Sunday, February 03, 2008

Adrian Tomine on "Fresh Air w/ Terry Gross".

My normal experience when I tune into a media source is characterized by a feeling of complete disenfranchisement. I have a hard time finding that particular source that caters to my demographic. Hell... I have difficulty figuring out if I even belong to any definable demographic. On these occasions I wonder if I can even count myself as an American citizen. If I have no discernible consumer identity, then surely that means I am hopelessly lost... a man without a country. Still I tune in, hoping to find something to connect to. Very occasionally I am surprised, and I feel like I am where I am supposed to be, listening or watching something that makes me feel "at home". It usually doesn't happen in my car. I don't have satellite radio, or any of those other fancy pay-to-play amenities that help the average citizen define themselves. Maybe that's why the commute is so tiring.

I often end up listening to NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross on my way home. I usually find her obsessively examining the latest political issue. Sometimes it's informative, and at other times it's simply overkill. How many times can I hear an interchangeably disembodied voice pontificate on the Iraqi War troop surge? I have a similar sense of ennui when I have to listen to another analysis of our failing markets. Imagine my surprise last Thursday to find an interview with Adrian Tomine. Really... I hardly ever expect to find mention of an "alternative comics" artist outside my own house, or at the local purveyor of fine comics. Maybe one could expect an appearance by R. Crumb, or even Dan Clowes talking about his latest screenplay. But these are extremely rare occasions.

Adrian Tomine? He's not even a commonly recognized genius of his medium on the Comics Journal Message Board. In fact the regular posters there seem to be excessively negative when it comes to his work. I was always puzzled about the source of the animosity whenever his name came up. What was it about this individual creator that got under the skin of this small community that actually takes comics seriously? I was so puzzled that I asked the owner of the one store in Pittsburgh where I could reasonably expect to find Tomine's work. The answer was deceptively simple- in the opinion of one analyst, Tomine is disregarded and besmirched due to a generalized climate of envy. It turns out that Adrian Tomine has a reputation for getting laid. My source honestly believes that these eloquent nerds resent one of the few successful cartoonists working in art comics, merely because he is able to form meaningful human interactions with the opposite sex (in real time and space).

So take all the criticism (that you have likely never heard) with a grain of salt. There's something ugly lurking underneath. Certainly Tomine creates characters that may not be entirely sympathetic in their disaffected hipster poses. It's true that they are often world-weary and self-indulgent. And it's undeniable that Tomine appropriates the influence of Daniel Clowes in his work. But why shouldn't he? Hell, he's only 33 and it seems to have worked for him so far. Actually his first graphic novel Shortcomings does demonstrate a certain level of hard-earned maturity. Despite what you may hear from the peanut gallery, he is indeed developing as an artist. If (as he readily admits) he is partially responsible for the development of certain cliches in autobiographic comics- it is only attributable to a consistently present style in his work. Call it the visual equivalent of emo-core or post-indie music... it's a hallmark of Tomine's oeuvre.

I was actually very impressed by Terry Gross' level of insight in her interview with Tomine. I never knew her to be an explicit fan of art comics, but it definitely seemed like she did her homework beforehand. At one point she began talking about the artist's mother, and her background in psychology. She accurately highlighted the importance of the inner life in Tomine's work. She also identified him as something of an outsider, which you pretty much have to be (by default) when you make the kind of comics that Tomine creates.

Gross also brought up his peanut allergy, which she correctly guessed the existence of from reading his earlier comics. She asked if it had informed his perception of himself as a perpetual "outsider", and if it contributed to a type of hypersensitivity in his personality formation. In revealing this seemingly peripheral characteristic, Gross hit on an influence at the very core of Tomine's art. That something as inescapably physiological as a fatal allergen can make a little kid aware of the impermanence and fragility of life itself only seemed obvious to me after Gross pointed it out. That she was able to reach into Tomine's comics, and extract this subtle understanding is a testament to her skill and intuition about people. What could we expect next on Fresh Air? Maybe Gross will invite the inscrutable Chris Ware to the show, and give us a window into his process as well. No... that would just be pandering to my market niche.

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