Seeing and Being Seen: A Conversation with Adrian Tomine

Sarah Chihaya talks to Adrian Tomine about his writing process, Asian-American literature, and the Bay Area.

By Sarah ChihayaMarch 24, 2018

Seeing and Being Seen: A Conversation with Adrian Tomine

ADRIAN TOMINE LEADS a curious double life in the public eye. To the average New Yorker reader, he is the artist of some of the magazine’s most iconic cover images and illustrations (collected in New York Drawings, 2012), a wry and yet impartial observer of the city’s dwellers. Yet to comics readers of the last two and a half decades, he is better known as the much-celebrated author of the ongoing Optic Nerve series, a project ranging from his early self-published mini-comics (collected in 32 Stories), to the more ambitious narratives collected in Sleepwalk (1998), Summer Blonde (2002), and his first full-length graphic novel, 2007’s Shortcomings. Most recently, he has published the collection of short stories Killing and Dying, originally released in 2015 and now available in a new paperback edition from Drawn & Quarterly.

While Tomine’s work has maintained a remarkably coherent sense of style through the years — a style that is at once idiosyncratic and instantly recognizable — he is also a master of understated experiment. His work takes narrative, visual, and thematic risks that don’t seem dangerous until you realize that he’s pulled them off with characteristic sure-handed flair. If one were to coin a neologism to express the casual impeccability of his visual style, it might be “deadpanache.” And yet despite this coolness (in both senses of the word), the tales accumulated over the course of Optic Nerve’s long life are most clearly marked by their depth of feeling. The stories in Killing and Dying are among his most moving, reminding readers of the sadness, anxiety, and occasional hilarity of the passage of time in ordinary lives. We talked about all of this, and a number of happier things, on a phone call occasioned by this month’s rerelease of Killing and Dying.


SARAH CHIHAYA: One of the great joys of Killing and Dying, for me, was the reminder of what a beautiful writer you are — looking at something like “Translated from the Japanese” especially, these are texts that seem like they could stand on their own outside of the images. I know you get asked a lot about your influences from the world of comics and graphic narrative, but could we disentangle the graphic and narrative elements for a minute and talk about writers and artists who move you outside of the genre? What else do you read, or what have you been reading?

ADRIAN TOMINE: I just started reading Zadie Smith’s new essay collection, Feel Free. She’s the rare writer whose fiction and nonfiction I enjoy equally, which is to say, quite a bit. She had an earlier collection of essays called Changing My Mind that I really likedI just started this one, but I’m sure it’s going to be good. One problem is that I have two small kids, which has really cut into my pleasure reading in a big wayI don’t get to read as much and I don’t get to see as many movies, which is one of the trade-offs to having kids. I consider it a triumph if I make it through The New Yorker every week, which I often don’t fully succeed at.

But to try to answer your question, I don’t know if it was a direct influence, but I was reading a lot of Philip Roth when I was working on Shortcomings. And I’m sure Killing and Dying was affected in some way by the short story collections I was reading at the time people like Cheever and Munro and Nabokov. I really liked some of the Andre Dubus stories I read. I think I discovered Lucia Berlin around that time, thanks to that great reissue. And for some reason, I really enjoy books of interviews. It can be writers, filmmakers, comedians, artists … I just tear through those kinds of books.

Did you read “Cat Person”?

I did, of course! It was required of this day and age, I think. I was just reading about the book deal and everything that followed, which is amazing. I think it’s great that there’s still a shred of excitement in our culture about fictiona story can still go viral, and people can get excited about a new author, which used to be more common.

To get back to the question … Killing and Dying was very clearly relying on a lot of my earlier influences inside and outside the world of comics, and the stuff that I’m writing now is trying to do something more personal than anything else, so I don’t think it’ll have as much of an echo of other people’s work. It’s early stages, and I’m working in semi-secrecy … which for now is a nice change. In the case of a lot of prose writers, you get in this cycle of living advance to advance with deadlines hanging over your head, which I found really stressful. At least for now, I’m enjoying the fact that no one’s looking over my shoulder yet, and there’s no deadline, and I’m not wasting anyone’s money.

I wonder if you’re outside the economy of prose writers living advance to advance because you’re operating in these different worlds of illustration and book publishing.

