You know Adrian Tomine because he does a lot of New Yorker covers, the ones that depict realistic, elegant, subtly humorous scenes of city life. On the cover of the February 2, 2009, issue, snow falls on a parked ice-cream truck. The driver reads a newspaper in the warm glow of the interior lights. Bare trees and the New York City skyline tower above the tiny, human scene. It's a quiet, humorous, slightly sad image of man versus nature in the era of late capitalism.
Tomine has been perfecting these slightly mumblecore moments since he began drawing Optic Nerve, a comic series that began in the mid-1990s. Optic Nerve was fresh and novel because it was a literary floppy comic in a superhero floppy comic world. His primary illustrative style has drawn comparisons to Daniel Clowes (known for his Eightball series, especially Ghost World), but his more expressionistic stuff can look like Chester Gould's Dick Tracy comics.
If you're the kind of person who's loose with her ampersands & really into unobtrusive beauty, then you'd flip through an issue of Optic Nerve and instantly like it. They're matte-covered, pastel-colored, pastel-feeling comics that often include one or two hyper-violent stories just to keep things spicy.
The early issues were all about lonely twentysomethings trying to navigate the complexities of interpersonal relationships and punks trying to deal with their shitty jobs. The comics contained a lot of gorgeous but sometimes show-offy splash pages, as well as over-worried text boxes that gave the reader a bunch of unnecessary expository info—a compensatory gesture for a perceived lack of depth or action in a story, a thing an artist does when he doesn't trust the reader to "get it." And his endings often hit false notes—stories dropped off cliffs without parachutes or carried the note of irresolution but were actually resolved: He just didn't get the girl, she just didn't find the guy.
Killing and Dying is Tomine's new collection of comics from issues 12 through 14 of Optic Nerve, plus a couple one-offs from other publications. He's moved on from primarily illustrating the particular loneliness of twentysomethings to illustrating the particular loneliness of fortysomethings. But he's doing it so fucking well.
In the new stuff, he trades expository text boxes for more dialogue, which makes the stories feel more immersive, character-driven, and less overdetermined. He resists easy closures, choosing instead endings radiant with implications, so you want to reread every comic the moment you're finished with it.
Racial and gendered tensions animate these stories in fascinating ways. For Tomine, these identity constructions aren't ever the single greatest problem in a character's life, but rather a reality that subtly informs some of those problems. My favorite comic in the book, "Go Owls," explores the toxic relationship between a man-child and a woman-child who are trying desperately to find stability within each other. The man-child's inability to "be a man" is his worst and yet most sympathetic characteristic.
Or take the book's opening comic series, "Hortisculpture," which features an interracial couple. He's white and she's black. He's a struggling landscaper who's trying to transform his day job into high art (he plasters trees and bushes, turning them into ugly things that look like casted limbs), and she's trying to be supportive. In one scene, after a joke he makes about her parents' cheapness doesn't go over, he says he's convinced that her parents hate him because he's white. She replies, "Oh stop it. I'm sure they have other reasons, too."
This joke feels so lived to me! Of course her parents have other reasons to dislike the guy. He's in the throes of a grand delusion and he's embarrassing the whole family. His in-laws may rightly see his whiteness as the primary enabler of his lunacy, but he's also fabricating this moment of racial tension because he doesn't want to face the fact of his own failure as a person and an artist.
Tomine's consideration of the complex effects of race and gender differences enrich several stories, especially the best ones: "Amber Sweet," "Go Owls," and "Killing and Dying," all of which repay study with insight and, of course, humor.