TERRY GROSS, Host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Adrian Tomine is a comic book artist best known for his series "Optic Nerve." He's been publishing since he was a teenager, but his new book "Shortcomings," is his first graphic novel. It's about a 29-year-old Japanese American named Ben Tanaka, whose girlfriend, Miko, accuses him of being more attracted to white women than to Asian-Americans. The book is filled with funny observations about love and identity politics. I'd love to show you his illustrations, but since I can't do that, how about a short enactment of the dialogue? We've called on the FRESH AIR players--our associate producer Patty Leswing and FRESH AIR alum Ian Chillag--to perform an excerpt from the beginning of the book. Ben's girlfriend Miko has organized an Asian-American film festival. Ben and Miko are leaving a screening of a film about a young Asian-American woman who has just bonded with her grandfather and now understands his Haiku-like wisdom. The audience loved it, but not Ben.
IAN CHILLAG: (As Ben Tanaka) Did you really like that?
PATTY LESWING: I guess it was kind of corny, but yeah.
CHILLAG: (As Ben Tanaka) I can't believe that was supposed to be the best of the festival. Talk about a big fish in a small pond.
LESWING: Well, we had more submissions than ever before.
CHILLAG: (As Ben Tanaka) Yeah, of digital videos made by Asian-Americans who happen to live around here. Didn't they also have to be left-handed or something?
LESWING: We worked really hard to put this festival together.
CHILLAG: (As Ben Tanaka) I know. I'm not criticizing you. I'm criticizing the crappy movie. Am I allowed to voice my opinion?
LESWING: You don't have to. You made it perfectly clear with all your fidgeting and groaning. And I'm sure Lane could hear you snickering throughout her film.
CHILLAG: (As Ben Tanaka) It's good for her. You can't control an audience's reaction.
LESWING: Well, it's a little embarrassing for me. And really, who are you to criticize?
CHILLAG: (As Ben Tanaka) Hey, I know a lot more about movies than she does. I'm in the industry.
LESWING: The industry? You manage a theater.
CHILLAG: (As Ben Tanaka) That's right. A real movie theater, where none of these movies are good enough to play at.
LESWING: (As Miko Hayashi) Look. If you didn't like the movie, that's fine. I don't understand why you have to get so angry.
CHILLAG: (As Ben Tanaka) Because everyone knows it's garbage but they clap for it anyway because it was made by some Chinese girl from Oakland. I mean, why does everything have to be some big statement about race? Don't any of these people just want to make a movie that's good?
LESWING: God, you drive me crazy sometimes. It's almost like you're ashamed to be Asian.
CHILLAG: (As Ben Tanaka) What? After a movie like that, I'm ashamed to be human.
LESWING: OK. Let's just drop it.
GROSS: I wanted a reading of that part because I think it just like frames the whole graphic novel so perfectly since race is at the center of this particular conversation. You know, there are so many festivals now--black, Jewish, Asian--revolving around personal identity. Why did you want to open the comic there, with the friction around a kind of ethnic identity oriented film festival?
ADRIAN TOMINE: I think I was using that as a a starting point, as a negative example in a way of what I was going to set out to do in the next 100 pages, as someone who's attended a number of those types of festivals and events. I think that was definitely on my mind as I decided to finally do a book that would take up the challenge that so many people had put to me in the past of addressing some issues of race within my work.
GROSS: Why did you use that in opposition to what you wanted to do? What did you want to do different?
TOMINE: Pretty much everything. First of all, I wanted the work to be judged based on its own qualities, not for an easy message that it sends. I have to agree with Ben in some regards that I think there are some works of arts that are praised more because we are agreeing with the message that it's making rather than the quality of the work itself, and I think that's what I was trying to avoid. I think I was, you know, for many years, I'd been almost taken to task about sort of avoiding, almost as if I'd been consciously tiptoeing around, the issue of race in my work; and I think once I finally decided to attempt that, I wanted to do something that was consistent with the work that I'd done in the past and wasn't all of a sudden me getting up on a soapbox and pontificating about things that I'm sure most of my readers already know.
GROSS: Well, you know, in some of your earlier work the character who was your surrogate and was wearing glasses didn't really have eyes. He was either wearing sunglasses and you couldn't see his eyes, or you saw his glasses but you didn't--his regular glasses, but there was nothing beneath it. You didn't see any eyes at all, just the glasses.
GROSS: Was that a way to avoid any kind of ethnic identity? Like, if eyes reveal Asian identity and there's no eyes, who knows?