I feel very grateful that when finances get tight and I’m concerned about paying bills the only solution isn’t to hurry up and finish my 800-page novel. I can do a lot more short-term projects and do an illustration that, start to finish, will take a couple of days, and the paycheck shows up the next week. The idea of trying to be a full-time professional novelist, or graphic novelist in my case, is a little bit terrifying, not just in terms of finances, but in terms of the impact on your life — the idea of having a daunting, obsessive task hanging over you for, I don’t know, 10 years or something, and then having so much riding on the response to it once you finish. It’s a little terrifying to me.

It’s totally terrifying! There’s this romantic dream of being a full-time writer, which is so different from the reality of what it entails …

Yeah, and especially with the kind of comics I’ve done in the past, the process is so slow and laborious that there’s no way to do it fast. If someone was really under the gun with a deadline, they could dash out a horrible chapter of prose, and the quality could be debatable. But in comics, if I rushed a chapter of a book that I’d been publishing in serialized form and it clearly dropped off in quality, it would be pretty embarrassing.

And all the fans would be on your case!

[Laughs.] I think so, yeah — I have a very critical readership!

It does seem that there’s an especially strong affective relationship in the comics community — you see it especially in those early letters in Optic Nerve, where people feel a personal investment in you, not only as a character or an author, but also in your style.

Oh yeah! I mean, for the sake of my own sanity, I have to think of it as a form of flattery that someone cares that much or is that interested. I started my publishing career at such an early age. I think it was premature, in retrospect. I think there are certain people who have aged along with me, and have expectations about how I should be evolving or developing as an artist based on their own experiences. It’s conceivable that someone started reading my work as a teenager and has followed along as they’ve gotten older, which is nice. I’m grateful for that. Especially at this point in our culture, it’s a real compliment to be able to hold on to an audience for more than just one project.

I’ve just had what sounds like an unflattering thought, but to me is actually a great compliment — looking at it this way, you’re kind of like a Gen-X Harry Potter.

[Laughs.] That, at this point in my life, is a great compliment! I’m in the middle of reading those books now with my older daughter — the effect that they have on her is incredible.

I know you said you haven’t had much time to watch movies lately, but still, it seems to me like there’s something increasingly cinematic in your style as you move through the years. Can we talk a bit about other forms, aside from the written and the drawn image, and other kinds of artists or filmmakers or musicians that are important to you? After all, Killing and Dying starts with Isamu Noguchi. I don’t want to rely on something as cheesy as “what influences you” — more like, what else is in the margins while you were working on this book, or past projects, or this mystery project you’re working on now?

The most direct response, which you had no way of knowing, is that for the last year or so I’ve been quite focused on things other than comics, particularly movies. I went through a fairly long process that eventually resulted in me selling off film rights to a bunch of my stories to a filmmaker, and concurrent to that, I’ve spent a fair amount time trying to create some sort of — I don’t know what it is exactly, but the most basic description would be a TV show, or something more like short films, so I’ve been in that zone for the last year or so … It’s very possible that this interview will be the only record of that project, and someone will find this on the internet years from now and be like, “I wonder what happened to that?” But I really have been enjoying the process, and I really like taking a break from working in the form that I’ve been locked into for the last 20 years, and doing something different. Movies have always been as much of an influence on my work as prose or even comics. I’m not a terribly knowledgeable person about comics history, and I’ve stopped the weekly habit of going to the comics store and buying a whole bunch of stuff — that’s sort of faded from my life. It’s been really exciting to see television evolve over the last five or 10 years, and to move more toward subject matter and material that interests me, rather than the standard network sitcom.

Is there anything you’ve been watching lately that’s really spoken to you?

There’s so much stuff now that I like and look forward to, like High Maintenance and Broad City, which is definitely a change from how I felt about TV when I was in college. I usually enjoy any show that seems like it’s expressing one person’s specific experience and point of view, like Insecure and Fleabag and SMILF. I thought the finale of Nathan for You was a genuine work of art. And it’s all fouled up now, but I really liked Louie when it came out … to me it had a kinship with the alternative comics that I read so much when I was younger, and it reminded me more of that, and of cinema, than of normal television. I’m a big fan of Kenneth Lonergan, and I know he has a TV project coming up that I’m looking forward to seeing. In this last chunk of my life, there’ve been a few filmmakers that I wasn’t familiar with before, but have since placed into my personal pantheon — I’d put him there, and also Michael Haneke.

