Adrian Tomine has always struck me as the closest thing to a literary short-story writer in the comics field – our Raymond Carver, perhaps – with his tight, focused stories of real people in real worlds dealing with mundane lives and just interacting with each other. It’s the kind of work that sounds dull when I try to describe it, but is thrillingly true when done right, and Tomine generally gets it right.
So it was strange first to see that his new book last year, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist , was a memoir – I wondered if that knife-edge would still be there when writing about his own life. (It wasn’t, obviously, in his wedding-favor-cum-celebration-GN Scenes from an Impending Marriage , because if a book like that was in the typical Tomine tone, it would be a horrible sign for the marriage in question.)
And it was even more surprising to meet eight-year-old Adrian on the first page, on his first day at a new school in Fresno in 1982, declaring his undying love for John Romita. OK, sure, he was mercilessly tormented for it – that’s how he remembers it, so I’ll buy it on that level, but my memory is that eight-year-olds in 1982 liked to read superhero comics a lot, though I was not in hoity-toity Fresno – but the origin story of Adrian Tomine, as he presents it here, is basically the same as every other Gen-X cartoonist: imprinted on Marvel early, spent too much time in his own room making comics, ended up socially stunted and possessed of a massive imposter complex.
I’m being reductive, here. And Tomine doesn’t linger on that childhood: it’s the one quick sequence at age eight, and then smash-cut to 1995, when he’s on his way to his first San Diego Comic-Con. The bulk of Loneliness is made up of scenes from his professional life – moments when he’s “on-stage” as a cartoonist, at a signing or convention or publicity interview or just in public where someone recognizes him. And these moments are the ones I would have expected from Tomine: they’re all ones where things go wrong, or he’s embarrassed, where he says the wrong thing or is more clearly lonely and confused and out-of-place than he wishes he was. It could be a giant wall of cringe, but it’s all particular and grounded in the kind of person we learn Tomine is: he’s a creator, who spends his days in a chair thinking up stories. People like that always have trouble interfacing with the world: other people don’t know their lines in your story, and wouldn’t follow those lines if they did.
Tomine quietly keeps the focus on himself and his insecurities. There’s a number of places where names and faces are obscured – comics insiders probably already have a secret cheat sheet to figure out who all of those people are – so that the story is not “big name pro was mean to Adrian Tomine!” but instead stays “Adrian Tomine is insecure and obsesses about these moments, which exist in everyone’s lives.”
So Loneliness is the story of a career, but only the worst, saddest moments. The moments that you remember when you wake up randomly at 3AM, the ones that you can’t stop thinking about and that you can’t do anything about. Because it’s Tomine, it’s very specific: these are his issues, his anxieties, his worst moments.
The last thirty pages are the culmination of the book, a sequence of events in 2018 that I probably shouldn’t go into too much depth about. He presents it as what drove him to make this book, and that makes sense…but I think a lot of these moments have been in his head a long time, and he had been trying to figure out a way to contextualize them and turn them into a story and not just a list of bad moments.
It may be more personal, but it’s still an Adrian Tomine book. He doesn’t tell the reader how to feel in the end, he doesn’t contextualize it all and wrap it up in a bow. He does have a long speech, at nearly the very end, that comes close to explaining it — he even says outright “my clearest memories related to comics – to being a cartoonist – are the embarrassing gaffes, the small humiliations, the perceived insults.” But is this book his way to get beyond those moments? Or does it come out of a realization that the material that hits you the hardest is the stuff you need to do next? Or both? Or neither?
We’re not all famous cartoonists. (Tomine might even say that he isn’t a famous cartoonist, except in very specific circumstances – that’s the buried message of the first two pages.) But we all obsess about things. We all have memories we don’t want to think about but keep coming back to. Loneliness is the exploration of one life through those moments, by a master cartoonist and storyteller.