Adrian Tomine in one word? Clean. His unofficial uniform is pressed khakis and an oxford shirt, hair fastidiously parted, black-framed glasses polished to a glow. Clean, too, is his top-selling comic series, Optic Nerve. Not that he doesn’t curse; his comic is full of four-letter invectives and frank sex-talk. But filtered by the machine-washed colour palette, the careful rulering, the pinpoint line, it’s more like incidental punctuation spilling from his cast of beautiful young alt-beatniks.
Yet, far from feeling like a wet sock, Tomine’s stories are some of the truest depictions of human nature in all of comics, capturing his semi-fictional character’s subtle tics with the same precision with which he draws the furniture in the background of his panels. He’s a fussy, disciplined draftsman; so meticulous, he once tore up a finished page, a week in the works, when he discovered that the paper had been miscut, making his panels look microscopically lopsided.
And that was four years ago, when he was 26. If anything, Tomine has grown less tolerant with age. “I think I’d agree with a lot of my critics who say I haven’t really lived up to the promise I showed as a teenager, and that my development has slowed down a bit over the years,” he says in an email from his home in Berkeley, California. “Improvement and evolution just came so naturally to me when I was first starting out, and now it feels like I have to make a concerted effort.”
His latest release, Scrapbook: Uncollected work: 1990 2004, gives a compact look at this astonishing evolution. The book collects hoofs and snouts from Tomine’s prolific, precocious career, from commercial illustrations for Coca-Cola in Japan to his earliest Optic Nerve strips, begun as a mini in 1992 when he was just 16.
It’s the latter that has won him the mantle of geek hero. The comic serial is comprised of ephemeral vignettes in the lives of its tormented characters. Like a falling egg, the reader is dropped into a turbulent relationship between a girl and her twin sister, or a movie-theatre manager and his perky new employee. We watch them writhe, feeling like voyeurs for the accuracy of Tomine’s eye and ear. “I dwell on my social interactions a lot,” he says. “I’m the kind of person who, after going out with friends, will replay and pick apart all the evening’s conversations once I get home.” Then, just as a messy splat is glistening on the horizon, we’re pulled back and cast into the next story.
His comics were first published in Pulse!, Tower Records’ now-defunct magazine. Marc Weidenbaum was one of its editors, an aficionado who would buy minis at a small shop in Sacramento. One regular title in his haul was Optic Nerve, which Tomine was drawing between classes in high school. The comic so impressed Weidenbaum, he found the cartoonist’s name in the phone book and offered to run his strips in the magazine. “I loved Adrian’s work immediately,” says Weidenbaum, who now edits the English version of legendary manga mag, Shonen Jump. “From early on, Adrian really captured day-to-day life in a way that, while often autobiographical, applied more widely, both as a mirror to how his peers’ lives unfolded, and as a kind of critique of those lives.” Only later did Weidenbaum realize his find was still a teen. “But even though he was young, he was also mature, very focused on what he did and what he wanted to do. Everyone at the Pulse! office admired his focus, talent and dependability.”
These qualities have made Tomine an alt-comics superstar, with, uncommonly, as many female fans as male (credit his knack for crafting believable female characters). However, he cautions, “to most people, it means absolutely nothing. It’s not like being a successful TV actor, where suddenly strangers want to be your friend or girls want to sleep with you or whatever.” Meanwhile, the very things that make his comics so vital to some — their naturalism, their angst — make them hateful to others, who dismiss Optic Nerve as frigid po-mo tripe. “I get the impression that there’s a certain kind of person who doubts the sincerity of what I do,” Tomine says. “I’ve read things that have directly accused me of cynically writing stories I didn’t really believe in just as a means of impressing girls!… The obvious response is, ‘If I really wanted to impress girls, why would I become a cartoonist in the first place?'”
The new issue of Optic Nerve finds him beginning a three-part story about a young Japanese man and his possible fixation on WASP women. It’s the first time Tomine has explicitly addressed his Asian heritage in his comics — though, as he’s often forced to repeat, his comics are not autobiographies (at least not directly). He’s also working on an English translation of the 1950s comics of manga pioneer Yoshihiro Tatsumi. “Basically I work in isolation from the world, put the comic out there, and a few letters and reviews trickle in,” he says. “If people show up for a book signing, I’m grateful.”