Despair supply

Adrian Tomine's debut graphic novel is an entertaining take on romantic disconnection.

MR. LONELYHEARTS In Tomine’s graphic novel, hell is other people.

MR. LONELYHEARTS In Tomine’s graphic novel, hell is other people. Illustration: Adrian Tomine

Long before young loners cruised the MISSED CONNECTIONS section of Craigslist, they snapped up copies of the comic book Optic Nerve. Begun in 1991 by Japanese-American high-school student Adrian Tomine, these short illustrated stories featured characters who wanted romance but sucked at it, and their casual bleakness won the author comparisons to Raymond Carver and a loyal fan base. As his profile rose, Tomine went on to illustrate for The New Yorker, contribute to McSweeney’s and do CD cover art for bands like the Softies and Eels. His just-published graphic novel might be called Shortcomings, but it’s his longest (and most sardonic) work to date. 

“I’d been reading stuff like Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan and Daniel Clowes’s David Boring, and those books made me want to see if I could stretch my legs in a long-form work,” says the 33-year-old of Shortcomings. The extra space, he says, provided him with an opportunity to explore new themes. Tomine’s cartoon universe has always teemed with characters who live on the cultural fringes, but he’s rarely looked at the idea of being “other” through the lens of ethnic difference. “Talking about identity politics and race and personal issues in the meta can sound very heavy-handed, so the challenge was just letting it exist in the text organically,” the artist says. “I didn’t want it to seem like I’d completely abandoned all my old work and become some placard-waving fanatic.”

And he doesn’t. Shortcomings might dwell on the intersection of identity, race and insecurity, but it embeds these concerns in a highly entertaining (if typically bleak) narrative about romance gone awry. The book focuses on snarkier-than-thou multiplex manager Ben Tanaka and his relationship with Miko Hayashi, a culturally proud assistant organizer for an Asian-American film fest. Fed up with Ben’s sarcasm, Miko speculates that he’s been harboring a white-girl fetish and ditches him in Oakland for an internship in New York. As the months roll on, both characters hook up with lovers who illustrate the messy rules of attraction. In one chapter, Ben gets involved with a bisexual college student, thinking that her lesbian tendencies will make her more forgiving of his own sexual shortcomings (he’s nervous about his penis size). It doesn’t work.

With Ben, Tomine has crafted a male lead character with feet firmly planted in asshole territory. He disses films that Miko loves, passes up sex to watch DVDs and is a general font of biting remarks. But Tomine defends his hero’s cynical outlook and bitter sense of humor as true to life. “In my own circles, I’ve got plenty of friends with similar traits,” he says, “but they’re smart and have interesting opinions, which I find a lot more useful than just being pleasant.”

Like the characters found in work by Charles Burns, Peter Bagge or Chester Brown, Tomine’s men and women get caught up in their obsessions, clinging to them even though they have an inkling that those same fixations are what separates them from meaningful relationships. But because of the stripped-down economy of Tomine’s pages, the resulting desperation feels quieter, more isolating and resonant. With its spare line work and stammering dialogue, Shortcomings is Tomine’s most developed portrait of postcollegiate despair yet. In an odd and poignant inversion, the more his characters talk, the more they fail to communicate.

Tomine’s comics have always given travel and relocation a significant transformative power and symbolic status. Here, Ben and Miko grow so far apart that they wind up on opposite coasts. In Shortcomings, the push-pull relationship between New York City and San Francisco creates a subtext that will seem familiar to readers in both cities. When Miko tells Ben she’s heading to the East Coast, he blurts out, “I hate the way everyone in the Bay Area worships New York! Trust me: It’s highly overrated.”

Tomine shares some qualities with his snarling antihero, such a California background and a penchant for satire. But there are some crucial differences. Three years ago, when he was about midway through the writing of Shortcomings, Tomine moved from Berkeley to Park Slope, and says that the transition was surprisingly easy. And his love life is more successful than those of his characters: He’s getting married this week. 

Shortcomings (Drawn & Quarterly, $19.95) is out now. Tomine reads Wed 3.