The last two pages of Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve #12 look like the roughest and most quickly considered and drawn pages in the entire issue, but they are also the funniest, and the most concerned with the quickly disappearing format of alternative comics like Optic Nerve.
In two black and white, 20-panel-grid pages that most closely resemble the style and tone of Tomine’s recent Scenes From an Impending Marriage, Tomine’s unshaven avatar in opaque spectacles gets lauched at by his fellow cartoonists when one refers to him as "The Last Pamphleteer."
Stewing about the fact that the bound, book format has (what we commonly if not quite accurately refer to as "the graphic novel") has become the default format for (non-superhero) comics, he laments sticking with "floppies": "I even liked it when the artist was obviously just trying to fill a few extra pages, and you'd get a pointless, dashed-off autobio strip or something!"
Tomine works in an awful lot of jokes in so few pages, and rather masterfully fills those many panels so the art never looks small or claustrophobic (I read Optic Nerve #12 before and after this week’s Justice League #2, and I get such a case of whiplash reading superhero comics and "art" comics; people sometimes wonder why I’m so negative about super-comics, but how can one not be when you see the quality vs. quantity gap between a Big Two pamphlet and an issue of Optic Nerve?), eventually culminating in what is a (hopefully highly) fictionalized encounter with a comics reader at a shop signing.
The dashed-off autobio strip is endearing in the way it allows Tomine to honestly express his feelings about his chosen format and the way the industry is currently going, while also rather mercilessly ridiculing those feelings.
There are several arguments to be made for floppies ("Which is about as withering a terms as I’ve ever heard," the Tomine character thinks in one panel), and while Tomine makes a couple of them, I think he left out one of the more compelling ones: Neither of the excellent stories in Optic Nerve #12, which are graphic short stories more than graphic novels or even graphic novellas, could have been published as books. They’re just too short to justify a book, and, I think, the expense of purchasing them.
That is, Optic Nerve #12 features 32-pages of comics content, one 19-page story and an 11-page story in addition to the previously discussed two-pager, for $5.95. If a publisher bound and published either as a book, they would be incredibly expensive and unsatisfying as individual story units.
So where do short stories go, in today’s comics market? Essentially they either get published online (which generally means "for free," and lacks the tactile experience of reading a paper comic book that some of us treasure), or they can be put into a stapled comic book. Or they can, of course, be saved up until an author gets enough of them to publish them as a collection, but that method causes some problems for the creator (like a lack of revenue between collections and a lack of interaction with readers) and for the fan (a long wait between engagements with the cartoonist).
There’s an additional, aesthetic concern to publishing short stories straight to book length collections of short stories, too: The context inevitably affects the reading experience, and transforms the story in some way, as a reader takes it in as part of a likely artificial whole.
Without a floppy, a cartoonist like Tomine wouldn’t be able to publish either of the stories in Optic Nerve #12—at least, not in quite the same way, and not without severely altering the experience of reading them. And that would be a damn shame, because Tomine crafts great short stories, and the experience of reading these two, back-to-back and in a paper, stapled-comic book that I read over silver dollar pancakes and coffee in a diner on a sunny October morning and again in the break room of my day-job?
Those were great experiences I enjoyed.
(I almost wrote "will treasure," but I’ve already said "treasure" once in regards to comics, and I don’t want this essay to get too precious).
As for the comics, the first is "A Brief History of the Art Form Known as 'Hortisculpture'", in which a frustrated gardener and family man attempts to follow his muse by creating a vital new art form blending the disparate media of gardening and sculpture.
Tomine tells it as if it were a daily newspaper comic strip, with six four-panel black and white "gag" installments followed by a full-page, full-color Sunday strip of greater length.
Each opens with a title for the cartoon "Hortisculpture," and the only thing distinguishing it from something you might actually read in the newspaper these days is its generally great quality. Tomine strips down his style to something more cartoony, but regardless of the abstract faces and fun, swollen body types, his characters still move with a degree of realism that looks wholly alien to what you find on the funnies pages of 2011.
Also, there's some swearing, I guess.
In it, our protagonist grapples with the frustrations of being an artist, and by creating a particular form for the artist, Tomine gives himself creative space to focus on the feelings of ambition and frustration universally, without getting bogged down in the specifics of, say, cartooning or painting or music.
The second story is entitled "Amber Sweet," and is a full-color drama in the style of Tomine's Shortcomings. It apparently ran in the New York Times somewhere or other, according to Chris Duffy, but I wouldn't know about that, because who reads newspapers in this day and age? (He wrote, just two paragraphs after intimating familiarity with the newspaper comics pages).
It's about a young woman who happens to look remarkably like another young woman named Amber Sweet who happens to be an online porn star, and the problems this coincidence cause her. The solution to the problem is remarkably simple, and it beggared belief it took her so long to reach it, but its easy to suspend disbelief when looking at such gorgeous artwork, and besides, if she reached that solution too quickly, there wouldn’t be a story.
I’d highly recommend Optic Nerve #12, as a great comic book containing three great comics (two humorous and one literary), as a high-five and validation to Tomine for sticking with a the best format for some of the particular types of comics he tells and as a way of voting with your six bucks for continued existence of comic book-comic books that don’t have superheroes, monsters or movie tie-ins or pitches in them.
I'd also be a hypocrite, not unlike the guy at the end of Tomine's dashed-off autobio strip, who gives the Tomine character "big ups" for sticking with Optic Nerve as a comic book, but walks out of the shop without buying one, because he doesn't "do 'floppies' anymore."
Because I didn't buy a copy of it either—I got a review copy from the publisher.