An entertaining and insightful exploration of humanity

KILLING AND DYING

By Adrian Tomine (New York: Drawn & Quarterly, 2016, 121
pp., $22.95, hard cover)

“Killing and Dying,” the latest collection of short graphic stories from Adrian Tomine, is sad, thoughtful and funny. It’s full of memorable characters and situations that reveal uncommon insight about the human condition and human relationships. Plus, it’s just plain entertaining throughout.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Tomine. His works have contained these qualities since the beginning. What is surprising, though, is that, some two decades into his career, Tomine is exploring new stylistic territory and subject matter.

Growth and experimentation should be apparent to long-time readers right from the first story, “Hortisculpture,” which is told as a collection of four to 12 panel vignettes that evoke the style of a newspaper cartoon.

Throughout the stories, his characters are drawn in a more “cartoony” style than he’s employed in most previous works, but they still convey plenty of pathos.

The standout of the bunch, style-wise, is “Translated From the Original Japanese.” The entire piece is told with illustrations that take up a quarter page at minimum, but often a full page unto themselves. None of the characters are shown, instead, we just get images: a train traveling through snowy Tokyo, an airplane lavatory door lock, a dingy light fixture. They’re reminiscent of postcards or his famous The New Yorker cover illustrations. But unlike the New Yorker covers, which pack a staggering amount of storytelling into a single panel, the images in “translated” evoke mood, place, texture, and perspective.

While the other stories are largely told in small, intimate, (at times even claustrophobic panels), this story’s panels lack black borders, making them feel sprawling and somehow quite lonesome. He also uses this piece to push his experiments with empty space (a mainstay of his work) farther than ever — the entirety of the story in “Translated” is suggested, never stated outright. (Similarly, the title story contains a couple of completely absent panels.) Though, it’s only 17 panels long and doesn’t contain a single human face, “Translated” is a strong contender for Tomine’s most haunting work.

But while this collection of made up of disparate settings, styles and characters, they cohere around a set of shared themes and underlying ideas. People pursue endeavors — artistic, voyeuristic, romantic, and otherwise — that are a questionable fit for them. People grapple with common questions around their responsibility to others, and struggle with the impact others have on them, even though the relationships in question vary from the close and familiar (spouse, parent-child) to the uncanny (a distant intimacy between strangers who have lived in the same home at different times, or who bear a striking physical resemblance to one another). Again, these are themes Tomine has touched on before. But they feel vital and fresh. The title of the title story, “Killing and Dying,” maybe the biggest breakthrough content-wise, for instance, is instructive. Reading through the story, and then the entire book, and asking oneself, “who or what is being killed? Who or what is dying?” shines a light into its fairly murky, ambiguous subtext. Overall, for the artist and his characters, each story contains a someone wistful, if relieved, exit and a promising, if anxious, entrance into something new.

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