Adrian Tomine’s first novel “Shortcomings” illustrates the power of dialogue, which is somewhat of a surprise for a graphic novel. The book’s stark style consists of simplistic pen drawings of the characters, often overshadowed by their constant chatter contained in speech bubbles. The only background information we get is a military-style introduction to each character: profile picture, height, birthplace, profession.
The hero of “Shortcomings” is Ben Tanaka, a graduate student dropout in Berkeley, Calif. Ben manages Berekely’s movie theater, which is more a side job to his primary interests – sitting in coffee shops with his best friend and whining about social idiocy and his sexual inadequacies.
Tomine’s venture into the graphic novel allows him to elaborate on issues that aren’t fully realized in his shorter comic strips. In 108 pages of simple drawings and dialogue, Tomine addresses life crises, race relations and minority status. Ben is Japanese-American with a thing for blond hair, blue-eyed American girls, much to his Japanese girlfriend Miko’s dismay. His best friend, Alice, was born in Korea and is a lesbian, much to her conservative Christian parents’ dismay. Things begin to unravel as Miko and Alice leaves Ben for New York City.
The two women leave Ben behind literally and figuratively. Ben is the typical stuck-in-a-rut character. He’s miserable, but his sole outlets for unhappiness are criticism, sarcasm and self-deprecation. The story of Ben Tanaka is not unlike most coming-of-age stories, although he’s supposedly 30.
So if 30 is the new 20, and Ben is just beginning to find himself at 30, what are we supposed to be doing now?
“Shortcomings,” short and accessible, offers a glimpse into the possibilities of post-undergraduate life – basically, into everyone’s worst fears. There is a lot of talking, pretty much only talking, about what each character wants. But as Miko puts it, Ben is “pathologically afraid of change.”
Tomine blatantly portrays the various stereotypical lifestyle choices of late 20-somethings. And what’s a more appropriate medium than a graphic novel – usually equated with comics and growing up – to relay such a prototypical coming-of-age story? His style is part of a larger movement geared toward portraying the trends and vices of today’s youth through visual graphics. The same pen-and-ink drawings are used in David Rees’s popular comic strip “Get Your War On.” Rees moves somewhat beyond adolescence and hormones to discuss issues like the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq. Yet his use of comics to address important issues is similar. There’s a level of accessibility and creative expression inherent in this style.
This new generation of graphic novelists shows promise for a fresh look at socio-political issues. “Shortcomings,” however, doesn’t leave us feeling particularly optimistic – we are left with Ben, who remains stuck inside the graphic novel, clinging to the unreality of enduring childhood.
By Adrian Tomine
Drawn & Quarterly