A ‘dissatisfied’ artist’s life

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The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist

By Adrian Tomine (Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly, 2020, 168 pp., $29.95, hard cover)

Cartoonist Adrian Tomine started writing, drawing and self-publishing his mini-comic, “Optic Nerve,” when he was still a teenager. Despite the odds, this fourth-generation Japanese American (his parents, who divorced when he was 2, are retired professor of engineering, Chris Tomine, and activist/psychotherapist/filmmaker, Dr. Satsuki Ina) has achieved international recognition as a best-selling comic book author and illustrator and for his cover contributions to The New Yorker.

His 10th published book, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist,” is a series of woeful tales, laced with anti-Asian jabs and slights he has had to endure on the playground, in the company of other cartoonists, at bookstore signings and even at award ceremonies where he is nominated for a major prize. The cartoon panels are laid out over neat grid paper, which hints at peeking into Tomine’s sketchbooks or diaries, with all of their dry humor and high anxiety. Humiliation in the form of withering audience responses and empty bookstore events occur at author events he participates in all over the world. (He is repeatedly mistaken for other, more famous cartoonists, even in Tokyo.)

In a rare episode that alludes to his Asian Americanness, Tomine sinks to new levels of embarrassment after downing a breakfast heavy with butter, cheese and milk while conducting an interview with a cute reporter, then paying the consequences soon after when he rushes back to his apartment with the reporter in tow. Let’s just say that he had to learn the hard way that many Asian Americans are lactose intolerant and the effects can be somewhat explosive.

This routine of self-deprecating stories might be a little more palatable if it didn’t feel as though Tomine wasn’t trying to brag about his accomplishments in the exact same breath. Each terrible moment follows him on his climb to greater recognition and success, which by all means, is warranted and deserved, but his method of wallowing while simultaneously leading us through his greatest hits is a bit transparent and strange.

The book softens a bit with the arrival of Tomine’s two daughters, who test every last parental trigger in him and his wife, but also open him to new approaches to life and its myriad triumphs and dismal failures. An unexpected medical condition first torques Tomine’s hypochondria into overdrive, but then it nudges open his awareness of the fragility of all things beautiful and pure.

As always, his drawing style is clean and he has the ability to deftly capture some of the extreme characters that float in and around the comic book community with just a few pen strokes. I have followed his career and output since I was in my early 20s, and yes, part of it was to egg on “one of us”: It still thrills me to see his name in The New Yorker magazine.

Truthfully, his tone and style of storytelling hasn’t changed much since the days of “Optic Nerve,” and I think we can assume that Tomine will forever be dissatisfied.

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