GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Shortcomings
Adrian Tomine is an anomaly on the current alternative-comics scene – his stories are absolutely realistic, in both their artistic look and their mundane events, but aren’t obviously autobiographical at all. The closest comparison I can think of is that he’s a Northern Californian Gilbert Hernandez – deeply concerned with ethnicity and identity – but working more as a miniaturist. (Tomine is clearly influenced by the modern New Yorker school of short prose fiction; many of his stories could have been adapted straight from a Raymond Carver short story.)
Shortcomings is Tomine’s longest story to date – his first graphic novel-length tale at all – reprinting a three-issue storyline from Tomine’s irregular comic, Optic Nerve. But his virtues and interests are still those of a short-story writer: close evocation of character, realistic dialogue, small-scale events. None of the events are overly dramatic…but the main character certainly is.
Ben Tanaka is a young Japanese-American man living in Berkeley – managing a movie theater, in a rut with his live-in girlfriend Miko, denying that he’s obsessed with blonde Caucasian girls, and only really connecting with his lesbian friend Alice. He’s angry about nothing in particular, and frustrated about his entire life without quite realizing it himself. He’s our viewpoint character – in every scene, and at the center of most of them – but it’s hard to identify with him, since he is such a prick. He’s young and disaffected, but doesn’t think of himself that way – he thinks he’s doing all right, and doesn’t realize that he’s a complete jerk.
Ben’s life, which should feel more comfortable to him than it does, is turned around when Miko gets an internship in New York for several months and uses it as an excuse to essentially break up with Ben. Now, Ben wasn’t all that happy in the relationship…but that doesn’t mean he’ll let it go. By the end, Ben, Alice, and Miko have all met again in New York, and Ben’s life isn’t what it was. (But remember what I said about Tomine, and about Ben – this is the story of an obnoxious guy chasing his ex-girlfriend, as told by a cartoonist whose literary instincts are for the sad and broken side of life. Don’t look for a romantic comedy ending.)
Tomine tells this story cleanly, almost coldly – in nearly photo-realistic panels, usually composed in medium shot and corralled into a mostly nine-panel grid. (His panels are always sharp-cornered and squared off; his layouts never call attention to themselves; his viewpoint never flies around like a camera.) He’s created the comics equivalent of clear, transparent prose – you see the story rather than the pen lines.
I can expect a lot of readers won’t be interested in Ben Tanaka – he is a jerk – but his story is true-to-life and well-told; Tomine is one of the best young cartoonists, and the one whose stories are the closest to real life. I’d imagine a large part of Shortcomings’s potential audience is among serious fiction readers – the kind of people who don’t generally read comics, and would say that they don’t like comics – and I wonder if they’ll even know that it exists. This may be a book for serious comics outreach; if you have a friend who’d never read comics because they’re “too fantastic” and “unlike real life,” Shortcomings is the book to give him.
Drawn & Quarterly, October 2007, $19.95