On coming up short in a giant’s world

Shortcomings I fell for the art of Adrian Tomine when I subscribed to The New Yorker my junior year of college. His distinctive clean style has a way of leaving an impression. I saved every cover he did those few years I subscribed, and then one day my subscription ran out and I was too poor to renew. It’s been more than a year since our last rendezvous, but when I saw the spine of Shortcomings in the stacks at the Boston Public Library last week I felt a giddy elation. It was like running into an old crush and them being cuter than you remember.

I was only vaguely aware that Tomine writes as well as he illustrates, having only seen magazine illustrations and tote bags for the Strand. But Tomine has been paneling and publishing his comic Optic Nerve since before he could legally drive. The years of experience that led up to Shortcomings enable him to capture the aimlessness of 20-somethings, the blemishes and contradictions so plainly it‘s disheartening. Like watching yourself in the mirror while you work out. Shortcomings is expertly crafted, the drawings as evocative as the text. Each panel wound as tightly as a short story.

Tomine was raised and schooled in California, where most of Shortcomings is set, with the exception of the final chapter, which is set in a New York that makes “you feel like you‘re in some nostalgic movie about being Jewish or something.” Since his early days of self-publication and distribution of Optic Nerve, Tomine has gone on to become an award-winning comic artist and one of the most coveted commercial illustrators of recent years. A modern-day Rockwell, with cleaner lines, dirtier Americana, and some g.d. diversity.

Shortcomings tells the story of Ben Tanaka, possibly the least likeable character I’ve stuck with to the bitter end. Besides being a bottomless well of negativity (think Woody Allen in Annie Hall), Ben is also vaguely racist, hypocritical, a total ass to everyone around him, and slightly homophobic despite having a gay best friend. His attempts to make light of his insecurities, by telling the old standby “What’s the main difference between Asians and Caucasians men? The cauc!” (I know, gross) made me squirm a little. I have a hard time with people who criticize themselves in my company. Making a joke about your drinking problem does not put me at ease at the bar, folks. Ben’s double standards and outbursts ate at me not just because they were annoying, but because they were so convincing. It felt like my mother inviting the person I’m dating to Christmas dinner and then calling me an hour later to tell me she “still really hopes I meet a nice guy one day.” As if a dearth of “nice guys” in America is the real reason 24 finds me unwed and childless.

Ben and Miko

Ben and Miko

Ben’s live-in girlfriend, Miko, and in fact all of the minor female characters, are brilliantly fleshed out, sympathetic, and likeable. Ben spends the early part of the book vehemently denying his attraction to white women, after Miko discovers his valley girl porn stash, only to spend the core of the book chasing young white women as soon as Miko leaves for New York. As Mr. Tanaka so cavalierly explains when an Asian dude dates a white girl everyone wins (!) but if reversed, the resulting relationship is equatable to pedophilia and on par with bestiality.

The real star of these stark panels is Korean-born graduate student and womanizer, Alice Kim. Supplying Ben with the ridicule I desperately yearned for. She’s the free spirit to Bens straightjacket personality. The Don Juan to Ben’s creepy dude at the bar.

Other things of interest this text include: the age old east coast/west coast battle, pee art, Casanovette, Alice Kim, kicking a girl in the baby-maker after an on-campus disagreement escalates, and too many adorable indie lesbians to count. What? Is that last one really just of interest to me?

While the book in itself is about Ben’s shortcomings, emotional and physical, what it does at its best is draw to the surface the contradictions of the reader. I sympathized with Miko even when she left Ben in relationship limbo, because I tend to be more forgiving of women. I loved cute, queer Alice Kim, despite her using Ben as a beard around her parents and her general disregard for the feelings of every woman she beds. In this book, as IRL, everyone’s largest obsession is themselves. I know the revelation that what we detest in others is really what we dislike about ourselves has been covered so many times it’s a bit of a cliché, but still. I hate Ben for being an inflexible jerk, because I have been known to wreck relationships with my inflexible jerk-ery. We all come up short now and again. The grace is in how you recover. And Alice Kim? She recovers best of all.

One Response to “On coming up short in a giant’s world”
Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] a bonus, Modan’s website hosted by Drawn and Quarterly looks a lot like something Adrian Tomine might […]

%d bloggers like this: