Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings and the Minimalist Comic

Adrian Tomine’s 2007 full-length collection Shortcomings is realism at its finest.

Initially released in 2004, the serial quickly gained momentum with the media when it was named by Entertainment Weekly as “What not to miss” in regards to yearly publications. They weren’t wrong.

Shortcomings explores the psychological ramifications of dating in a world fraught with insecurity, doubt, emotional duplicity, and deception. The collection follows Ben Tanaka, a Japanese cinema owner from California inherently disinterested in dating members of the same ethnicity, thus illustrating a sort of self-hatred and malaise toward both cultural/Asian stereotypes.

There are two things that astound me about the comic: its realism and by proxy–it’s minimalism. The dialogue is seamless, poignant, and powerfully grounded in actuality. Every panel is dramatic, but never does Tomine take the easy way out and carry his comic down the easier-to-control/astound melodramatic path. His world is intricately intertwined with our own.

Tomine’s illustrations are as plain as they get. The book is done in black and white, and the action in the story is entirely verbal. There are dinner parties, lunches, small get-togethers between men and women, in essence reality. There are no fight scenes, no elaborate splash pages, no color–rather, Tomine demonstrates a welcome sense of restraint and delicacy in handling a subject as difficult to take on as the cultural norms as they pertain to dating.

Initially, I was indifferent to the book as a whole, but on closer inspection, it’s clear Tomine wields a deft hand in comics. I only wish he’d give me more.

Stars = 4/5

The Sculptor: The Impending Death of the Artist

Cartoonist and comic theorist Scott McCloud’s debut full-length novel The Sculptor is a wonderful contribution to the graphic novel medium.

My first experience with McCloud’s work was his seminal text Understanding Comics which is the graphic equivalent of a textbook. Understanding Comics itself is something of an unwieldy beast in that it is a textbook about comics, written as a comic. To create such a monster is no small feat, and it’s no surprise that such a brain is capable of churning out what amounts to one of the best graphic novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading in the past decade.

The Sculptor is the story of struggling artist and sculptor David Smith who makes a deal with death for success. What follows is a stunningly calculated foray into the world of New York City and the lives of a struggling artist.

But there’s a love story. There has to be a love story with a cover like that, right? Smith’s pitfalls as an artist (self-consciousness, fear, apathy, malaise for the subjectivity of art in and of itself) are those which manifest in his love-life as well. And with only 200 days remaining under his belt, what is to become of a romance as powerful as Tristan and Isolde? You’ll have to read the book to find out that one.

And beneath it all is the conception of celebrity as it applies to artist. What becomes of the spiritual benefits of creation in the throes of success? What becomes of the spiritual benefits of creation when there’s no success? The answer might not quite be what you’re thinking.

McCloud’s work is intricately detailed and beautifully preconceived. His panels move with fluidity and convey a story that is downright unique in its inception. The flashbacks are seamlessly connected, the splash pages are monolithic in their weight, and the final punch to this stunning graphic novel is nothing like what you’d expect.

For new and old comic fans alike, McCloud’s work is brilliant and absolutely work a peek.

Stars = 5/5

Black Hole: Burns and Adolescent Grotesquerie

There’s such a thing as “cold” reading in which I’ll delve into a book with zero background knowledge about author or subject matter. Sometimes such a savoy into uncharted waters proves faulted by a lackluster piece that neither captures the imagination, nor holds attention.

Though, sometimes, and such is the case with Charles Burns’ seminal work Black Hole, I stumble across something genius. I’m now kicking myself for not finding this one sooner.

Black Hole is nothing short of astounding. It’s a graphic novel about the grotesqueries of adolescence and uncertainties that come alongside individual development.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, adolescence is one of those subjects that’s been overwrought by pouty faced ennui-ridden authors attempting to convey that profound sense of fragility and isolation that comes alongside physical and mental development.

Black Hole is neither mopey, nor is it fragile. It is a carnal voyage into the intimacies, insecurities, and isolations of development.

The story follows several teenagers in the 1970’s (Seattle?) who contract a sort of plague through sexual contact. Not an STD outright, nor a disease, it’s simply dubbed “The Bug” and is the equivalent to a degreed type of leprosy. Those unlucky enough to contract the bug suffer from traits ranging from excessive physical deformity and epidermic deterioration to something more concealable and benign (like a tail).

The symbolism here is profound. Burns dutifully covers the fears, worries, and psychoses that resonate with those who suffer from some sort of socially shunned ailment, and the results are weighty and terrifying.

It’s a graphic novel. I get it for those of you who abstain from comics out of some sense of literary snobbery. But I can’t stress this enough. Black Hole is as profound a novel as anything out there. It’s as “literary” and conceptually well-developed as is foreseeably possible.

The artwork itself is stunning. Burns wields a deft hand and his illustrations are creative and insightful, oftentimes bordering on textual mimesis and mimicry (the text mirrors the images perfectly). The words often sync up with the chaos or symmetry of the imagery well enough to create something other than just words and pictures. I’ve heard the term “graphia” thrown around, and I’ll use it here. Burns’ “graphia” is profound and beautiful.

I will extend a word of caution. That which is aesthetically significant is oftentimes mature in its inception, and Black Hole is no different. It is explicit and not for the youthful viewer out there (kiddos, ask your parents before reading).

And with that, go delve into the horrifying and heartfelt world that is Charles Burns’ Black Hole.

Stars = 5/5

Blue: A Graphic Novella

Pat Grant’s first graphic novel Blue is an homage to place. More of a graphic novella than anything else, Blue is the story of three relative outcasts in Australia ditching school for some surf and a walk down some train tracks for a glimpse at a dead body.

If you’re reminded of King’s The Body” you’re not far off as Grant himself acknowledges the tip of the cap to King’s story within his own in a beautiful essay/afterword about the origin of stories and how his graphic interpretation of such is very much meant to recount the other.

Overall, It’s a story of localism and territory. One of friendship amidst the stumblings and follies of youth. It’s a “day in the life” escapade and and caricature of as simplistic as it is original. Grant beautifully captures the transience of landscape through images that harken back to Seuss, twisty, turny, elongated structures that are otherworldly and fantastic, all of which bring to mind the fact that place is not stationary. Home changes quickly enough to render the present as past, and the past as history.

What I love so much about this particular novella is how Grant captures comics as icon before transforming it into something alien, something grotesque, yet strangely familiar.

With nods to Seussical whimsy, the brazen caricature of the underground masters like R. Crumb, Harvey Kurtzman, and the marginalia of Chris Ware–Grant demonstrates his skill and sophistication in a book that is both powerful and original.

For the newcomer and mainstays of the genre, I couldn’t recommend Blue more. I look forward to reading more from Grant in the future.

Stars = 4/5