I was raised to be a comics reader, but did not encounter Adrian Tomine until reaching undergrad. When I was young I was obsessed with newspaper strips like Calvin & Hobbes, before graduating into endless back issue bins of superhero comics in middle school. So it only makes sense that Tomine's newest work, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, brought about a sense of reflection from the moment it opens with a young Tomine berated by new classmates for his rigorous knowledge of Marvel Comics' artists. As the memoir unfolds in a series of incredibly concise anecdotes with only a few exceptions, it becomes clear that although comics offer a throughline for Tomine's life, this is not a narrative about comics. From embarrassing early experiences as a young professional at San Diego to teaching his child's class how to illustrate feces, the heart of these stories lies in the unpredictable process of maturation. Even as someone whose adult life has also been defined by comics, albeit to a lesser degree, it is the many lessons of aging delivered with an unsure and self-deprecating lens that frames them so well which resonated most clearly. It is this focus on slowly becoming a new (hopefully better) version of one's self that makes The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist Tomine's most accomplished work to date—speaking to the human condition without ever daring to undermine the topic's infinite complexities, and possessing a sharp sense of humor to wit.
The weightier ponderings embedded in this comic are offered graciously with a sense of humor that reinforces the growth revealed throughout the text. It seems no person is a more severe critic of Tomine than Tomine. He is regularly the punchline, but never the victim across dozens of stories that are typically embarrassing and sometimes outright mortifying. When a few visitors to a book signing spot Tomine eating in a Sbarro its his exaggerated response to this mundane scenario that delivers a laugh line. It reflects a humane understanding and acceptance of flaws without touting epiphanies or self-improvement style transformation. There is something deeply mature about the humor offered in sharing the sort of stories that seem to haunt so many grown professionals in this particular field.
Punchlines are delivered at a pace like Mitch Hedberg in comics form (and minus the abundantly confident demeanor). Even the stories that extend beyond one or two pages offer plenty of small moments defined by tension, discomfort, and unease that make for a compulsive reading experience filled with nervous laughter.
Tomine has always drawn with a clean line, but his style and level of detail has varied significantly between publications subtly enhancing the tone and perspective of his comics. His approach in Killing and Dying read clinically with a prescriptive eye akin to Chris Ware. The approach here allows for a greater range of details and subtle reminders of the cartoonist holding his pen embedded in the incomplete fill of a jacket or quick addition of shadows in parallel lines.
He combines this inviting depiction of characters and scenarios with a consistent six-panel grid that guides a very efficient reading experience. It's a reminder as to why Kirby—who created many of the comics referenced by Tomine as a child—delighted in its use when developing impactful, fast-paced stories. The overall effect is a compulsive read that is difficult to set down, even when a stopping point is provided every few pages.
This reading experience isn't simply enjoyable, it enhances an understanding of the separation between personality and maturity as Tomine quickly progresses through almost 30 years of his own life. Even readers unfamiliar with his earlier autobiographical comics will quickly gain an understanding of Tomine's personality. The artist emphasizes perceived negative qualities like anxiousness and self-loathing, but his devotion, caution, and humane concern also shine through (and allows readers to sympathize more easily). These elements are constant throughout 24 years of career anecdotes. However, the shape and scale of the micro-farces being presented grow across that span of time and the man at their center does the same.
Tomine, in zooming into his own neuroses and minor debacles, slowly discovers a thesis for adulthood. Even as he remains assuredly unsure of himself, Tomine continues beyond each moment that feels life-ending only for that moment and finds himself propelled into more significant endeavors. Adulthood remains an endeavor, not a destination.
It is the final and longest-by-far installment that clarifies this thesis. An unforeseeable medical emergency sends Tomine to the emergency room where he is forced to confront his own mortality and begin reflecting on the life detailed in part across more than 100 pages preceding it. This moment draws Tomine's interpretation of himself into focus and acknowledges the significance of a human life, even in the face of the cartoonist's abundant self-denigration. It also offers a truly astonishing tonal shift that delivers the comic's best joke after an incredibly emotional build.
Comics may provide the specifics of Tomine's life and career, but the final installment of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist clarifies the essential questions that empower the comic and let it linger long after the last laugh is had. Even one full month after first completing it, thoughts of new struggles, future shames, and life in my 30s continued to resonate with Tomine's own observations and perspective. Comics are still an important part of my life, but they no longer feel like the most important part as they might in grade school. My world has grown and through all too many ignominious moments I've somehow managed to become bigger for it. Tomine's work may focus on the minutiae of his own life, but through that specificity it ultimately offers a mirror in which readers can reflect on their own path beyond childhood. In doing so, it makes the world seem like a slightly less lonely place to live.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Published by Drawn and Quarterly
On July 21, 2020
Created by Adrian Tomine