TOMINE: Right. Right. That's sort of been held up as Exhibit A in a lot--in people's accusations towards me, and I think that really so much of the discussions that arose once I started working publicly were a surprise to me and that was one of the surprises because I was, in terms of the artwork, just working in a pretty old cartooning tradition of when someone puts on glasses, they just almost are opaque and that goes through a lot of the comics I was reading at the time; but also back to things like, probably my earliest inspiration, which was "Peanuts," by Charles Schulz. You look at the character of Marcie and she just has kind of opaque white glasses so I think that was about the extent of my planning in that regard. And then it was--it's been brought up quite a bit as if it was some attempt to hide my background, which seems a little bit strange because it wasn't like I was some recluse who never allowed myself to be seen by the public or anything.
GROSS: Is this the most personal comic that you've done? And if so, do you feel more exposed by it because the comic has so much to do with both ethnic identity and sexual identity, and sexual life?
TOMINE: It is the most personal thing I've done, not in the way that--it's the least explicitly autobiographical thing that I've done. I've done other stories in the past that have been almost literal transcriptions from my life but they're about absolutely mundane occurrences, like changing a flat tire or something like that; so in that case you don't feel exposed at all, you feel great confidence being completely truthful and honest. But with this story, it's not literal in its depiction of my life, but I definitely open myself up in a lot of ways and put thoughts of mine and observations into the fictional world. And I have to say that I don't think this is the kind of book I could have written even five, six years ago, because I think at that point in my life I was still very concerned about how the work would reflect upon me as a person. And I have to admit that there were times where I was thinking of an imagined audience reading the work and thinking, `Oh, the guy who wrote this must be so sensitive and he must be a smart guy or something. And I think it was really useful for me to have this sort of turning point in my thought process where I was not so concerned about that. And it was very liberating to be able to say like, `Well, you know, some people might not respond so well to this but I still feel compelled to put it on paper.' And I think that's what really allowed me to create this book.
GROSS: So you wanted people not only to like your work but to like the author, to think that the author was a swell and decent and enlightened man?
TOMINE: Yeah, well...
GROSS: Have you stopped worrying about that?
TOMINE: Well, you know, most normal boys as they're growing up they, in order to become attractive, they might, you know, get good at sports or join a rock band or develop good social skills; and for some reason I thought that drawing comic books might be my route. And, you know, I guess it goes without saying that that was sort of a misguided endeavor, especially in high school. But that was definitely on my mind. I think that I've referred to there being a flirtatious quality in some of my older work that kind of makes me cringe when I go back and look at it.
GROSS: Flirting with who?
TOMINE: Oh, some imagined audience. You know, probably some girl that I thought that I would someday meet or something.
TOMINE: You know, it's--even when I was creating stories in the past that had some questionable characters, I feel like there's just still this sense that me, as the creator of those characters, is somehow judging them or I'm, you know, showing their bad behavior and then somehow, subtly, I'm implying that, `Well, I'm criticizing that and aren't I much more enlightened than this guy? And you know, I think that can really be a dead end, I think, artistically. I mean, maybe it will lead to something in your real life, but in terms of the art I think that that's a real track that you can get sucked into; and I felt myself going down that path for sure.
GROSS: My guest is comic book artist Adrian Tomine. His new graphic novel is called "Shortcomings."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Adrian Tomine and he's a comic book artist, graphic artist, and his new graphic novella is called "Shortcomings."
You know, one of the things I really like about the comic book as a form is the thought balloon, because it's like the interior and the exterior. It shows how you're looking but it also shows what's going on inside, what you're thinking. And I think in that sense it's something that's really unique to the comic unless there's like a voiceover in a movie. What do you really love about comic books that you think--you couldn't do in any other medium?
TOMINE: Well, the type of cartooning that I think is generally referred to as alternative, or underground, is usually--the distinction is usually in terms of whether it's made by one person, the entire thing is done by one hand or more of a production line process, which is how the comics that we grew up reading were made. And I think that if you are looking at a comic that's made by one person, that there's just a level of intimacy that I don't really see anywhere else. And it's, you know, I think it's just physically impossible to make a movie or to stage a play completely by yourself, whereas something like a comic book can be done by one hand. And I think that when you have one person making it and one person reading it very privately, I think it creates an interesting dynamic. I mean, just the experience of--the communal experience of watching a movie or a play vs. sitting quietly and reading a comic on your own certainly colors the perception of the work.
GROSS: Your mother is a psychology professor, right?
TOMINE: That's right. She was a psychology pro--she retired from that, but she was.
GROSS: OK. I was thinking...
TOMINE: I should also mention...
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
TOMINE: I should also mention that my wife works in a mental hospital here in New York.
GROSS: Wow. Uh-huh. Well I'm thinking, you know, anybody who works in psychiatry, psychology or with mental health, that's a very thought balloon kind of process, because it's about getting to what's really in that thought balloon as opposed to what's being said. You know?
