Cartoonist Adrian Tomine's Self-Deprecating, Self-Aware Humor Shines In Memoir
Anyone who has ever heard me talk about being a book critic (whether by choice or as an innocent, no-doubt-extremely-bored bystander) knows that I am passionate about this work and take it extremely seriously. It's rare that I begin reviews so self-consciously, but since The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist by Adrian Tomine spends some time on the relationship between artist and critic and audience, I can't help but be especially aware of Tomine potentially reading these words.
He might furrow his brow, worried about where I'm going with this. (If I, too, were a cartoonist — I am not; geometrically repetitive doodles are the best I can do — I might draw an image of myself, hand raised in a wave, looking directly at the viewer, a fourth-wall break, with a speech bubble above my head reading: "Hi, Adrian. Sorry for being weird.")
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist is a graphic memoir that follows Tomine — whose name is mispronounced in one encounter after another — from his earliest days as a self-publishing cartoonist to his present-day career as a graphic novelist with several comics collections, books, and a plethora of New Yorker and Paris Review covers to his name. But although he's been a working artist for at least a quarter of a century, with his first mini-comic Optic Nerve #1 released in 1995, the memoir is relatively short, only 168 pages. This is for good reason: Tomine has chosen, for the most part, not to dwell on his successes. Instead, nearly every one of the brief chapters examines real or perceived failures and the private or interpersonal embarrassments that have stuck in his memory.
After a prologue, the book opens on Tomine sitting on a plane, heading to San Diego Comic Con in 1995, thinking, "Well, I showed them!" Them, in this case, are his childhood bullies who didn't believe he would be a famous cartoonist one day. It's worth noting that the book's sole epigraph is a quote from Daniel Clowes, who said, on the topic of being one of the most famous cartoonists, "That's like being the most famous badminton player." The book is full of this kind of self-deprecating, self-aware humor. Of course, Tomine is nowhere near famous in 1995, but his character, at least, is always setting himself up for disappointment, allowing Tomine-the-author to set up the jokes for us. In this chapter, Tomine is excited when a friend tells him that Optic Nerve #1 was reviewed in The Comics Journal, ignoring the warnings about it being an extremely negative write-up. The next page shows Tomine writhing around his hotel room reading the review aloud, deeply upset. Having recovered by the evening, he attends a disastrous party — a scene in which, I suspect, I missed a number of in-jokes, though thankfully nothing that would impede a general reader's enjoyment of the book. The chapter ends with Tomine lying in bed, promising he'll never return to this awful place, Comic Con. The facing page, of course, begins with the setting — San Diego, 1996 — and the next panel nearly exactly replicates his entrance into the previous year's event, with a thought bubble reading, "Ah... My people!"
The following chapters delve into a variety of further humiliating or awkward occurrences: empty book signings, being recognized at the wrong time or not being recognized when he should be, casually racist jokes. NPR even gets a shoutout, featured prominently in a chapter memorializing his interview with Terry Gross in 2008 (the chapter was excerpted in The New Yorker and shared on Twitter with some backhanded editorializing which Tomine characteristically pointed out on his Instagram).
After Tomine marries and has two daughters, the embarrassments continue, but they change and become a little softer, less devastating to his ego — a successful drawing demonstration for his little girl's class becomes offensive in the teacher's spin on it, for instance — and it's clear that something in him has calmed, even if he's still working as hard as ever. Too hard, perhaps, as the book's climax indicates — not that it stops him.
Indeed, what Tomine has managed to do so well here is reveal something that few artists are able to discuss without sounding unaware or falsely humble: the incredibly hard, exhausting, and often can't-see-the-trees-for-the-forest kind of work involved in building a career in the arts, where there is too little funding, an overabundance of egos running rampant, and layers upon layers of gatekeeping. By using humor and framing his trajectory via professional and personal setbacks and moments of mortification, the cumulative effect of Loneliness is mesmerizing, funny, and deeply honest. Tomine refuses to dwell in the lie that much artistic success publicly perpetuates (whether or not by choice) that it's always fun, or that it even feels like what many of us imagine success to be. It's work — work that Tomine is conscious of being lucky enough to be able to keep doing, and there have been perks here and there for sure, but work nonetheless. No one made it easy for Tomine to get to where he is — least of all himself.
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