"Optic Nerve" 2011: An Interview with Adrian Tomine

As we get older and the seasons change colors, most of our friends move forward with their lives by entering marriage and building their own families. Inevitably, many of them won't have the time to hang out at their old stomping grounds and fraternize like they once did. With time and distance, the only thing left are warm memories as we think about them, now and then.

It had been three or four years since the last issue (#11) arrived, and after hearing of his wedding in the pages of "Scenes from an Impending Marriage" I sadly assumed that Adrian Tomine's "Optic Nerve" had ended. I thought that the days of writing and drawing biting sagas of unfulfilled romance and despair were over for him. Thankfully, I was wrong. Amongst the DC Comics Reborn hullabaloo in September, there it finally was -- "Optic Nerve" #12 -- and it was more than worth the wait.

The series, published by Drawn and Quarterly, originally began in 1991 as a self-published effort by a teenage Adrian Tomine. All of the Drawn and Quarterly issues have been lavishly designed and collected within three books ("Sleepwalk and Other Stories", "Summer Blonde" and "Shortcomings"). And with his latest issue, Tomine continues to prove that as a writer and artist he's unafraid to push himself towards wherever his creative inspirations take him.

Pop!: The last issue of "Optic Nerve" came out in 2007.

Adrian Tomine: Oh, god, that's depressing. Well, let's try not to dwell on that, okay? Next question!

Were there times over the last several years when you contemplated ending the series?

Well, there were times when I was afraid that I would be forced to end the series, especially as I watched pretty much all of my favorite cartoonists move on to different formats, either by choice or due to demands of the industry. For whatever reason, I still have a real attachment to the old-fashioned comic book, and I'm eternally grateful to Drawn & Quarterly for allowing me to continue to work this way.

Were there particular reasons for the hiatus?

Yes, there were quite a few reasons. After finishing "Shortcomings," I felt like it was a chance for me to take a little break from the schedule I'd been on for the past few years and do other kinds of work: illustration, screenwriting, some regular prose writing, etc. Things I'd been interested in but put aside in order to finish "Shortcomings," basically. Some of this stuff saw the light of day, a lot of it didn't, but I think it was all useful in some way. I also took care of some other things I'd been putting off, namely moving across the country, getting married, and starting a family.

When I finally sat down to work on my next comics project, I felt obligated to attempt a real "graphic novel." I was looking at these giant tomes that some of my peers were working on, and I felt really envious of that kind of achievement. It also just seemed like that was the direction everything was moving in, and my old habit of publishing short stories in the comic book format was already an anachronism. So I pursued that for awhile, doing a lot of the kind of preparatory work which is actually the hardest part for me, and the whole time I had these nagging thoughts like, "Do I really want to work on this for ten years? Do I want to draw and write in the same way for that long? Does the material really merit that much of an investment?"

I actually completed about twenty pages of this material -- completely written, drawn, and colored -- and I still couldn't shake the growing suspicion that I was headed down the wrong path. The scope of the project was completely draining any amount of joy from the work for me. Then when my daughter was born and I essentially became a stay-at-home dad, that really changed everything. I felt like that needed to be the main focus of my life for the time being, and I'd need to find a way of working that would accommodate that. So returning to short stories seemed like the right solution, and now I honestly think that, at least at this point in my life, it's the mode that I'm best suited to. I love being able to draw twenty pages in one style, finish that story, then start the next one completely fresh.

With most of your prior stories, issues with the nature of young despair, romances, sex and relationships were at the forefront. As a regular reader, this new entry seemed like a bit of a radical departure in style, tone and format -- was that an intended effect and the sort of reaction you wanted fans of the book to have with the newspaper comic strip presentation of "Hortisculpture?"

Yes, it was very much a conscious choice. Even though I received some nice feedback for "Shortcomings," I was aware that the last thing people wanted from me after that was more of the same. I'd mined a certain vein long enough, so to speak, and I think some readers would've just given up on me if issue twelve was the start of, say, "Shortcomings, Part 2."

