Adrian Tomine = Comedy Gold

Optic Nerve #9-10

There’s a lot of good things going on in these two issues, even if a surface glance reveals a simple continuation of the themes that have surrounded writer/artist Adrian Tomine’s work for the last few years. Once again we have maladjusted people who fail to communicate, often to their detriment; once again, we have unadorned tales of young folks and their torment, their issues. You might call it ‘emo,’ though I wonder if such all-purpose snark has already passed beyond the grasp of genuine utility. But that would be ignoring the various successes of this work so far, in any case.

These two issues, the first two parts of a three-chapter epic (still untitled after legal qualms evaporated Tomine’s prior title, White on Rice), are disarmingly funny, even cutting in their wit. It’s not the broad brand of alt-comics ‘author’s avatar engages in hi-jinx’ humor of Tomine’s minicomics work, the abandonment of which is periodically lamented by those attacking Tomine’s self-seriousness, but a keen grasp of situational absurdity, with flashes of withering satire. The plot follows a young man, Ben Tanaka, who’s thirty years old (as the author was at the time of the first chapter’s publication) and lives in Berkeley (as the author did at the same time). He’s of Japanese descent, though he’s uncomfortable with displays of ethnic celebration - this has driven a wedge between him and his girlfriend Miko, although there’s also the matter of Ben’s barely-obscured attraction to Caucasian women.

Most formidable among Tomine’s storytelling gifts is his talent for characterization; in the relatively morose Bomb Scare story of issue #8, I found myself to be unduly attached to the issue’s goings-on, as each and every player flawlessly evoked personalities from my own high school experience, set up as they were in a half-apocalyptic, semi-conscious assault on one another’s emotional well-being. Here, Ben is quite marvelously rounded, genuinely funny in his dry, nervous wit, quietly explaining to a girl the secret signal Asian men give one another after having picked up a white woman (but some of his humor is maybe too arid - attempting to explain away the lack of diversity in his porno choices, Ben settles on “That’s not true. Look... there’s a, uh, Latina girl in this one... or wait... maybe she’s on the ‘All-Girl Action’ disc. Let me see...” and we’re honestly not sure if he’s mocking Miko or genuinely befuddled), though he’s often selfish and evasive too. Miko is quickly losing her patience; she’s much more positive and active, being involved in local Asian-American film productions (the low quality of which turns Ben’s stomach regardless of ethnic identification, of which he retains basically none), and eventually leaving him for a few months to pursue opportunities as a film institute in New York (a city that also upsets Ben’s terribly delicate tummy).

But our hero’s indigestion isn’t limited to any one race or creed - there’s a striking amount of doubling at work in these issues, much of it silently commenting on the universal nature of many of the anxieties and desires at play. Both chapters open with Ben’s utterly dismayed reaction to a piece of dodgy performance; one of them is directly connected to Miko, as well as Ben’s brooding attitude toward racial celebration, but the other is directly connected to one of the fair-haired, creamy-skinned objects of Ben’s longing (the title of the piece, “Fallujah,” is perfectly chosen, just like the crashingly typical favorite films list of Ben’s excitable coworker at a local theater). Both issues end with Ben’s friend Alice making a joke about Ben being about to kill himself (a little whiff of self-awareness on Tomine’s part?), as both issues end with him being left alone, once by Miko, and once by a pair of lily-white dream girls.

Alice, in a way, is both Ben’s double and his opposite. She’s also a lusty person, also of Asian (Korean) descent, and she also appears to have a yen for non-Asian girls, or at least a lack of distinction among lover ethnicity (Tomine never comes out and states this explicitly, but do pay attention to the women Alice flirts with). But unlike Ben, Alice is open about her sexuality (to an extent - one of the best scenes in the storyline involves Ben posing as Alice’s ‘boyfriend’ for her parents; Alice is of Korean decent, and her parents aren’t enamored with the Japanese, but all international conflict apparently subsides in the face of finding out that their daughter is *gasp* a homosexual), she carries little evident neurosis, and she accepts her problems by rolling with the punches and taking another course, as opposed to Ben’s personal rut. Ben seems unaware of how much he’s like his friend, but she’s really very much himself in an alternate, perhaps happier world. She’s certainly a strongly positive character in the story, though at this point Miko largely retains sympathy (as do all the characters, really - it puzzles me that some readers find this storyline to smack of misogyny, as even the less immediately sympathetic female characters are understandable on some level, as is Ben himself).

An even more evident double for Ben is Sasha, the second Caucasian dream girl. Despite their evident differences, Sasha is very much like Ben: she’s keeping a secret (somewhat unbroken) relationship on the side, she’s deeply uncertain about her sexual longings, she’s deceptive and confused. And naturally, when the mirror is held up, the boundaries of race are defeated - it’s a typically Tomine gesture that such realization can only appear unconsciously (to the characters, at least), and only rises through a realization that one’s double isn’t all that wonderful a person. Really, it’s Ben (Sasha) who can’t quite live with himself (herself).

But we’re still a big one issue away from the finale, and everything can change. What’s unlikely to change is Tomine’s now-signature visual style, which I frankly expect would provide the biggest points of consternation; those lines are gorgeously clear and clean, and the facial expressions in particular are often fantastically realized, but Tomine largely works in as straightforward a manner as possible, swiftly cutting from moment to moment, often mid-page. One sometimes feels like the whole thing might be somewhat better served on film, so straightforward is the telling, so doggedly realist are the graphics, so anchored is the setting, so cinematic are the setups. The grip of realism is tight on every level in these comics, and Tomine’s lines seem intent on conveying total realist aplomb at every moment. It’s not distant, or chilly, or even nondescript, but it’s unerring in its devotion to street and apartment simulacra.

Still, we’re fortunate to have as skilled a character writer as Tomine, and this is maybe on the path to being his best work. He’s demonstrating a deft hand with quiet theme and whispered comment; so effective is his approach that I felt things spilling out from the confines of the story. Ben repeats over and over his distaste for New York, but at the conclusion of the most recent chapter, he finds himself drawn toward that place. And in the letters column following, we find that after thirteen years, the official Optic Nerve mailing address has left California.

It is now in NYC.