Amazing Montage Magazine

for October, 1999

Splinter Personalities, and Optical Observations With Adrian Tomine

By Austin English

Go to Tomine Interview Part 2 Optic Nerve cover copyright 1999 by Adrian Tomine

The quote on the back of Adrian Tomine's "32 Stories" pretty much say's it all: "Adrian Tomine is simply too good for his age." At 25, Tomine has gone from obscure mini-comic artist, to one of the comic industries best, brightest, and most promising.

Like almost every cartoonist in the past decade or so, Tomine debuted in the format of mini -comics. In 1991, He xeroxed 25 copies of work he had previously doodled in various sketchbooks. Despite initial disinterest, Tomine kept at it, and soon gained the recognition he deserved.

A Xeric grant came his way, as well as write-ups from and the admiration of alternative comic legends, such as Chester Brown. Soon, his work was published alongside his personal favorite artists, such as Julie Doucet, Seth, and Joe Matt, at Drawn and Quarterly.

Tomine has been dubbed the comics voice of his generation, (a title he does not agree with) mainly due to the fact that his comic Optic Nerve deals mainly with people his age: their relationships, daily problems, insecurities, and thoughts. Interesting on their own, the stories gain another level, when you realize that virtually all of them come from experiences Tomine himself has had. The characters in Optic nerve are splinter personalities of their author.

I talked to Tomine for about an hour in his Berkley apartment, where he studies English at the University of California.

Making a Living

Austin English: What always saddens me, about cartoonists like you, who are at the top of their field, that you have to do a lot of extra work to supplement your income. How much does that affect your work, and to what extent do you need to supplement your income with illustration work type stuff?

Adrian Tomine: Yeah that's a good question. At this point, my incomes probably about 50/50 between the comics and the illustration work. So I'd be (laughs), I'd be living much more modestly without the illustration work.

So, yeah, it is sort of a hindrance too, just because you can never predict when a job is gonna come or anything like that. You've just gotta work on the comic when you can, and when someone calls you up with a job to do, you just have to put everything else on hold. So it's always kind of annoying. But, most of the illustration stuff I do is just not very enjoyable to me at all.

It's not very fun-- I just do it to make the money.

English: Do you see something wrong about that though? The fact that all these top cartoonists yourself included, have to work on other jobs to be able to make a living, and the comics industry doesn't help the people who have the most talent?

Tomine: Yeah; I mean it would be nice if there were just more full time cartoonists. The cartoonists I know who are just able to do comics and illustration work are the lucky ones. There are so many who actually have full time jobs. They do comics just sort of as a hobby.

English: Like a lot of mini-comic artists.

Tomine: Right; or there are even people who do comics, but they teach at an art school. It is sort of discouraging, but I think that that's the way it is in most of the arts. Like most of the-- except for the really big fiction writers, most writers are professors someplace, and write movie scripts or something like that. So, yes it is bad, and I'm just lucky I don't need to be working on illustration work all the time.

Growing Up

English: Have you always lived in the Bay Area?

Tomine: I was born in Sacramento. I moved around for a bit when I was a kid. I've lived... Berkeley's probably where I've lived the longest, because I've lived here for about six or seven years. That's the longest I've been in one place. But, yeah, mostly around the Bay Area.

English: You talk a little bit about it in the intro of 32 stories, but could you elaborate on what you were like as a kid?

Tomine: I guess... I was pretty much a loner. At least when I was a younger child, I enjoyed spending most of my time alone. I liked to just draw, and play with toy's by myself. I just wasn't that interested in going out and playing with friends.

And then as I got older, and I became more interested in these type's of things like having more friends or going out with girls, I realized I'd sort of developed a personality of a loner by that time. So there was nothing I could really do about it. So then it sort of became less enjoyable (laughs).

English: Could you talk about how that isolation brought about the Optic Nerve mini comic?

Tomine: Yeah... yeah, I mean it relates to that, in that I probably would have preferred to be hanging out with these people and doing more social things, but as I say, I'd developed some sort of personality, that kept me as a loner (laughs). So, all during high school, at least for the first few years, I never felt at all burdened by homework or any of the school demands. I thought it was fairly easy. So a lot of time, I was just sitting around my house, just doing nothing. So, yeah, out of that came the comics.

And I just felt that I was just wasting time if I wasn't doing something productive. If I wasn't doing homework, I wouldn't just watch TV for hours on end. And so I would just invent... I wanted a real assignment. A real job to do with my artwork but since I didn't have it, I'd just invent little tasks, so I'd do a little 3 page story and just focus on that for a few days.

English: What were you reading at this time?

Tomine: I was just starting high school, so I was probably about 14 or 15. Well, I was just getting into alternative comics...

English: When were you first exposed to alternative comics?

Tomine: Oh...starting back to sixth or seventh grade, I started to become aware that they're might be something more interesting out there. I was still buying mainstream comics too, but I started to become aware of alternative comics, and by the time I was in seventh or eight grade, I was pretty much only interested in the alternative stuff.

English: Do you remember any of them influencing you in any way?

Tomine: Oh yeah, I mean they were very helpful, because at times, I was basically learning by copying. Just opening up a copy of Love and Rockets, and trying to draw faces the way the Hernandez brothers did. Art wise, I was really just trying to copy Love and Rockets. In terms of writing, I was just becoming very influenced by L&R and American Splendor, Weirdo, and just all those kinds of things. And I started to develop more of a sense of things like, what was possible, in terms of what would constitute a story. I would read an American Splendor story, and just be so surprised at how slight it was. But then, that would sort of stick with me, and roll around in my brain for a while, and I would go "Yeah, I liked that story" and then sit down and try to write a story just like it.