Oh, and I should also mention — this has probably never been mentioned in the same breath as Michael Haneke — I did get a big kick out of seeing Lady Bird this year, because it’s set not just in Sacramento, but in the one-mile radius of Sacramento where I grew up, so every single shot was deeply personal to me, and nostalgic. When you see the character going to mail off her college applications at the post office, I was thinking, “That’s the post office where I sent my first mini-comics off from!” and “There’s the hamburger stand we used to go to!” and “There’s the cafe where I had an interview for my first job as a professional cartoonist!” and it was really shocking to see all those locations on the screen.

That leads to another question I had. To so many people who are familiar with your illustration work outside of the books but aren’t your readers, you’re a New York, or most specifically New Yorker, artist which surprises me, because I always think of you as a real California writer. This is kind of Bay Area inside baseball, but can we talk a bit about the changes that the Bay, and particularly the East Bay, have undergone and are still undergoing in terms of gentrification? To anyone who’s lived in Northern California, your work has such a specific sense of place. I’m curious about what you do when that place changes, morphs, is no longer what it was. Is the Bay Area that you draw the one of your memory, or the one that’s out there in the world now?

Killing and Dying isn’t explicitly set anywhere, but in my mind it’s the California that I grew up in, and I feel like it’s already a time capsule, at least to me — I think the distinctions would be very subtle to someone who wasn’t living there. I do agree with your description of me as more of a California writer or artist than as a New York writer or artist. I’ve lived here a long time but most of the time, I still feel like I’m a visitor in a place that I'm not 100-percent familiar with. The flip side of that is that whenever I go back to California, I always have this fear that at some point things are going to change, there’ll be some kind of tipping point, I’ll get off the plane in Oakland and be like, “Oh God, how did I ever live here for all those years? Get me back to New York!” But that’s never happened. Literally every time I step out of the airplane in California, something comes over me and I feel at peace. I’m a more pleasant husband and father, and I just feel happier. I think that’s the experience of going back to a place that you consider home.

But in terms of the changes, I do think that there was a little period of time when I first moved to New York and I was going back home a lot and the pace of change hadn’t quite kicked in to its full force yet. And I felt like I still had a foot in both worlds, I still feel like I’m living in New York and in California, like I was comfortable with and aware of everything that was going on. But now I get back there two or three times a year, and a lot of the time is spent going, “Oh no, that place closed! What is that?” I always say that if someone was to stop me on the street and ask how to get somewhere in Berkeley or San Francisco, I wouldn’t be able to do that, but if they said, “Can you get in the car and drive me there?” I could figure it out. I could just intuitively find my way around, the memory would kick in.

That leads me to a slightly more esoteric question. I’m interested in the way time passes in these more recent stories, especially in pieces like “Hortisculpture” or “Killing and Dying,” where the gutter between two frames sometimes communicates the passage of months or years. Your work is so often described as realism, but there is something speculative about that disjointed nature of time in Killing and Dying that reminds me of the simultaneous unpredictability and coherence of time in a book like Richard McGuire’s Here. Do you think you’re consciously thinking about temporality differently in your more recent work?

Yeah, I appreciate that — no one’s picked up on that, at least not consciously. To me, that’s one of the huge differences between this and prior books. The old work was, I think, fairly accurately described as “slice of life” — you’re literally peeking in on these characters for a short duration of time, and you just see what happens in that unbroken span of time. The real change for me was having kids. I think that completely affected me on many levels as an artist, but I think you’re picking up on something that was maybe half conscious, but is suddenly becoming apparent: parenthood really affected not only my sense of time as a human in real life, but also my storytelling. And I think that change is evident in the stories. There’s also an anxiety or sadness about that change that infuses a lot of the stories, too.

One thing that I think is perhaps more continuous with the previous work is that Killing and Dying is full of incomplete communication: the unanswered letter, internal monologue, the one-sided conversation, the conversation with two totally different sides, the stand-up comedy set. How do you think about verbal communication in relation to narrative, and in relation to the tension between the dual forms of reading (word and image) that your work demands of its readers?

I think I set out to play around with that a bit in the book because there’s sort of a tradition or unspoken understanding in the language of comics that dialogue is subjective, and you understand that words are coming from characters’ mouths and their points of view. But there’s this thought that traditionally the narration or the imagery are some form of cold, objective truth or reality. In fact there’s no reason why that should be the case, why any one aspect of the storytelling should be more objective than the other. I was trying to call this into question for the reader. I guess a lot of the stories could be read in a very straightforward manner, without any doubt or second-guessing, but I think there are lots of little hints and suggestions that things are subjective or distorted by a certain point of view.

