Splinter Personalities, and Optical Observations With Adrian Tomine (Part 3)

By Austin English

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Sleepwalk cover copyright 1999 by Adrian Tomine English: So all your stories are based on some sort of personal experience?

Tomine: I'd say like, almost every one of them, yeah.

English: What do you have to say to people who tell you they think your mini-comics are still your best stuff?

Tomine: Well, I don't know. On one hand I'm somewhat offended by it. It's like, "Why do I even bother putting all this work into like figuring out how to do perspective, and learning anatomy, and figuring out how to ink well, if it's not gonna be appreciated? But then, I have to admit, there are times where, with certain people, filmmakers, cartoonists, musicians, I'll have that same feeling, where I know they got more accomplished as they went along with their career, but nothing matched that first burst of creative inspiration that they threw out on the world. But really, I can't fault people, because there will be times where I'll say, "Boy, I like this band. They're fifth album is really technically accomplished, but they're first album was really pure." Looking back on those stories though, I feel a certain distance. The first 3 quarters seems like it was done by a different person. The teenage version of me, and I think "Oh, that's kinda cute." But then where it starts to be more ambitious and mature, I'm kinda grossed out by it (laughs).

Optic Nerve

English: What did you want to do originally with Optic Nerve? What was your vision?

Tomine: I think I didn't really have enough time to carefully think it out. There's not really that much of a difference between the last issue of the mini comic, and the first issue of the regular comic. I just continued forward and did more of the same.

English: But the theme of the book was gonna be every day experiences?

Tomine: Yeah. That was sort of the same tone that I had in the mini comic. I think around the fifth issue of the real series, I started to think more ambitiously. I like the idea of a single comic, that's self contained, and there's no other stories, where the cover relates to the inside story. And so it's like something that you can have on your coffee table, and sort of read through. Then you can easily give it to someone else and say "Here's something you might like." All they need is right there in that one package.

English: The way you use interior monologue is kind of unique. Who influenced your use of interior monologue?

Tomine: That's a good question. (pause) I don't really know. I mean back in my earliest stuff, I was sort of doing that...

English: Very first story in 32 stories does it.

Tomine: Just to show the action, because I didn't feel it was substantial enough. I wanted to get inside the characters heads a little, I guess I could have done it through bubbles but I think I was sort of interested at that time in visual short stories, and I wanted to craft prose. To write well-written sentences, so that sort of gave me an excuse to do that.

English: Getting back to the whole splinter personality thing... when you write interior monologue, do you write it with the characters traits in mind, or do you write it entirely from your own thoughts?

Tomine: Like you said, it sort of depends on how divergent the character is from myself. There's some, where it just flows really naturally, and then there's Dylan and Donovan where it had to be written in character. So I have to think about what I'm trying to express, and how it would come out through these characters.

English: I think some of my favorite stories of yours are "Lunchbreak" and "Supermarket", which feature the elderly. You spend almost all your time focusing on writing about your generation, but you write older people and-- sometimes--- younger people very well. Why do you just focus on your generation?

Tomine: I don't know... I guess it has to do with, the fact that everything is based on my experience. I'm more interested in the stuff that's happened to me since high school, as opposed to the stuff that's happened prior to high school. When it gets into that old age stuff, that sort of becomes conjecture. That's just hypothesizing about what it would be like. So, I imagine that as I get older, I'll be able to draw on more levels of experience. I guess when I'm fifty, I'll still be thinking of interesting things that happened to me in my twenties. But also, maybe something interesting will happen to me that day.

English: So if Optic Nerve were still going when you're fifty, which it probably won't be, the stories would grow with you?

Tomine: Yeah! I mean... I think so. I think already I'm starting to adjust the perspective to my age. I'm dealing more with characters who are not at their youthful peak anymore. They might be starting to think that some people are younger than themselves already. So, yeah, I think it does. I think it closely follows my own age.

English: It's kinda odd reading Sleepwalk, and coming across a story like Pink Frosting, which is radically different from the rest of the book. What are you getting at with stories like that?

Tomine: I think that was one of those things where an idea had been in my head for a long time, and I just sort of kept resisting and thinking, "No... this is too out of place for me." And then just having some sort of moment of inspiration or I don't know what, were I just decided "Well, who cares? I'll do it anyway. It might be out of place. But I'll go for it." And then ultimately being sort of satisfied. I enjoy things that jump out at people.

