Adrian Tomine’s graphic identity
Ben Tanaka is a pessimistic Japanese-American slacker with a penchant for blond Caucasian women and a deteriorating relationship with his Asian-American activist girlfriend, Miko. The ensuing identity crisis is played out in Shortcomings (Drawn & Quarterly, 104 pages, $19.95), a refreshing graphic-novel take on racial relationships and failed expectations by highly regarded cartoonist/artist Adrian Tomine.
You may recognize Tomine’s clean yet highly stylistic illustrations from the New Yorker or Rolling Stone, but this is his first attempt — and a successful one — at long-form narrative. We caught up with Tomine and picked his brain about Shortcomings as he prepared for an upcoming appearance at the Brattle Theatre.
Why did you choose to write and illustrate this race-related story? What gave you the idea?
For years, since I’ve been professionally doing comics, I’ve received a lot of questions and criticism about the avoidance of doing these topics. I found the implication disconcerting that if you belong to any minority group, that should be your focus. I resisted that expectation and tried to establish myself as a Japanese cartoonist, but the queries planted the idea of the book. I’m not on a soapbox and launching into affirming people’s beliefs, so it’s sort of a balancing act of handling the topical issue without interfering with the flow. The emphasis is on the storytelling.
What would you say about yourself and your work for those readers who have never heard of you or Shortcomings?
When working on this book, I wanted the story to reach readers not intimately familiar with the conventions and intricacies of reading comic books. I grew up reading comic books. I wanted to be a minimalist in terms of style, and want the focus to rest on content, the way someone would see a movie and not remark about the camera angles. I had in mind this was the reader’s first time reading a graphic novel.
What can readers expect from you at your Cambridge appearance?
Fun. I have a PowerPoint slide show about the genesis of this book and how I constructed the pages. Then a bit of a Q&A, book signing, and to liven things up, the theater will be screening Killer of Sheep, directed by Charles Burnett, afterward.
Can you tell me who influenced you most artistically?
I have many, but one lifelong influence would have to be Charles Schulz and Peanuts. . . . There’s nothing, culturally speaking, I can enjoy the same way.
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