Doors of Perception

Celebrated contemporary cartoonist and UC Berkeley alumnus Adrian Tomine maintains a headstrong approach to the art form.

Valentina Fung/Staff

A timid artist in black-rimmed glasses sits behind a too-high display case in a comic book store. An untouched stack of paperback comics sits shyly next to him as he tries to explain to the shop’s only customer that he’s not printing “floppies” because he wants to be different — he actually likes the aesthetic.

That’s how Adrian Tomine, celebrated illustrator, comic book author and UC Berkeley alumnus, depicts himself in the autobiographical strip that rounds off the newest issue of his 15-year-long comic series, “Optic Nerve.” While many artists view publishing hardbacks as a claim to legitimacy, Tomine is one of a dwindling number of the industry’s big shots who insist on keeping the traditional comic experience alive.

In the introduction to his book “34 Stories,” Tomine describes his high school self as awkward and unsocial. He spent his Saturday nights sitting at home, drawing comic strips that were a coalescence of his social interactions and daydreams, assuming that no one would ever see them. Pushed by an encouraging brother, however, Tomine gathered the guts to publish his first mini-comic in 1991, calling it “Optic Nerve.”

Although the three-page, Xeroxed and stapled first issue didn’t sell a single copy, Tomine remained determined. He continued to self-publish his comics first in Sacramento and later Berkeley, increasing the length and quality with each issue. By the time he distributed issue number seven, “Optic Nerve” had grown into a substantial comic with a full-color cover, and the esteemed indie literary press Drawn and Quarterly offered to take up the publishing of Tomine’s work. So, in late 2004, the 20-year-old UC Berkeley English major signed a contract with D+Q to begin publishing “Optic Nerve” as a fully produced comic series.

Now a newly wedded Brooklyn resident, Tomine has published seven books, done album art for Weezer and Eels and regularly graces the cover of the New Yorker. Still, he considers “Optic Nerve” to be the focus of his work, and with issue number 12 released in September, he’s not giving up on the paper-back comic.

Tomine maintains the same headstrong attitude with his content. Over the years, he has consistently developed his artwork to his own liking and simply hoped that people appreciate it. Fortunately, his honest humor makes his comics earnestly relatable, despite their idiosyncratic nature. Even in his non-autobiographical work, his distinct dead-pan realism makes one feel as if they know him personally and can begin to distinguish his pessimistic sarcasm in each of his characters.

In addition, the fact that he makes a point of compiling all of his work into books, including his entire series of pre-professional “Optic Nerve” mini-comics in “34 Stories,” and a variety of other sketchbook work and illustrations in “Scrapbook,” makes it possible to track Tomine’s complete artistic journey. The resulting narrative is a comprehensive meta-comic, showing that, although the unsure outlines of his early art are comparatively crude next to the full color panels of his recent work, Tomine’s expert ability to capture and satirize the “Shortcomings” of life has been there all along.

Although Tomine may prefer the old-fashioned style in terms of formatting, his storylines don’t maintain the same traditionalism. The two stories in “Optic Nerve #12” present the familiar premises of unfulfilled artistic dreams and detrimental mistaken identity, but with a fresh perspective that expertly employs visual narration to intriguingly complicate his characters.

Tomine’s work often highlights the illustrative value of comic books that is so often shadowed by narrative emphasis. His silent panels, depicting characters lying awake at night, or in that moment when they know they’ve gone too far, are often the most affecting — evoking emotion in a uniquely visual way. He reminds us that aside from being forms of entertainment, comic books are a material compilation of illustrative artwork, an attribute of which is provision of sensory enjoyment.

On his willingness to spend money on the work of his favorite creators, however, Tomine writes, “I suppose I’m in the minority,” a fact that undoubtedly saddens him, but, realistically, it is not the main objective of his work or formatting choices to change. “I think that if I need to explain to someone why it’s nice and/or important to have things in print form, then I might as well not even bother,” he wrote.

The last panel of the aforementioned auto-bio strip illustrates this sentiment. Tomine watches defeatedly as the customer walks out of the shop, calling behind him, “I’ll wait for the book to come out, then download an illegal scan and read it on my phone!”