapt attention through four-hour long Russian films about crying peasants, but Rohmer's dogged disinclination to create any kind of visual through-line for his viewers crosses over from daring and into monotony really quick. I haven't seen many of Rohmer's later films (can't say I'm rushing to put them in my queue, either), but his early work just doesn't hold up very well at all. I daresay if it weren't for his intimate connection to Godard, Truffaut and Cahiers du Cinéma, he wouldn't even be a footnote today.
As with Rohmer, Tomine's constipated perspective influences the way his characters communicate and are perceived. It's one thing to create unpleasant characters -- that's hardly unusual -- but the way that Tomine illustrates these characters' disreputable station renders them sincerely unpalatable. The omnipresent rectangular panel through which we are allowed to see this world is a periscope into an ant farm filled with rancid asshole termites.
For all the talk about how convincing Tomine's character work is, there are established types that wander through many of his books. You've got the disaffected, borderline surly youth who seems to be almost irredeemably misanthropic save for the fact that the book is told over his or her perspective. They invariably define themselves through their interactions with indefinably less "cool" individuals. Tomine characterizes cool and uncool through the monstrously exaggerated shorthand of musical taste. I am reminded of the grossly unsympathetic musician in Optic Nerve #8 who talked about setting his lyrics to a "trip-hop" beat -- que lastima! As irredeemable as Tomine's misanthropes actually are, they remain inestimably superior to those who actually do things, because invariably those who do are nowhere near as smart / smug / jaded as those who merely sit and wait.
We see this in Shortcomings with the character of Autumn Phelps, a stereotypically vapid blonde proto-hipster who plays guitar in a performance-art punk band. Her band's performance opens the second chapter of the book, and it's pretty dire stuff: naked hippies acting out weird dance moves while the band provides abstract noise; "K-RRANNG", "SKREEEEEE". There is absolutely no doubt in the reader's mind how they are supposed to interpret this kind of stimulus. As Autumn puts it, "We're taking the physicality of modern dance and the improvisation of free jazz and infusing it with a punk sensibility." Do you want to see a show with that description? Me neither. But in Tomine's cosmos it's better to be an ineffectual nihilist than to actually try to do anything, regardless of how silly it may seem.
Which is not to say that Ben Tanaka is supposed to be anything less than reprehensible. He's a pretty despicable character, unable to make a move in his life for fear of revealing his vulnerability, the story's titular "shortcomings". But he doesn't find any kind of resolution or epiphany at the end of the book. We are left instead with a long silent sequence featuring Ben returning to the Bay Area by air, and his view through the window of the airplane. It's a great scene, one of the best in the book. I wish more of the book had managed to hit the same note of ambiguous, mute melancholy.
Tomine telegraphs his ending from the very first pages of the book, in which we see the final moments of a Bay Area Asian film festival over the shoulders of a rapt audience of Asian-American viewers -- all rapt, that is, except for Tanaka. He rebels against the pre-digested, sentimental immigrant narratives on the screen, Asian-Americans coming to terms with the wisdom of their "native" culture, managing to hold onto traditional values while painlessly assimilating. I don't think Tomine directly mentions The Joy Luck Club, but the implication is unavoidable: there isn't going to be any neat resolution here, no tearful reconciliation of traditional and American values.
But wait, Adrian Tomine, I don't think I quite got what the theme of your story was: "It's almost like you're ashamed to be Asian." "It's like you're obsessed with the typical western media beauty ideal, but you're settling for me." "So I'm brainwashed by some insidious media conspiracy into thinking that blonde-haired, blue-eyed women are attractive!" "If you hang out with her one more time and don't make a move, be prepared to be banished to 'Neutered Asian Friend' territory forever!" The sound you hear is the book being scribbled onto the reading list for "Comp Lit 150 - Hybridity in East-West Culture Conflict".
I make light, and perhaps the flip tone isn't necessary. But regardless, there is something plainly schematic in the way Tomine lays out his thematic material. This is obviously a story that's very close to his heart -- these characters and situations keep appearing in his books, and the painful grasping towards a resolution that cannot be achieved is constantly reiterated. I can't criticize his sentiment, but I can criticize the execution, which never misses an opportunity to hammer home the thematic underpinning for anyone who may have missed it. This is well-trod territory.
The fact is, even despite that wonderfully ambiguous ending, the book itself is remarkably unambiguous in its conclusions. Ben Tanaka is a grade-A shit-heel, and it's remarkable he has the girlfriend he has at the beginning of the book. It's entirely unremarkable that he loses her by the end of the book. The fact that he is unable to look past his own conflicted life towards any greater consciousness is also no surprise, and the lack of ambiguity over his absolute worthlessness of a human being makes him remarkably transparent. Perhaps, then, there is something cathartic in Tanaka's failure. Perhaps in his inability to make any kind of separate peace with the world around him -- and the fact that all of his friends and acquaintances all seem to have gotten their act together fairly well by the end of the book -- we can see the stirrings of self-consciousness in Tomine himself, as "The Author". There's just nowhere he can go from here: the stylistic and thematic content here can't really be developed any further. It’s a self-defeating cul-de-sac, and the didactic, constipated results speak for themselves.