GROSS: It's about what's going inside as opposed to the public face. And I couldn't help but wonder if your early exposure to the idea of psychology, to the fact that there are things going on inside somebody that you don't necessarily have access to made you more interested in that kind of thought balloon type of approach to the world?
TOMINE: I think so. I think that's a really good observation that, you know, I think a lot of people point to the fact that I was an English major in college as that being some sort of starting point for the style that I work in now. But I think that really there is a profound effect from growing up in a home where just the idea of psychology even exists. You know, I mean, I think there are people who don't have that experience or where it's dismissed; and just at a young age to be exposed to the idea that, I guess, that that's right, that there are thoughts that are not readily apparent. And I think the thought bubble is a good analogy for that.
GROSS: Now you were self-publishing in high school. What did that mean? Going to Kinko's and getting copies made and handing them out?
TOMINE: Yeah. Self-publishing seems like a bit of a grand description of what it was because it literally was taking a sketch book to Kinko's and making--I think the first one I did had a print run of 25. And, you know, a handful of those were given to family members and the rest are still sitting in a box in my closet; and it slowly, slowly built from there. But, you know, even that first experience of self-publishing, it really had an impact on me because it certainly wasn't the same as, you know, doing something that's going to be published all over the world. But I think when you're just starting out, it has that feeling. And even though there were only 25 little Xerox pamphlets, suddenly it seemed a lot more real and it seemed like it could be held up to scrutiny that it wouldn't have had if it was just hidden away in my sketchbook. And that was really the start of a very long and ongoing process of sort of, I guess, self-critique or self-analysis in terms of my work.
GROSS: It sounds like it was really an issue for you, being judged by other people....
GROSS: ...as a person and as an artist.
TOMINE: Yeah. I think you should probably talk to my mom about that. I think it's hard to not be affected by that. I have to, especially with this book "Shortcomings," I had to go through some sort of mind games on myself in a way to shut out the thoughts of it being seen; because, like I said, I was trying to move away from that great self-consciousness that I felt was creeping into my work. So it was almost like I had to trick myself into thinking that I was working just for myself, like when I started out, and now it's out there for the whole world to see.
GROSS: In one of your earlier works, your main character, who's a comic book artist, gets an assignment and the editor says, `All we're looking for is more of that sad romantic angst-y stuff that everybody loves.' And do you think that like indie comic books have like developed their own cliches that you have to avoid now?
TOMINE: Oh yeah. I think I'm at the forefront of some of those cliches being established. I know there's a lot of people who have pared down this type of work into either, you know, like a leaf slowly falling from a tree or a guy sitting in his room with a tear coming down his cheek. And I understand where those jokes are coming from, for sure. I think that if I was somehow frozen in the mindset of being 21 years old and lonely and sad and all that, then I think that I would just run that right into the ground, that I would be doomed to a career of self-parody. But I think, fortunately, you know, time progresses and I've certainly evolved as a person; and so, like I said, I don't feel the need to use art just as a way to declare my loneliness or something like that.
GROSS: One more question. In a couple of your comics, you mention that you discovered as a kid the hard way that you were really allergic to peanut butter, and to peanuts. I mean...
GROSS: ...just to anything, to any trace of peanut. And I can't help but think that that would make you go through life, if you're a certain kind of person, feeling more vulnerable and more set apart because what's an everyday experience--lunch--for so many people...
GROSS: ...particularly kids--peanut butter and jelly--is kind of like death-defying act. I mean, for you. I mean, you'd get really super sick if you had that, and so it means that like it's a vulnerability to ordinary things. You have to be careful. You have to be guarded about at least that one thing in a way that other people don't, which means maybe you have to be guarded about other things, too. That maybe you have this like super-sensitive body and that...
GROSS: ...has like all these implications to it.
TOMINE: Yeah. I think you've pinpointed a lot of what's formed my personality over the years because, you know, I've always said that I got into drawing comics in response to basically not having anything better to do. And I think that circumstance arose, even at an early age, from not feeling like I could, you know, dash out onto the playground or go into the cafeteria with the same sense of abandon as other kids might have. And it's such a severe allergy. It's not that I would eat it and get sick or something. It really is a life-threatening allergy; and so it's pretty weird to be a little kid and be aware of the fact that you could die with one misstep, just on the playground or something like that. Obviously there's no way to raise a kid and not tell him about that and not have him be cautious, but it certainly has had its impact on me.
GROSS: Well, if it made you stay home and do good comic books, at least you got something good...
TOMINE: That's true. I mean the...
GROSS: ...along with the bad out of it.
TOMINE: Yeah. The payoff was slow.
GROSS: Yes. Right. Exactly. Thank you so much for talking with us.
TOMINE: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Adrian Tomine's new graphic novel is called "Shortcomings."
The new season of "Lost" starts tonight. Coming up, David Bianculli has a review.
This is FRESH AIR.