English: Layover is a good example of where you make the mundane, really important and readable. Are you aware when you write a story that "Oh, this might be kind of boring?" How do you make it into a story?

Tomine: Even if the events themselves are kind of mundane a guy just walking around his neighborhood, the process involves taking something mundane, and then injecting it with some sort of mental drama. The physical actions aren't exciting but maybe there's something going on in the character mind a little bit. I think most people think of these stories as random. Little things that begin and end randomly. Even as slight as hey may seem, in my mind I'm thinking of some sort of story structure. That story (Layover) has to begin with him missing the flight and it ends with him in bed, think about the next morning. There are definite beginnings and endings to these things, even though it doesn't seem like it.

English: And that's essential to writing the story.

Tomine: Yeah, I have to know where it begins and ends. If it's like "well, he keeps wondering around all night," then I can't do it, because I feel it has to resolve in some way, some minor way.

English: Dylan and Donovan, is to me, a study of a family. Is that what you intended, and how did you write the family so well?

Tomine: Well... (long pause)

English: Or do you see it as a study of a family?

Tomine: No I do. I do. I think it has to do with relationships the sisters have with each other and with their dad. Again, it's a little bit from myself, a little bit of what I've witnessed. I feel like, a lot of times I see these really well intentioned parents, trying to connect with their kids, and for whatever reason, the kids are very resistant to it. And I know that I was guilty of that as that age.

Single Issue Woes

English: What was it like to do a full issue story with Optic Nerve #5?

Tomine: It was very daunting. Almost at ever step of the way, I thought "This isn't gonna work out. It's a good leap, because now I've made it, and doing a long story is more manageable. I sort of worked it out into a science. With that, I was just sort of flailing around. I didn't even know how to organize that many thoughts. I knew I needed to pack in a lot of stuff.

English: Well, you used the little headers in issue #6...

Tomine: Those helped, but obviously I can't use those every issue. But that was the main thing... it's like writing a short story: here's the basic idea and that's it. Four pages, and done. I didn't even have to write it out. But when you have 24 pages, and the pacing is smooth, and you gotta make sure you pack in all the ideas you want, and cut out the extraneous things. And you gotta make sure it ends on the last panel of the 24th page. So, in terms of organization, it was very daunting to me anyway. I'm still figuring out the mechanics of it.

English: If it was so daunting, why did you make the change in the first place?

Tomine: I'd sort of been edging towards it. I'd done a few stories that were ten or twelve pages long. "Six Day Cold", "Dylan and Donovan". And I just started thinking... the way my mind was thinking was just in terms of bigger stories, and I just wanted to pack more stuff into it. And then, when I started to feel that fear of not knowing what to do with it, that inspired me to try even harder, rather then backing away from it. I thought "I better dive into this, and give it my best shot."

English: Did it get easier towards issue #6?

Tomine: Well, I don't know if it was easier. I enjoyed it more. I felt like I had more of a grasp on how to manage it. But yeah, I really enjoyed that. I really liked being able to show a lot of sides of the personality. I like having a plot develop. I like having actions occur that cause reactions.

English: In a review of issue #6, I wrote that you're able to write characters that are a bit unlikable, but still allow the reader to identify with them. Is this a conscious effort?

Tomine: Yeah. Yeah. It's... I'm trying to resist the temptation to write black and white terms. Y'know, good characters and bad characters. When I'm writing, I think of movies that I like. Books that I like. I try to think about, I'm trying to approximate some amount of reality, and I like the idea of characters that you're almost ambivalent towards. Not that you don't have any reaction, but your sort of torn. You're frustrated about how you should react to them.

English: Why does Optic Nerve contain nothing uplifting?

Tomine: It's reflective of my own mood, my own mental state. I think it also relates to the kind of literature or films that I am attracted to. And, again I think it has to do with my move away from the funny stories, or political things, where it's just like, it's either too thin or a little bit of stating the obvious. I don't know what it is, but for me, it's much more interesting... a lot of times, I think "Would this be an interesting story if I just told somebody, and said 'Hey, this just happened to me'", or would it be like "Who cares?" I'm always interested in people coming to me and talking about some problem or difficulty they had, rather then someone just saying "I kicked ass. I did really good on my test today. Everybody said I was looking good." I'd just be like "Ahh... shut up." (laughs).

