Tate Williams

Adrian Tomine brings alt-comics sensibility to highbrow illustration in ‘New York Drawings’

Tate Williams November 15, 2012

An underground comic book artist at heart, it’s clear that Adrian Tomine isn’t quite comfortable in the role of highbrow magazine illustrator. And a Sacramento-born Californian at heart, he isn’t entirely comfortable identifying as a New Yorker either. And yet, he’s achieved a great deal of notoriety and success as both.

Tomine (pronounced toh-mi-neh) just finished a book tour in support of his new collection of beloved illustrations for The New Yorker from the past
decade. While he’s spent the greater part of his career focused on his excellent comic Optic Nerve since he was a high school zinester, the overwhelming majority of attention his work receives is in response to his body of work as an illustrator for the esteemed (let’s face it, worshipped) The New Yorker magazine.

Some of the magazine’s most famous and reproduced covers in recent history come from Tomine, his clean line style and funny-but-kind-of-sad portrayals of city life are instantly recognizable. Now that body of work is on display in New York Drawings, a beautiful hardcover publication from Drawn & Quarterly, chronicling his covers, inside illustrations, and selections from his sketchbook.

At an October talk at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Tomine talked about the book, and in particular the contrast between how he views his own work and career, relative to how it’s received by the public and where it’s taken him over the years. For example, he narrated slides of his comic foreword to the book, in which he retells his uncomfortable experience at The New Yorker’s holiday party. (He gives Phillip Roth a “whassup” chin-nod and ends up hiding in the bathroom.)

“I thought I’d always be an obscure ‘alternative’ comic book artist. Now whenever I meet an art school student, the first thing they ask me is ‘How did you get published in The New Yorker?’” he read from one of many neurotic thought bubbles.

In his ongoing comic Optic Nerve, which started in 1990 as a mini-comic he hand-delivered to local shops, Tomine tells mostly stories of anxiety, heartache, failure and inadequacy. It started as autobiographical, with a rougher, messier style befitting the stapled copy paper he printed it on. Heavily influenced by alternative cartoonists Dan Clowes (Ghost World, David Boring) and Jaime Hernandez (Love and Rockets), he moved toward his current immaculate, crisp line work, stylized but realistic. His subjects’ facial expressions are simple arrangements of lines with minimal detail, but suggest complex emotions and hidden narratives in a glance.

Tomine also edits a series of Drawn & Quarterly collections of the comics of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, alternative Japanese cartoonist who writes gritty, pitch-dark stories of city life. During his Cambridge talk, Tomine discussed his appreciation of Tatsumi, who spent most of his life in the shadow of his contemporary Osamu Tezuka, often called the “Japanese Walt Disney.” While Tezuka would become a legend for influential works like Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion, Tatsumi remained largely obscure, taking his work far from the mainstream with bleak tales of violence, sadness and isolation.

While Tomine’s illustration career has put him in the spotlight as a mainstream chronicler of New York life, it seems as if Tomine, at his core, identifies more with someone like Tatsumi — obscure comic scribbler telling tales of human misery. At his bookstore appearance, he sheepishly began the reading by saying he “might be morally opposed” to cartoonists doing book readings, since they get into the line of work in the first place to avoid doing things like standing up and speaking in front of crowds.

Which is not to say that he bemoans the success or notoriety he’s gained with The New Yorker, quite the contrary. It’s nice to be able to tell his wife’s family that’s where he works instead of that he makes “adult graphic novels,” he joked. And he’s always amazed at how strongly people connect with his illustration work. Reproductions of his covers are sold on street corner markets in New York, and prints of his are framed and hung in living rooms and bookstores across the country.

It’s easy to understand why people love them. While most have a simple, funny side, his cartoonist sensibility comes through, with each snapshot telling a story that people connect with emotionally. His most famous cover, “Missed Connection” (November 8, 2004), features a pretty young woman reading on a subway car, looking through the window at a neighboring car where a young man is reading the same book. They’re making eye contact in a moment of recognition, but the man looks a little sad and withdrawn. Soon the trains will continue on and the two will be swept back into isolation, presumably happy to be reading, but wondering what might have been. In another, “Exiled,” (July 26, 2010) a young girl in the backseat of a car gazes longingly at the New York City skyline as she drives away with her family for a rural getaway she has no desire to be part of.

His sketchbook documents similar mini-stories of the strange behavior of city dwellers. His subjects often seem lonely or wracked with some internal conflict, oblivious to the outside world or it oblivious to them.

In the notes of New York Drawings, and during his reading, Tomine confessed that while New Yorkers tend to see his drawings as optimistic
portrayals of the city’s greatness, more often his inspiration comes from something he actually dislikes about New York. Whether it’s the crowded vacation spots he can’t stand, the dismal weather he’s constantly hiding from, or outdoor movie screenings he finds sweaty and unpleasant, it’s always a surprise when people tell him how much they adore the very thing he’s knocking. Which is fitting in a way, since the very things many city dwellers love most about their homes often involve a sense of shared commiseration, and he captures that well.

That openness to emotional interpretation in his New Yorker art is one of the most rewarding aspects of his illustrative work, and the New York Drawings collection. One fan at the Boston reading noted that, while there was one particular image she found herself emotionally connected to, she was surprised to see a number of other people bookmarking that same image to have the author sign. You can read a lot into them, more perhaps than Tomine ever actually intended when he conceived them.

All in all, it’s a lovely body of work, with many images suitable for framing, regardless of your personal connection to New York City, or the band or movie featured in the magazine that prompted the illustration.

Fans of Tomine’s comics need not worry — he still spends a great deal of time working on Optic Nerve. His most recent compilation, Shortcomings, is a great read about a young Japanese-American man struggling with his racial identity in the context of his relationships. It’s set in Berkeley, where Tomine attended college. Shortcomings is loaded with anxiety, sexual inadequacy, people making poor decisions. Like most of his comics, it’s a little more on the Tatsumi side.

While that’s probably how he’s prefer to be remembered, the images he’s done for The New Yorker may always be his legacy. After the talk, as I sat down to read the book at a nearby bar, a middle-aged woman glanced over my shoulder and asked me what I was reading. I answered her and she had look of understanding right after I said “The New Yorker.”

“Ah I knew I recognized it from somewhere.”

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