Adrian Tomine started out like any other comic strip artist and graphic novelist. A self-admitted fanatic of “terrible 1970s superhero crap,” Tomine religiously bought the newest Marvel comic book every week until he was 12.
His first works were imitations of what he saw in trashy, action-based comic books. But early in his career, Tomine reached a “saturation point” at which he was no longer satisfied with mainstream comics, instead turning to underground forms where he found inspiration for the witty, satirical and poignant work he produces.
Tomine – who will be at Shaman Drum Bookshop for a reading and signing of his new book, “Shortcomings,” tonight at 7 p.m. – is more than a cartoonist. He started his first comic book, “Optic Nerve,” at 16, and it remains one of the most popular sellers for his publisher, Drawn & Quarterly. Like all of Tomine’s work, “Optic Nerve” is based on both personal experiences and intuitive social observations.
Throughout the years, Tomine has illustrated his ability to relate to all types of characters. His shorter strips have depicted angst-ridden teenagers, lonely old people, criminals and dreamers. Without preaching, he expresses emotions at their core, using comic strips and graphic illustrations to make stories more accessible.
Tomine’s first full novel, “Shortcomings,” tells the story of graduate school dropout Ben Tanaka and his relationship problems. It comes at an integral time in Tomine’s career. Feeling complacent in his work, he saw the novel as a challenge and a way to extract himself from the shadows of mentors like Jaime Hernandez and Daniel Clowes. After signing on with Drawn & Quarterly, Tomine felt a professional expectation to talk about heavier issues.
This isn’t to say that deep and challenging issues aren’t included in his shorter strips. He has a knack for fluidly incorporating political and social issues into individual narratives and interpersonal relationships. The mere girth of this novel, though, has pushed him to explore issues of race and the 20-something generation. Many reviews label the novel a critique, yet Tomine calls it more “a celebration” of this age group.
What’s so refreshing about Tomine, and what has probably fueled his increased popularity, is his hesitance to judge his characters. “Shortcomings” is the result of five years at the drawing board, and Tomine is more than happy to admit he didn’t set out “to say anything.”
“Most of all I wanted to create an interesting, fictional story with characters who come to life and seem real,” Tomine said in a phone interview.
With a success like “Shortcomings,” Tomine could probably ride this wave out. The novel’s story left room for a continuation, but he’s not interested in creating some soap opera-esque epic. After five years with these characters, he’s excited about different smaller projects. Right now he seems to be a work in progress himself, attempting to pinpoint what exactly he learned from writing the novel as well as breaking out of its confines to work on smaller pieces for magazines and anthologies.
Tomine recognizes the increased popularity of graphic novels and ascribes this interest to the large number of authors and publicists working in the medium. “Shortcomings” and Tomine’s national tour are a significant chapter in this movement. He may have started out as a kid imitating his favorite artists, but it’s likely that today there are 13-year-olds finding inspiration in each new copy of “Optic Nerve.”
Tonight at 7 p.m.
At Shaman Drum