Hearing you say that now makes so much sense. It raises some questions about the trust we have in a first-person narrator. That blurriness between what is said in an internal narration and what is depicted in a panel becomes such a productive source of tension in your work.

My hunch is that someone reading a comic would naturally be open to the idea of an unreliable narrator or dialogue, but would often assume that what they’re looking at visually is a kind of documentary film of the action. But in a lot of ways, I was enjoying the idea of running that through the filter of a character’s perception, even down to the drawing style, which intentionally changed from story to story.

There’s such a range of both visual and verbal styles in this book.

A lot of these stylistic changes were done for practical reasons because I was so burned out after my prior book, Shortcomings, which is like, a hundred pages drawn in one very precise, meticulous style that I had to maintain. What ended up being the biggest challenge with that book was staying consistent for that many pages. So when I was done with it, I was trying to think of what I wanted to do for my next book, and felt very adamant about not putting myself in that same position again.

I was just reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s glowing short piece about you, where he makes the claim that Summer Blonde is, for him, “an essential Asian American literary text” precisely because it, and your other work, complicates and blurs conventional visions of what Asian-American literature looks like. He goes on to say that the most exciting Asian-American work today “makes us doubt whether we know what an Asian American is when we see one,” and describes why the comic form is so powerful in the depiction of race. I agree with Nguyen that something about your work speaks powerfully about what it means to not sit easily within the category (literary, racial, or otherwise) that other readers or writers want to put you in as he’s said of his own writing, he’s an “Asian American writer” but that’s only one of many categories his work fits in.

This is a topic that has come up a lot for me over the years, and I think it was only recently that I was able to explain the feeling I’ve had that, regardless of the work I was putting out or regardless of what the characters looked like in my images, I had always been an Asian-American artist, just by definition. There were a lot of people who led me to believe that you were not that unless your work was a certain thing. Now, I think it’s exciting that there can be artists whom you’d consider to be Asian American, or whatever their background may be, and think of their work in those terms to a degree, but not expect that everything that they create be a direct representation of, you know, “Then my parents came to America.”

I think that question of what of “Asian American content” looks like is so clear in the opening scene in Shortcomings, with the earnest film that concludes in the fortune-cookie factory. That really kills me every time.

[Laughs.] Yes … that scene, that whole book was controversial. I’d be so curious to see what would happen if that book were published now rather than when it came out [in 2007]. I think there are broader parameters for people now. At the time when it came out some people liked it, but a lot of readers of my work found it to be off-putting in a variety of ways. In particular, there was a segment of Asian-American readers who did not think it was cool to be making some of those jokes.

Well, on a personal note — I’m Japanese American also — the book really spoke to me. This is such a cliché, but it was actually the first time I’d ever seen a character that I felt looked like me in any American cultural context, and that meant a lot.

Do you mean seeing characters that were clearly meant to be Asian but were, I don’t know, just living a normal life?

I mean something more literal. There are a couple of frames in the scene where they’re driving away from the theater where I thought, “Oh my god, I think I look like this character,” the way that non-Asians will sometimes think they look like actors or characters or whatever.

Yeah. In some ways that might seem like a trivial thing, especially to someone who has looked like what is typically shown on TV or in comics or whatever. But I do think there is something magical about that, and I love hearing those kinds of stories. Reading the reviews for Black Panther, there are a lot of people who are approaching it like other superhero movies, like “Are the action sequences good?” but there’s this whole other response to it about identification and the idea of a parent wanting to take their kids to a movie where they’ll see people who look like them within the superhero genre. As a parent now, I understand that a lot more.

There is really something moving about the idea that someone sees you.

I mean, it’s sad that we’re at a point where just being seen feels like a monumental thing …

Yes. It’s interesting that we’re at a point of reckoning, especially for Asian-American identity. So often in the discourse on how we’re perceived, the question is “Do people really see us?” So it’s fascinating that we’re finally at this point where we’re beginning to discuss this on a public stage.

Yeah. And again, I do feel like Shortcomings would be received differently now, but when I put it out there, one of the things that I got hammered for, but was important to me, was to try and show characters who were explicitly Asian and would sometimes refer to that in conversation, but would have a whole life that wasn’t inherently tied into that.

Do you ever think of going back to characters? Your characters are so specific — I know you’ve said before that there are various autobiographical aspects to some of them, but still, they feel so idiosyncratic and individual. Do you ever feel like you have unfinished business with any of them? Would you go back one, or when you’re done with a story are you done with its characters, too?

