Sunday, July 1, 2001

Optic Nerve #7 by Adrian Tomine - Review (by Khris Soden)

Adrian Tomine, only in his mid-twenties, has solidly established himself as one of the best comics storytellers to come out of the last decade with his issues of Optic Nerve. Anyone familiar with his work, however, will note that he really isn't a storyteller, per se, but rather an elaborate illustrator of segments in time. Tomine's strongest talent has always been in his ability to represent a character in a brief segment of their lives, expressing complex emotions or providing a voyeuristic view of an episode from the days of trendy men and women. At their best, these "slice of life" stories mimic our own lives, in the sense that events flow into one another, and nothing carries the beginning-middle-and-ending structure of most fiction. However, over the course of the past two issues, Tomine has tried to evolve and diversify his story-telling style by expanding his pieces to full comic book length and incorporating more traditional story-telling elements, such as the aforementioned plot structuring, as well as a greater reliance on themes. These two most recent issues, typical of most works of artists in experimental stages, have been a bit of a mix between success and failure. This brings us to his most recent issue, a whole issue devoted to the story "Summer Blonde".

(Here, I feel it's necessary to point out that this issue was first printed in June of 2000. Sadly, in the world of so-called "alternative comics", this still qualifies it as "new".)

"Summer Blonde" is the story of a very un-Hollywood love triangle, involving a passive-aggressive introvert named Neil, a player named Carlo, and their interest, the 20-year-old Vanessa. The story begins with Carlo introducing himself as the new tenant in Neil's apartment building. Even in this opening theme, Tomine is playing with themes, visually and metaphorically; Carlo and Neil, complete opposites in personality, live in apartments on the opposite sides of the building's plaza, and while Carlo stands in the open sunlight, Neil stays inside the seclusion of his doorway. Subtlety like this is one of Tomine's strong points, but in this story, as opposed to previous ones, Tomine doesn't take the time to develop his characters into complex personalities. Through a succession of scenes that feel a little rushed, we learn that Neil works in the personals section of a weekly paper, doing layout for the "hooker ads"; that he frequents the greeting card store where Vanessa works, solely for the brief conversation that occurs between them during retail transactions; and we learn that he has trouble feeling comfortable around members of the opposite sex because his psychologist mentions it during a visit. Nothing at all is subtle about these scenes, and sadly, this is about the most development we see in Neil's character. Worse still, Neil is the most fully-fleshed character, somewhat coming off as a more realistically rendered Jimmy Corrigan (there's even a scene of Neil calling a personals ad, then halfway through apologizing for leaving the message in the first place, and requesting that the listener disregard the call entirely). Shortly after these scenes, Carlo and Vanessa meet, and Neil, being the neighbor across the way, is privy to most of the events that ensue after that, sometimes even acting as a catalyst.

The most interesting aspect of the story, to me, is Tomine's explorations on the different aspects of lust and desire. Carlo is an extrovert and a ladies' man who, it seems, can find the ways and means to fulfill any of his desires, but constantly suffers from the boredom of obtainability. Neil is, as mentioned before, the exact opposite, filled with lust and loneliness but completely unable to make any headway in the direction of what he wants. Vanessa, who comes across almost as a token placeholder, embodies the middle ground: open to any whims, and wanting to fulfill them all, but being unable to have everything she wants. The interplay between the mores of the characters is interesting, but static. By the end, everyone has changed or embodied their outlook in one way or another, but typical of Tomine's work, nothing feels fully resolved. The lack of resolution may come off as a fault to those unfamiliar with his pieces, but, as with his earlier work, it remains true to the way in which life unfolds.

Visually, Tomine is still amazing. His obvious strength lies in his rendering of figures and faces, although any portrayal of action is disturbingly stiff. Backgrounds convey the exact amount of sense of place that is needed, without miring the layout with too much detail. Although the story is paced too fast, jumping from scene to scene, visually the transitions are smooth and consistently well-planned. When it comes to the pictures, the gentleman knows exactly what he's doing.

In short, it seems that Tomine is still experimenting, and trying to push out farther in his attempts to convey and organically dissect experiences. Compared to other pieces he's done, this is flawed (especially when held against "Hawaiian Vacation"), but still worth reading. However, this is probably one of the best single issues of a comic to pick up if you've never read an intelligently written comic before.

Grade: 10th and older.

Khris is a real comic artist.

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