Adrian Tomine is perhaps the last of a dying breed, putting out “floppies” of independent comics rather than making the jump to more substantial (and expensive) hardcover editions. And in 40 wonderful “auto-bio” panels after his letters page (which no reader should skip as it’s hilarious in and of itself) Tomine examines his decision to hold onto the floppy format, possibly to his peril.
Reading a comic book this good, it’s hard to disagree with his decision, but it does shine a spotlight on how alone he is these days in that choice. Even Los Bros Hernandez moved to longer less frequent soft cover editions for their “Love & Rockets” series a few years ago. Though both of the featured stories within Tomine’s book are wonderful, I found myself even more intrigued by the auto-bio strip talking about the artist himself, and his possibly wrong-headed decision to stick to his guns and deliver “floppies” rather than riding the current wave. It’s particularly relevant because it draws a nice parallel between Tomine’s personal decisions about whether to “evolve” or not and the continued problems the comic industry continues to wrestle with. I found it terrifically ironic to be reading about Tomine’s struggle as an independent comics creator at the same time that I’m experiencing the company wide mainstream “DC New 52” line. These two seemingly very separate things are surprisingly similar when viewed in this context.
The first story in “Optic Nerve” #12, “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture'” is a mostly black and white story with a few scattered pages done in full color. It’s a delightful tale about a dissatisfied gardener (Harold) who creates an art form called Hortisculpture, which is essentially sculpture combined with plants. The story is an insightful look at the frustration and challenges that any artist faces, especially an artist breaking new ground. Tomine was wise to create a character in Harold that is an older blue-collar working man, with a young family, instead of the same old 20-something tattooed urban living hipsters come artist that as readers we’ve certainly seen before. It’s easy to both relate to Harold and to worry about him. Ultimately, though his journey is a failure in its way, he also had a dream and went for it with all he had, which is admirable. It’s easy to see that despite failure, Harold at least will always have the knowledge that he tried, unlike the many of us that don’t bother to even fail. Tomine draws some nice metaphors throughout the piece, and hits on all the right notes for any struggling artist: the jerks that don’t get your work, the fantasy of making it and telling said jerks off, the reality check from the better educated, the excitement of having an idea, even the humiliation of it all. The story feels real enough that one feels Tomine is drawing both from experience and fine observation and the result is a story that is equal parts bitter and sweet to good affect. As is always true of Tomine’s work, the pencils are sublime, executed with a flawless precision that is at once both meticulously controlled and natural.
The second story, wholly different in theme, but equally as exceptionally executed, is called “Amber Sweet” and is full color. The story, about a young college co-ed who looks disturbingly like a porn star named Amber Sweet, is smart and a bit melancholy. The similarity between the main character and the porn star upends her life multiple times and in frustrating ways until she finally remakes her entire look (and life) so that she’ll be less likely to be mistaken for the famous woman. Eventually, she runs into Amber Sweet in person and they have a conversation and reactions that surprise both of them. The story, like the one before it, is bittersweet, and Tomine perfectly balances the tone so that it never feels saccharine, while still managing to be a little bit heartbreaking.
In the end, I’ll take Tomine any way I can get him, but I for one am delighted to see something as refreshing as “Optic Nerve” still coming out as a single issue. Nobody would blame him for going with the flow and switching to a more profitable format, but so long as I can get “Optic Nerve” this way I’ll buy it, support it, and talk about it all I can, because it’s exactly the kind of book the comics medium needs.