I recently read Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel “Shortcomings,” a present given to me because I have been reading a great deal of graphic novels lately. Graphic novels have intrigued me as an art form since I was 13, when I picked up the first book installment of “The New X-Men” by Grant Morrison.
I suppose I’ve always loved graphic novels and comics; the former present the narratives in one complete dose, and the latter present it with the suspense of waiting for month-by-month serial installments. I’ve had my share of both — of excitedly buying a comic’s issues 1-10 pre-packaged in a glossy, soft-cover book, and of waiting for my “X-Men” comic to come in the mail every month, only to be disappointed in the fact that at its close I’d be waiting, sometimes mid-caption balloon, for what came next month.
Looking back, it was like an addictive, sci-fi soap opera. Drama! Intrigue! Murder! I still held on, even while being sorely aware of the plot devices, the somewhat predictable twists and turns and the cliffhangers that were immediately resolved within the first page of the next installment. But there was still a childish part of me that endured all of the month-by-month suspense because I sympathized with this world. I wanted to have superpowers when I was 14 (and even now, at 21), and I’m sure many others can sympathize with that feeling too.
I dropped my subscription of “The Ultimate X-Men” when I was 16, aware of how the series wasn’t keeping my interest like it had a year or two before. From there, left without a monthly comic to read, I moved from the comic world into the world of graphic novels.
It was there that I became increasingly aware that the word “graphic novel” enveloped much more than the expected fantasy, sci-fi or superhero genres. The graphic novel, which once transported me from one world to another (a world where men shot lasers out of their eyes), could now transport me inward. The graphic novel could also allow for a great deal of introspection into the mundane, delving into the details of a world within our own instead of transporting me out of it.
A few years ago I read the “Optic Nerve” comics by Adrian Tomine, an Asian-American graphic novelist whose work has appeared almost everywhere, including the cover of the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine and on the cover of Yo La Tengo’s live-in-studio covers album “Yo La Tengo is Murdering the Classics.” Tomine is known for his crisp, subtle illustrations that visually map out and emulate the multifaceted anatomy of a scene, a gesture or an emotion.
A single, two-by-one inch panel in “Shortcomings,” for example, contains a speech bubble reading “Okay” and an Asian man and a Caucasian woman looking at one another intensely, eyes somewhat closed, lips pursed; this panel embodies the complex height of an infinite amount of sexual tension related to infidelity, race relations and sexuality that a thousand words on the matter could never come close to fully expressing. The dreamy, familiar look from one person to another covers enough complex and emotionally grounded material, it seems, to occupy an entire Marvel Universe.
Tomine’s graphic novels made me want to return to fiction writing. His ability to somehow find the oddest, sparkling moment in the mundane has always intrigued me. I’ve always admired his — and other graphic novel writers’ — odd and paradoxical ability to be unsentimental while telling a story with such sentimental undertones, hitting on points such as nostalgia, love or jealousy without getting “gushy,” “cheesy” or, scarily enough, “emo.” It’s the artist’s ability to stretch out, expand and renew the boy-meets-girl or the I-shouldn’t-have-cheated-on-you tale that make stories worthwhile, because, essentially, we have read their basic, bare-bones plots before at one time or another, but perhaps not in the particular way Tomine presents.
As for those interested in graphic novels that examine life in its confusion and complexity, I would suggest Allison Bechdel’s graphic memoir “Fun Home,” which is primarily a personal examination of Bechdel’s neglectful, homosexual father who committed suicide when she was 20. Also worthwhile is Chris Ware’s “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth,” which, contrary to its title’s suggestion of childlike fantasy, follows the adult Corrigan through his profoundly tragic, lonely life and his oddly liberating dreams of peach trees and robots.
Finally, there’s David B.’s “Epileptic” — a graphic memoir that covers the childhood of David B. and his disabled epileptic brother Jean-Christophe. It tells the story of Jean letting his life fall into the tragic hideaway of his illness, and, consequently, David letting his life fall into the tragic hideaway of his art.
For me, the introspective quality of Tomine’s graphic novels created a new looking-glass through which to view the world. Simply put, graphic novels have done what literature, film and many other art pieces have done: They have presented the real and the mundane, and then renewed it for us, making it exciting and different. I’m glad to see that this medium has been making a great deal of headway, becoming a legitimate art form in the eyes of the public, and I’m looking forward to seeing what other areas artists will examine it in the future, from the macrocosm of the Marvel Universe to the microcosm of the moment.