I’m of two minds about that. In a lot of ways, the process of committing those characters to paper is so arduous for me that when it’s done, I am happy to wash my hands of them. I don’t know that I would ever revisit them now and say, “Let me pick some random character from 20 years ago and figure out what the sequel would be” — which I think is how a lot of sequels get made, and why they’re often not good. But there are cases where I really knew a lot more about those fictional lives than what was on paper. The closest thing I ever did to a sequel was a story I did that was a big jump forward into the future of the character from the “Hortisculpture” story. I intended to have it in Killing and Dying, with the two stories as bookends, but I ended up not publishing it for a variety of reasons, some personal and some aesthetic.

It’s so interesting, and makes so much sense, to think of your characters having these other lives. It reminds me of what Chris Ware wrote in his review of Killing and Dying: “Just like life, the best stories don’t provide ‘closure’ but open outwards.”

Chris is very generous in how he describes things, and he does it so eloquently — and I think this taps into something that I was trying to do with a lot of the stories, but in particular “Killing and Dying,” which was written more through omission and through editing than anything else. I had a lot in mind about stuff that would have happened earlier or would happen later or in between that I didn’t show, and a lot of the final hard work involved cutting up little pieces of paper with scissors and moving them around and seeing what I could get away with leaving out.

So, in that process of constructing these episodic narratives that are just portions of peoples’ lives that are at once very constrained and structured, but also open-ended — how do you know when a story is over?

I’ve thought about this — I really think that it’s hard to answer that because it’s not really the thought process for me. I don’t necessarily think of it like this runaway train and at some point I’ve got to pull the brakes on it. That might be the case if I were ever to dive into some long, rambling, historical graphic novel or something like that. With these short stories, I try to really write and conceive of them as complete things — the page limits were defined by how much information I could keep in my brain all at once. That’s really where the writing process happened for me. I do anything I can to avoid the experience of sitting down at a blank piece of paper and saying, “Now I’m going to write my next book!”

We’ve only got a couple minutes left, but if you’re willing, I’ve got a couple of random quickfire questions. First, who are the authors/artists that you’d love to be compared to? A kind of fantasy draft of “Read If You Like…” picks?

Oh, interesting! The truth is, as an artist who’s fairly transparent in terms of his influences, people can spot artists who have been heroes to me, so by definition, I’d be flattered by those comparisons. The earliest and biggest influence on my work that’s still apparent is Jaime Hernandez, who does the comic Love and Rockets. From there, there’s a whole wider range of cartoonists who’ve had an impact on me. Outside of the realm of comics, it’s hard for me. I still have a bit of that built-in sense of inferiority, so when someone says, “Oh this reminds me of such-and-such an author,” I’m like, “Hey, but that’s a real author!”

Do you listen to music when you work?

Only in certain stages. It has to be a mindless stage of the process like coloring or inking an image that I’ve already drawn in pencil. The steps that involve a lot of mental concentration, especially the writing or editing or problem-solving processes, it’s better for me not to have the distraction of music. I think that’s increased since having kids. In my prior incarnation, when I lived alone, it was almost like I was trying to fill up the silence, and wanted to have music or the radio or TV filling up the background. Now, there’s so much noise and chaos and so many voices that when I do get to have the apartment to myself, and I can settle into work, it’s an amazing luxury to work in silence.

On the note of kids, now that you have them, do you ever think you’d write a children’s book?

[Laughs.] That is probably second only to Asian-American identity in terms of questions that come up. I actually got asked about it before I even had kids, people wanted me to make children’s books, and I’d say, no, I don’t really get children’s books, and I don’t know how to do them … In my mind I always thought I’d kick the can down the road and when I had kids I’d know all about children’s books. Eight years later, I’ve spent every night reading children’s books, and I still have no idea what’s going to connect with kids, and what would be a big seller, what art is going to be appealing. It’s really mysterious to me. I feel like the worst children’s books are the ones where an adult is trying to make a simple book to appeal to other adults and ignoring the wishes of the kid completely, and I’m afraid that that’s what I’d end up making.


Sarah Chihaya is an assistant professor of English at Princeton University, where she teaches contemporary fiction and film. She is the editor of Contemporaries at Post45.

LARB Contributor

Sarah Chihaya is an assistant professor of English at Princeton University. She is one of four authors of The Ferrante Letters, and is a senior editor at LARB. 


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