by Adrian Tomine
Drawn & Quarterly, 2011
HOLY CRAP!! NEW OPTIC NERVE!!!
Well, here is something I never expected to see the light of day.
After Tomine’s last book — Scenes From an Impending Marriage — it seemed like he’d finally jumped to the graphic-novel-ship just like every other alternative cartoonist. But here we are with an honest-to-Darwin stapled alternative comic book! It’s Tomine’s first issue since #11 came out in 2007.
In terms of content, Optic Nerve #12 is a return to Tomine’s earlier short story work. There are three stories here:
“A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture’” is a bittersweet satire about a gardener who invents an unsightly new art form in which plants are made to grow through certain sculpts (don’t call them Chia Pets). For years he sticks by his beliefs despite wholesale artistic rejection and embarrassment both to himself and his family. It’s told as a series of newspaper strips complete with color Sundays.
There is some laugh-out-loud hilarity in this story, but at times Tomine seemed to be channelling Dan Clowes with the format and the cynical humor and even the subject matter. Wait — is Tomine actually satirising the comics of Dan Clowes?! At any rate, it’s not just fluff — it really does make you consider just what the hell any artist is attempting to achieve and how devoted they have to be and what it means to fail.
“Amber Sweet” is a story about a girl who bears an uncanny resemblance to a porn star named Amber Sweet and how that association burdens her through several aspects of life over a period of years. Tomine’s Shortcomings also addressed issues of pornography, but unlike Shortcomings, here Tomine goes back to the much more complex layouts of earlier Optic Nerve stories, and it adds a physical, claustrophobic tension to the pages that mirrors the anxiety of the protagonist.
Letters pages. Some of the letters seem slightly mental (including two from someone threatening to sue him). Tomine responds to none of them.
A hilarious autobiographical story told in a grid of tiny panels in which Tomine describes the process of shooting himself in the foot by making the aesthetic decision (not political or commercial) to put out a stapled alternative comic book, and being criticized by his publisher, retailers, and fans. It is actually an elegant parallel to the “Hortisculpture” story, and the two ingeniously reflect on each other. In this story and in “Hortisculpture,” Tomine’s art style is somewhere between the clear “realistic” linework of Shortcomings and the cartoony-ness of Marriage.
That is one wildly varying package of all quality work. Tomine really flexes his muscles here with art styles, colors, layouts, and content. And the comic itself is a gorgeously produced object in every way with an irresistible color palette. The cover is cut so it only covers 3/4s of the interior first page and even the logo is slightly truncated. Your eye can’t help but be drawn to it. Even the paper stock used has a warm, comforting feel to it. This is everything the alternative solo anthology stapled comic book is supposed to be.
To me, one of the most incredible things about comic books was that — on a good day — you could get twenty-odd pages of artwork and a couple of stories for just a few bucks. Imagine trying to buy twenty paintings.
That outlet has been sadly annihilated for alt cartoonists. Even Clowes and the Hernandez Brothers couldn’t keep it alive. But thank goodness for Tomine who’s giving it one (possibly) last shot — not to stick it to the Direct Market, but because he realizes just what a remarkable, beautiful thing it really is.
Kumar Sivasubramanian is the writer of Weird Crime Theater.