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Hitting a nerve

Tomine's profound short-fiction collection elevates graphic-novel format

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This article was published 14/11/2015 (1564 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It is quite possible that this generation's Alice Munro or Raymond Carver may be American cartoonist Adrian Tomine. His new short-fiction collection, Killing and Dying, delivers a depth of characterization and subtlety of insight most prose writers struggle to achieve.

The title may be misleading. While it does playfully signal that this is a comic book, a form often associated with spectacular violence, Killing and Dying is actually the title of one of the six short stories that make up the book. In it, a father watches his teenage daughter trying to make it as a standup comedian. Onstage, she is "dying" as her jokes fall flat. At home, dad is dying emotionally from supporting his daughter's delusory ambitions. In the background, without any commentary or explanation, we see mom starting to wear the telltale headscarf of a chemotherapy patient. Then she disappears from the frames altogether.

This may sound like sombre or heartbreaking stuff, and at times it is. But Killing and Dying follows the tradition of great short-story writing that distils an array of emotional truths into a concentrated elixir of desires and disappointments. And Tomine's deft hand delivers funny and odd moments to delight in as well.

Tomine (pronounced "toh-mee-nay") is an Asian-American cartoonist born in California and now living in Brooklyn, N.Y. His comics and illustrations have appeared in The New Yorker regularly over the past decade, including more than a dozen covers. He is also known for his semi-autobiographical ongoing comics series, Optic Nerve, which he started drawing and self-publishing in high school. Drawn & Quarterly started publishing Tomine in 1994 and released the most recent Optic Nerve volume earlier this year. His 2007 graphic novel Shortcomings received numerous accolades.

Until now, most of Tomine's work has been partly autobiographical and has often taken up issues of race explicitly (he is fourth-generation Japanese-American). With Killing and Dying, Tomine set himself the task of creating stories from different perspectives than his own, even though his personal anxieties as both a parent and an artist are clear. And, perhaps because of his own experiences — or because it is inescapable in contemporary America — race, gender, and class shape the stories without being their obvious focus.

The title flags mortality as an underlying theme, but so is its more mercurial cousin, fame. The first story, A Brief History of the Art Form Known as Hortisculpture follows a working-class gardener who abandons everything to create a new art form combining topiary with sculpture. His belief in his own greatness comes to overshadow everything, until his daughter brings him back to reality.

Amber Sweet is about a college student whose life falls apart from the sexual harassment she endures because she looks exactly like a famous porn star. A chance encounter with said porn star takes an unlikely turn.

Tomine's degree in English from Berkeley is evident in the craft of the stories. He favours what in interviews he calls "narrative misdirection," meaning that the real action is taking place off the page or in between the panels. This is where the form of comics delivers something unique — readers must pay attention to backgrounds, facial expressions and body language that point us to what is hidden behind the dialogue or cannot be expressed in words.

The style of each story is particular to its content, varying from colour to black-and-white and from rich clear lines to rougher sketches. But even at his roughest, Tomine maintains a spare, realistic style with meticulous attention to detail reminiscent of fellow cartoonists Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware.

Killing and Dying shows how graphic narratives can deliver stories that are deeply emotional but unsentimental. It also reveals the power of cartooning to draw specific places, people and circumstances that resonate a more general set of human concerns.


Candida Rifkind teaches Canadian literature and graphic narratives in the Department of English at the University of Winnipeg.


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