English: What interested me when I was reading an interview with you, was that you said you didn't intend anyone to see your original sketchbooks. Why was this?

Tomine: Because I was pretty self critical, and I felt like... I was somehow self aware enough tom know that these were sort of like practice runs, I was doing them more as a learning process, rather then a finished project.

English: And all the little imperfections that you saw would be magnified...

Tomine: Yeah... I felt like it was kinda like, when you're trying on different outfits and looking in the mirror before you go outside. I was sort of... it was for my edification more then anything else.

English: You talked about the need to tell stories at such a young age, but why did you feel the need to publish and sell your work at such a young age? That's not really something high school students normally feel the need to do.

Tomine: I guess...I guess I was a little bit premature there. It wasn't quite ready to be put out into the world. At least the first few issues, but I think I got sort of anxous and over-eager. I don't know. Since I was a kid, I was always pretty focused in on being a cartoonist. That was the job I wanted to have.

English: You didn't want to wait.

Tomine: Right. I sort of knew It was gonna be a long process between where I was, and being a professional cartoonist. I just wanted to get the ball rolling.

English: So, the initial disinterest in the mini comic didn't affect you? You expected that?

Tomine: I expected that, yeah. It was almost sort of like conformation of my suspicions. Like if I had taken out the first issue of the mini comic, and started selling beyond my expectations, or people really writing in a praising me, I would have really been blown away. So in some of the little strips I did, I sort of portrayed myself as angry that it wasn't selling very well. But the truth was, I was expecting that more then anything else.

English: Did you ever show your work to friends in high school? Because you have that one story "This is a true story...", where your friends are talking to you about your book. Or was that after high school?

Tomine: No, that was during high school, but they were older then me. They'd actually already graduated from high school. They were really into comic books themselves, so we became friends on the basis of art and comic books. But my actually peers didn't actually know anything about that.

The Mini-Comic Explosion

English: Could you explain the appeal of mini comics for young cartoonists, and why every body starts out that way?

Tomine: It's sort of this whole attitude, which I think has developed in all mediums, in a sense, where it's like the d.i.y. mentality where people are starting to see that you don't have to wait for someone to give you the greenlight to start doing your project, or give you money. You can just cheaply start doing your own mini comic, or publish their own little books of poetry, stuff like that. And I think that's the main appeal... that it's so easy, and so relatively cheap. I mean, I think there are some people who really have some thing where they prefer the aesthetic of mini comics in general. They like small little comics, and the whole homemade sort of thing.

For me it's mainly just about the content. If there was a great, really well drawn, well written mini comic, then that's fine. If there's a really well drawn, well written published comic, then that's fine. And so, for the most part, I see mini-comics as a really good training ground. I good middle step between doodling in your sketchbook, and getting published.

English: Julie Doucet and Terry Laban influenced you as mini-comic artists?

Tomine: Yeah they did. Yeah... I mean, I like them both as cartoonists, and also... they influenced me in terms of their content and their style. But also, just the format. I mean, I had never seen a mini-comic. I didn't know how they we're constructed. So just to look at one of those...

English: And to see that you could do it too.

Tomine: Yeah. Because it was like three pieces of typed paper folded in half... that was kind of a revelation.

English: Who doing mini-comics know do you respect?

Tomine: Let's see. I don't get that many that are really that good actually. (laughs). I mean... there's a guy named John Porcelino who's been doing mini comics for years. It's called "King Cat" comics. I think he's just one of those guys who loves the format of a little Xeroxed mini-comic. He draws very simply, but he's been consistently good for longer then I've been drawing comics. Yeah, I don't know. A lot of the people who are really good at mini-comics have gone on to publishing deals. And then a lot of those mini comics that I get in the mail are... some are getting there, and some are terrible. Nothing has really blown my mind recently.

English: How did winning the Xeric grant change the way you work? More specifically, how did it change your mentality towards the whole thing, now that you knew people liked and accepted your work?

Tomine: Oh... well, I guess that was sort of like all in the middle of this exciting period, where I started to think, "Maybe I'm okay." Right before that the mini comics started to sell really well, I started to get a lot of feedback, I started to get a few little right ups. Every little positive thing that happened was always sort of a surprise to me. I remember when Chester Brown gave me a little plug in Yummy Fur...

English: Oh man!

Tomine: And I just thought... "Is... is he just being nice? Am I okay? Does he really like it?" Then I started to feel when stuff like that started to happen, same with getting the grant, and same with Drawn and Quarterly publishing me, it was like this really amazing time.

English: In the early days of Optic Nerve, you did a bunch of dream comics. Why did you stop this?

Tomine: Because when I go back and read them, or I look at other people doing dream comics, 9 times out of 10, I feel like there fairly devoid of any real content. Maybe to the artist themselves, it's some sort of personal merging of sub-conscious thoughts, or something. But a lot of times, it's an excuse to draw weird little stories.

English: Where nothing really has to make sense.

Tomine: Right. You don't have to really write. It's almost, dreams are something someone gives you like a little idea for a story, and someone like David Lynch will take dream inspiration, and really craft them into really great stories. But to just do an exact transcription of a real dream... I don't know, at this point seems like it's been done too much. And if you're some great cartoonists like Julie Doucet or Jim Woodrig, then the art just carries it along for me. But for me, I just feel like... my art is sort of the in service of the story, so I want to do something with the content.

Go to Tomine Interview Part 2