In his first release since 2015’s Killing & Dying, Adrian Tomine lays bare the disappointments, humiliations and professional slights of his journey from self-publishing prodigy to internationally regarded cartoonist. In a series of autobiographical sketches from childhood to the present day, Tomine casts a cynical and unforgiving eye on his fragile ego, the dubious rewards of his successful career and the absurdity of the comic-book industry.
Tomine self-published his seminal breakout mini-series, Optic Nerve, in 1991 aged 16. Since then he’s released a series of critically acclaimed graphic novels, illustrated countless New Yorker covers and established himself as one of the foremost talents in contemporary comics.
The epigraph comes from fellow alternative comics legend Daniel Clowes, who compares being a famous cartoonist to being “the most famous badminton player”: all the stresses and pressures of being at the forefront of an industry, without the fame or fortune to make it worthwhile.
In the early sections of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, Tomine achieves his breakthrough deal and releases his first graphic novel with Drawn and Quarterly – for which achievement he’s angrily chastised as a “sell-out” at a comics convention. His early confidence is short-lived, as a bad review from the Comics Journal shatters Tomine’s perception of himself as the “boy wonder of mini-comics”, describing his work as “hip, muted, fragmented, overly-short short stories that this moron is trying to pass off as fresh and original”. As his reputation grows, the humiliations only increase. At a 1997 book signing, Tomine overhears the host arranging for his flatmates to masquerade as fans when no one turns up.
While his career progresses, Tomine’s ego is bruised in new and more brutal ways. His excitement at establishing himself within the upper echelons of independent comics and counting Clowes and Richard Sala among his peers is swiftly deflated. After being invited to spend the afternoon at Clowes’s home, Tomine is elated, until a third artist arrives – his name tantalisingly crossed out – and immediately assumes Tomine is an IT technician.
Each quietly crushing episode is lifted by Tomine’s witty, self-effacing inner monologue. He offers up his most personal humiliations with brutal honesty and a wry smile, artfully pulling you into his neurotic inner world. This feeling of intimacy is enhanced by the format, which mimics the kind of notebook or diary you’d pick up from a high street stationery shop – squared paper, faux-leather cover with an elasticated band across the front. In the epilogue, Tomine retreats to his study, opens an identical notebook and writes “FRESNO, 1982” – the first panel of the story – implying that you’re reading the one and only edition of his memoir.
This careful attention to detail is indicative of his approach to storytelling. He has an incredible ability to capture universal fears in a handful of minimal panels – the fear of failure, the uncertainty of what we dedicate our careers to, and the everyday terror of navigating our lives. In the final section we get a glimpse into Tomine’s family life, with the beginnings of his relationship with Sarah, now his wife. While on a date, the pair sit opposite a couple who are coincidentally discussing his graphic novel Summer Blonde. It transpires that while the woman is a fan, her boyfriend most certainly isn’t. They eavesdrop as the irate stranger dismisses Tomine’s work as “Gen-X pseudo-profundity” and his writing as “pure writers’ workshop bullshit”. Sarah flies into a rage defending his honour, barely persuaded by Tomine to leave the restaurant. As they depart, he realises she is the woman he wants to marry.
In the closing passage there’s a shift in tone, as a health scare snaps his life into sharper focus. After penning a touching tribute to his two daughters while lying in a hospital bed, Tomine questions his life and career. “It’s a weird thing when your childhood hobby turns into a job,” he explains to Sarah. Has he wasted his existence? Does he even like comics that much? Does creating comics make you a true artist? Judging by this latest release, Tomine makes a compelling case that it does.