What triggered the cartoony approach to "Hortisculpture?"

I was influenced by all the great comic strip reprint projects that have been going on recently, especially "Peanuts," "Walt & Skeezix," "Little Orphan Annie," and some of those giant books from Sunday Press. It also just had to do with trial and error. I think I spent a lot of my early career trying to distance myself from some of the more "comic book-y" techniques of the medium, maybe because I wanted so badly to be "taken seriously" or something. But I realized how foolish and weirdly self-hating that was, especially when I found myself having real emotional reactions to things like "Walt & Skeezix" and also being kind of grossed out by some of the more earnest, "realist" comics that had come along. I don't know if that "Hortisculpture" story is entirely successful as it is, but I'm pretty sure it works a lot better than if I had drawn it in a dead-serious, photo-realistic style. And it goes without saying that those classic strips are a great example of using humor and silly drawings as a means of probing some pretty dark aspects of life.

Like your character Harold, do you still find yourself, as an artist, constantly asking why you do what you do, the plight and cost of art on an individual and those around him or her? Do you often question the need to share these stories with your audience as you mature?

Another mandate I set for myself when I started issue #12 was to move away from autobiography, or more to the point, seemingly-thinly-veiled autobiography. I have only myself to blame, but I wasn't prepared for how much that would be the focus of the reaction to "Shortcomings." It was kind of tough when I realized that everyone assumed the main character was me -- and they hated him! I think to a degree that little dance I was doing -- baiting people into thinking about me as the author of the story -- kind of overshadowed a lot of the work I put into the actual writing and drawing. So I tried to move into a more fictional realm, to write about people and situations that were different from my own life, and to just basically allow for a little more creative license. And when I finished the issue, I had the feeling that, if nothing else, I'd achieved that goal. And, of course, a lot of the response I've received has been people trying to "decode" that "Horstisculpture" story, figuring out how various things correspond to my real life and whatnot, and some of my closest friends have actually told me that they thought it was like the most nakedly autobiographical thing I've ever done.

"Amber Sweet" was seemingly the most familiar in tone to your prior work. In it you had a woman who men could not see beyond her outward appearance because of her resemblance to the porn actress Amber Sweet. Were there any particular reasons why you felt this story belonged within this issue?

Did you think it didn't belong in the issue? My hope is that it's an okay story, or at least that it's still different enough from my previous work that it doesn't seem repetitive, but I suppose I'm not the best judge. I guess I thought it was an intriguing idea, and it was a way to play around with some of the issues of subjective narration.

In your closing strip, you seem to be having a tough time with all the changes that have happened in the comics industry -- do you feel out of place in today's market? And with release of issue #12, do you remain committed to making "floppies" over doing a "graphic novel?"

I've always felt out of place in the market! My plan is to release several more similarly-formatted issues of "Optic Nerve," collect those stories into a book, and then take it from there. I mean, I'm still very envious of these monumental achievements some of my peers are making with their gigantic graphic novels, but I have to accept my fate for now.

Has maturity given you the confidence to trust your readers to follow along to wherever your work takes you? Do you see future issues taking "Optic Nerve" into more unpredictable possibilities?

I don't know if it's confidence or just not worrying too much. "Optic Nerve" has always been something of a labor of love, so if I can't use it as a venue for doing exactly what I want, I might as well spend my time doing illustration work. At some of the recent signings I've done, I've had the pleasure of meeting readers who've been following the series since the very beginning, and that's really amazing and gratifying to me.

When might readers expect your next issue?

It won't be as long of a wait as it was for issue #12! Because of the nature of my day-to-day life now, I'm in the totally novel position of having a backlog of stories written and roughed out, and the main hold-up is finding the time to draw the finished artwork. So it's still a little frustrating, but it's a lot better than where I was three years ago.

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