Adrian Tomine’s latest collection, Summer Blonde, contains four 32-page stories from his comic Optic Nerve. They are beautiful stories, naturalistic in setting, and all about depressed and socially awkward teens and twenty-somethings…
I can relate to these stories because they are about being lonely and maladjusted, just like I was in my teens and twenties. (Being considerably older now, I wouldn’t say I’ve solved any of the problems I had then, only that I don’t care about them any more. There is something about dealing with the cares of a job and a mortgage and being a parent that forces you to forget about such problems, in order to deal with completely different ones. Each stage of life has its own particular miseries).
These comics are great because of Tomine’s grasp of detail–his choices of humiliating and depressing incidents for his protagonists to brood over are perfect. And also because Tomine doesn’t pull any punches: you feel sympathy for the losers he depicts, but he is never sentimental, and he also doesn’t romanticize his troubled characters in any way: they have serious problems, they are totally fucked up. There is something disgusting about being popular and successful. But there is nothing noble or virtuous or healthy about being alienated and lost and miserable.
That’s why, although Tomine is sometimes accused of wallowing in angst (you can see this, for instance in several of the amazon.com posts about his books), I don’t think that’s a fair criticism. Rather, he always finds the point where sympathy and creepiness coexist. That extra dimension of creepiness is what makes his stories totally different from stereotypical depictions of Gen-X (or post-Gen-X) blankness and anomie.
Tomine’s characters drift without much hope or chance of resolution (another thing that attracts me to these stories is the absence of catharsis, or of any neat tying-together of the narratives). That is also to say that the characters don’t really learn anything. In an odd and brilliant way, the burden of catharsis/recognition/whatever is transferred from the characters to the reader. Nobody in these stories has an epiphany–at best, they might get a rare taste of sex (which at least is something, even though for them it is unglamorous and basically unsatisfying). But the reader gets, in a negative form, the shock of recognition that is denied to the characters: reading these stories, helplessly identifying with the characters, and then realizing how little you get from that identification–it’s a lot like looking at yourself in the mirror and being forced to realize just how big an asshole you are.