Today's Industry

English: Who do you respect in today's industry... or who's work are you reading?

Tomine: I like almost everything that Drawn and Quarterly puts out. Especially Julie Doucet, and Seth, and Joe Matt, who's one of your favorites, but he never puts anything out. Pretty much everything that D & Q puts out I really like. And then the obvious people from Fantagraphics. Whatever the Hernandez bros. are doing. Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Charles Burns.

English: I really like D & Q, because you're right: everything they put out is great. What's it like working for them though? Any restraints on your work?

Tomine: There are no deadlines. It's completely hands off. That's why it's amazing to be that they're able to put out good stuff. Because, the publisher Chris (Oliveros) doesn't really impose any kind of restrictions on the artists. That implies that he has a knack for picking out good talent. Putting faith in that talent to produce something good. He's certainly not an editor. He doesn't even check my spelling. It's great. I send him the art, and he gets it printed up. It's a dream situation.

English: Is there any danger in the vast majority of Alternative talent being at Fantagraphics and D & Q?

Tomine: Well, I wish it wasn't that way...

English: I guess Top Shelf is coming up.

Tomine: Yeah. There are a couple of smaller companies coming up, doing good stuff. I really do feel like it's split between D & Q and Fantagraphics. So, I wish there were more options, more publishers. 'Cause I feel like now, all of the artists will stay with their publisher, pretty much all throughout their life, because they feel like there's nowhere else to go. They're not really happy about the circumstances, but they can't do much about it.

English: What do you see as the main problem facing alternative comics today?

Tomine: What bothers me, is that my work might appeal to "normal people". Non-comic fans and they have no exposure to it. That's why as much as people may want to vilify Tower, and Virgin Megastores, I think one good thing that they are doing, is getting the good comics into the hands of a mainstream audience. But I like the idea of both comic stores, and comics being sold in more mainstream outlets. I like going to a comic store. But I do like the idea of someone who goes to Virgin to look for a book, and stumbles across the hardcover of "Caricature" and then they get really turned on to comics.

English: What's it like living right next to Dan Clowes and Richard Sala?

Tomine: Well, it's great. There my two best friends here in town, which is a fulfilling of a childhood goal, because not only did I want to be a cartoonist, I wanted to be...

English: You wanted to be in the group.

Tomine: Yeah... I'd never met other cartoonists. I wanted to have people to talk to about comics with, intelligently, and not be embarrassed. And I wanted to have friends who were successful in the field. That's what I have with those guys, and it's good.

Success, and the Future

English: What's it like having so much success at a young age?

Tomine: I guess it's hard for me to comment on it, until I have more perspective. And I guess I'm also not grateful enough for it, because I don't know any other way. I don't feel as if I struggled that much to get where I am. I have to remind myself that it is pretty fortunate. It's great. There aren't that many other people who are at this stage, during this age, who don't have to work, and can just stay at their house. It's pretty lucky.

English: Lots of people who I talk to about Optic Nerve, and a lot of reviews I read of it, suggest that you're the comics voice of your generation. How's that feel?

Tomine: Well... I guess it might just be that their assigning me that title, because I'm the only person my age, doing that kind of work. I think there's much more comprehensive ways... if you wanted to be the comics' voice of their generation, they would certainly do it much more comprehensively then I do. I feel like I'm sort of focused in on one group, but I'm not representing the full spectrum. I'm not writing about people who are 25, and working at investment firms, and making a 100,000 dollars a year.

English: And no stories about the poor either.

Tomine: Right. I feel like I'm the voice of my personal experience. I there's a certain demographic that matches that, that's fine, but I'm not going for any grand statements or anything like that.

English: What do you plan for the future of Optic Nerve?

Tomine: Well, I'm sort of thinking about the fact that these comics get repackaged in bookform, in increments of four issues. So I feel like, the first collection of Sleepwalk had a bunch of short stories. And so I feel like now, working on issue #7, which is another full length story. 5,6,7 and 8 are all single issues, and the next book will just have 4 long stories in it. And then probably after issue 8, I'll start writing, a continuous story, and then have the next book be just one story. Beyond that, I haven't done too much planning.