Adrian Tomine and the “before and after”

Plotted in condensed and stirring full-color pages, Brooklyn, New York-based comics creator and illustrator Adrian Tomine pokes around in the modest suburban home of a single-child family in the first of two stories in Optic Nerve #14, the newest installment of his semi-regular serial short story collections.

adrian tomine comics 1Tomine logs a married couple’s awkward conversations and heated arguments about their thirteen-year old girl Jesse’s new hobby of becoming a stand-up comedian. Bespectacled and a stutterer, Jesse’s goal has her dad’s guard up, as he can’t really conjure support for something that he thinks would eventually land his daughter in a spot that would render her so vulnerable to taunts and “embarrassment,” as he puts it. While Tomine’s physical settings are comparatively unadorned — skeletal contours frame kitchen counters in the home or other diners in a restaurant — something does lurk in the background of his often uniform 20-panel grids, as the family in “Killing and Dying” (also the name for his forthcoming collection of comic stories) is grappling with an unseen difficulty that underpins the script. It’s eventually laid bare in frank dialogue and through the lively expressions of the comic’s micro-sized characters.

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The wordless panels — in this case, a sequence that follows a back-and-forth in a Cheesecake Factory — are weighty and rich with palpable emotion, speaking volumes with the visual language of comics that Tomine knows so well. This is probably among the reasons why the covers he turns in at the New Yorker stand out in the way that they do on magazine racks.

adrian tomine comics 2Françoise Mouly writes about Tomine’s work in a voluminous, beautifully designed and curated new history of his publisher called Drawn and Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels. At nearly eight hundred full-color pages of essays, (new) comics, photography, interviews, and more, Twenty-Five Years… is the sort of book in which you could easily lose an afternoon, particularly if you’ve got even a modest interest in the chronology of one of the most influential comics and graphic novel publishers to have ever taken shape. Reflections like “A Wide-Eyed, Keen Observer: An appreciation of Adrian Tomine” are plentiful in this big book. It’s slotted alongside contributions from Gabrielle Bell, Art Spiegelman, Mimi Pond, Sarah Glidden, Michael DeForge, and a lot more.

Mouly is an expert on Tomine’s work, not least of which because she has long been publishing, editing, and writing about comics and other art (she’s the publisher of Toon Books and co-founded RAW in 1980, which produced the blueprint for one of 2014’s most acclaimed graphic novels), but also because she selected him years ago as a prime candidate for a cover artist in her role as art editor at the New Yorker. When she initially requested that Tomine pitch her sketches, she didn’t hear back for a year.

“Not sure what the hang-up was,” she writes, “I eventually called him to say I was counting on him for the cover of an upcoming special books issue and provided him with the deadline.”

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With a firmed-up assignment, Mouly “jump-started (Tomine’s) creative process,” and her freelancer produced one of the magazine’s most iconic contemporary covers — November, 2004’s “Missed Connection.” Tomine’s subdued color palette and clever composition help establish a celebration of random connectedness, particularly in a city of millions. This work appears in 2012’s New York Drawings.

I’m partial to the piece that followed almost exactly eight years after “Missed Connection” — a reflection of what people in New York City and elsewhere were experiencing when Hurricane Sandy dissipated, leaving billions of dollars’ worth of damage and hundreds dead in its wake.

adrian tomine comics 4There is a powerful use of negative space in “Undeterred” — materializing under and away from the masthead and dateline entirely, this is bleak and enveloping, even as there is some semblance of hope or a way forward in the polling place sign. At the time, we’d been inundated with so many horrifying images of people waist-deep in floodwaters in places like Staten Island and along New Jersey’s coastline that the way the darkness swallows up Tomine’s figure here — in a big, blacked-out and waterlogged metropolitan city — is jarring and perhaps a bit too much to take, even years later.

“Among the things I appreciate most about Tomine’s work is his ability to convey far more than static images sometimes do,” writes Mouly. “His pictures tell stories; they unfold into a before and after. In this sense, he’s a natural cartoonist.”

Optic Nerve images © 2015 Drawn & Quarterly. Image © 2015 Tom Gauld for Drawn & Quarterly. Image © 2004 Adrian Tomine for The New Yorker. Image © 2012 Adrian Tomine for The New Yorker.