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An Interview with Adrian Tomine

Updated: Apr 15, 2019

I first happened upon Adrian Tomine's work through the now-defunct-but-forever-alive-in-my-heart Rookiemag, and I had never felt so understood by someone who didn't know me personally. This is not an uncommon reaction to his work. "Adrian Tomine can draw, think, write and feel. He sees everything, he knows everything; he's in your apartment, he's on the subway, he's in your dreams...He has more ideas in twenty panels than novelists have in a lifetime," Zadie Smith said in regards to Killing and Dying, Tomine's collection of graphic short stories.

Killing and Dying has been praised for empathetically describing the lives of adults, lending a sentimentality to the most dismal circumstances, a common compliment for Tomine's oeuvre. While this is absolutely true, I also feel that sometimes his work's relatability to young people is ignored. After all, Killing and Dying's titular story is mainly about a teen and her family. I think I was about 15 when I read Killing and Dying. I don't think I was necessarily mature for my age, and naturally the character I identified most with was Jesse, a teenager struggling with the loss of her mother and trying to make it as a stand up comedian. Though I had never lost a parent, Jesse reflected my feelings of isolation, my desperation to be good at my craft (and my failure to do that).

Growing up in a small town in California, much of the scenery in Killing and Dying was also familiar and reflected the environment I was in, an environment I had never seen in a graphic novel before, whc drew me closer to the book. I don't think I could fully understand the depth of the adult characters (even at 18 I'm not sure I do, there always seems to be something more to discover). But I identified with them. I saw the world through their eyes for a brief moment, and, to me at least, that's the main purpose of storytelling: to allow your readers to know what it's like to be someone else. After reading Killing and Dying, I devoured Tomine's other books and Optic Nerve, and gazed intently at his many New Yorker covers, each time leaving with that same high, the sort of ecstasy you get from seeing yourself in everyone else.

There's an abundance of very lovely, flowery, incredibly descriptive pieces out there about Tomine, and if I were to emulate any of them, it would just sound like a dilettante's book report. I could never recount his work with the eloquence of others who have covered it, or in a manner that truly does it justice. But if there is an under-discussed-- or perhaps not under-discussed so much as excluded --aspect of his work, it would be its ability to appeal to everybody, not just New Yorker readers, not just graphic novel enthusiasts, not just lonely teenagers, but everybody. That sometimes gets lost in the verbiage of lengthy reviews. It's accessible. It's funny. It'll rip your heart out, but also make it so much fuller.

In what ways do your children inspire you?

On a very practical level, they inspire me to work hard and try to make money. When I was younger, I got comfortable with just making enough money to support my collegiate bachelor lifestyle, with no regard for the future. Now I have to be a "responsible adult," and that's actually been good for my productivity. I can't afford to slack off or be paralyzed by insecurity!

On a more meaningful level, my kids have changed me just as a person in so many ways, and I'm sure that can't help but affect my work. I know there are some people who think that having kids is an impediment to being an artist, but in my case it's been the opposite. Especially since the kind of work I do is all about understanding and exploring people (and how they relate to each other), becoming a parent has been a big boost for me in terms of empathy and in terms of just having a more nuanced and forgiving view of everyone.

What's a specific personal experience that has influenced your work?

My parents' divorce.

What's an object in your life that you view as symbolic of something?

I'm a cartoonist, so I probably view every object as symbolic of something!

Using a metaphor, how would you describe your creative process?

Pushing a boulder up a mountain, like Sisyphus. But in the most tidy, organized, OCD way.

Do you think it's possible to separate the art from the artist?

I think if you want to appreciate a range of art, especially throughout history, it's essential. I'm routinely disappointed when I learn about the private life of artists I admire, and sometimes I'm completely shocked and disgusted. It's a difficult and confounding challenge, and I've definitely felt myself unable to make that separation in some cases. I could be wrong, but I think it's inherently heartbreaking and basically futile to hope that all one's artistic heroes will be unimpeachably wonderful humans.

Do you remember any of the comics you drew as a child? What were they about?

Much to my chagrin, many comics from my childhood have been published (if you consider being a teenager part of childhood!). But when I was even younger, I did a lot of really stupid science fiction and superhero comics, most of which were just knock-offs of something else. I had a lot of characters that were a slightly altered version of Spider-Man or the characters from Star Wars. But even those attempts at genre comics were unwittingly infused with my own weird psychology, so there was a lot of hilariously lonely, mopey, misunderstood superheroes and robots.

Why are you attracted to that medium?

It's a good match for my personality, allowing me to work from home in solitude. And as a reader, I've always enjoyed the intimacy of comics--the feeling that you're privately looking at something that someone sat and made on their own. As much as I love film, tv, theater, etc., it always has a very different, collaborative feel.

Have you ever felt like publishing your work changes its meaning in some way?

I was lucky enough to start my career by working in a vacuum, creating comics that I thought no one would ever read, and then somehow getting those comics published. Even though I know that's no longer the case, I still try to trick myself into working that same way, making stuff that's basically just for me. And then I return to reality, and send that work out to thousands of strangers.

Images used in collage via Adrian Tomine's website.


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