Soft-spoken and bearded, Adrian Tomine was in London this week to sign some books, discuss his comics and a book of manga he is now editing. “Comics are the only thing in my life I’ve spent 32 years practicing,” he told the assembled crowd in a Q&A with Toby Litt, a British writer, at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. “It’s not something you can take a class on how to do. It’s an accumulation of a lot of attempts and a lot of failure.”

Also known for his regular covers for the New Yorker (such as the one dated February 2nd), Tomine got his start as a cartoonist in high school, when he began self-publishing “Optic Nerve”, a thoughtful comic book about awkward adolescence. The somewhat autobiographical series continues to this day, though it has been published by Drawn & Quarterly, an artsy Canadian comic publisher, since 1995. He has released two graphic novels, "Summer Blonde" (2002) and "Shortcomings" (2007), the paperback of which is just coming out this spring. "Scrapbook" features some pre-"Optic Nerve" comics as well as a good deal of his illustrations and commercial work from between 1990 and 2004.

Despite his view that one cannot learn comic artistry, Tomine admitted to buying “How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way”, by Stan Lee and John Buscema. The book didn’t help. “You can’t worry about what tools you use. You have to figure out what your vision is and make it happen.”

Coming from a privileged but broken home, Tomine said that making comics was a way for him to make his life more focused and consistent. “Comics are a manageable sequence of events that you are the master of,” he said. “You can use neat little boxes, and it’s organised.” But, he later chuckled, “you have to be somewhat insane to be a comic in the first place, let alone spending the next 40 years in a small room by yourself.”

He joked that his New Yorker covers are mainly to impress his wife’s parents. He also admitted that there was a time when he would've preferred playing in a band over designing their album covers (he has done work for Weezer, Luna, the Crabs and The Eels, among others). As for his sketchbooks, he claims they are actually “boring”--full of notes and lists and preliminary doodles. When someone asks to publish a piece of his sketchbook, he has been known to submit a “fake sketchbook” with “better versions of the actual sketches.” He seemed to sigh over the sketchbooks of comic artists such as Robert Crumb and Chris Ware, which he described as "amazing".

Tomine, who is Japanese-American, was long criticised for not addressing racial and ethnic identity issues in his work. “I think my feeling was, I know exactly what they want, and I’m not going to give it to them,” he said. He finally responded with "Shortcomings", which deals directly with the identity concerns of an Asian-American protagonist. “It became a challenge to create something honest. I didn’t want to make a book that said ‘it’s cool to be Asian,’ or ‘racism is bad.’ I originally thought [Shortcomings] was my most fictional plot, but now I look back and see so many more connections to me.”

As a kid, Tomine loved Charles Schultz’ "Peanuts" and superhero comics. By 12 he had amassed a collection of comics that kept in its protective plastic. Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s manga, and the alternative comics "Love and Rockets" and "Weirdo" inspired him to seek out new ways of presenting ideas in comic form. Tomine is now editing a collection of manga from Tatsumi.

He is also at work on a new project, about which he was reluctant to divulge too much. He did say that it involved him going to an art store and randomly buying a bunch of new materials. “My tendency in the past was to censor myself. But at this point, there’s no point in doing another one the same as [Shortcomings]. I hope people can embrace noble failures instead of a total bullseye.”

When asked about his work space, Tomine admitted his was a narrow, Brooklyn room with three tables, one window and a bulletin board. “Most cartoonists I know have spaces packed to the gills with books and action figures of their characters. Why would anyone want toys of the stuff I’ve done? Toys are supposed to be fun.”


Picture credit: Adrian Tomine