Thursday, August 1, 2013

Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve 13 and One of the Best Short Stories of the Year

Optic Nerve No 13 by Adrian Tomine
new this week from Drawn & Quarterly
I brought up Optic Nerve 13 by Adrian Tomine real briefly yesterday in The Wednesday Review but I need to say a bit more about it.

The comic - and make no mistake, unlike the recent trend in alt comic anthologies, this is a good old fashioned Comic Book - has two main stories and a front piece. That front story, a one-pager depicting the author's frustrations in doing analog things in a digital world, plays with similar themes as the letters presented on the letters page on the inside back cover; people's annoyance with Tomine's lack of internet presence and insistence on making a comic comic and the like. It's a nice commentary on Tomine's current place with his art and how he wants to present it.

The main part of the comic is taken up by the story "Go Owls," about a relationship across its entire short history. Barry and and an unnamed woman meet at some kind of Anonymous meeting - it's hard to know which kind, Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous, as both fall into alcohol and Barry deals pot around the neighborhood (and smokes it) as the story progresses. Maybe that's a foreshadowing of the difficulties that will ensue in the relationship and the weaknesses each character end up showing. The story quickly progresses, jumping forward in time days or weeks at a time. The relationship presented is complex. What starts out as a brief relationship turns into the woman depending on Barry for shelter and food. Her job prospects fall apart, but Barry insists on providing for them both. The woman doesn't say all that much throughout, with talkative, rambling Barry seemingly driving both conversations and the story, another foreshadowing of Barry's dominance in the relationship. Things turn abusive at points, first verbally, then physically, with Barry wanting to control the woman's life now that she's dependent on him; the woman does seem to love him (or... maybe not - she's a bit of a blank slate). Abusive relationships are sometimes needlessly complex, and while the relationship here seems to be paint by numbers, Tomine shows the emotional connection they seem to have (or at the very least, Barry has). Make no mistake, the woman is a victim here. Her general lack of talkativeness and complete lack of any kind of name (aside from "babe") reinforces her subservience and paints a troubling picture. The story closes at the apparent end of their relationship, at what seems to be their happiest moment (or at least Barry's). Throughout the entire story, it is evident she just kind of fell into this and is sticking with it because she doesn't think she has any other choice. The end leaves her standing alone, once again adrift, the blank slate of her personality now projected into an unknowable, blank future, her prior journey a symbol of a life wasted by someone now gone.

The second (untitled) story (which I'll call "Translated, from the Japanese" after the second page caption), plays an interesting counterpoint to "Go Owls." "Translated" is much shorter, and not a narrative comic like "Owls" but an astonishing visual tone poem. The first page is a letter written in Japanese, and what follows over the next eight story pages is (ostensibly) that letter from a mother to her infant son, translated and illustrated by Tomine. And what follows is beautiful, evocative, mysterious, and heartbreaking.

Tomine doesn't literally illustrate the letter's contents but shows still-lifes from the visual perspective of the letter's author: a sign at a terminal, baggage on a conveyor, a run-down apartment complex; a cityscape, towers lost in the haze. The letter opens, describing vague details of family discord, an iceberg tip of a mountain of pain hidden beneath the waves. "I wonder how old you are as you read this," she writes, so the vagueness is not one of obfuscation but in inferred familiarity with the background glossed over. She describes the trip from Japan to California, about the nice older man in their aisle on the plane, about an innocent mistake, about a pained reunion. Tomine's descriptions  (through the letter's author) are straight forward, yet vivid, powerfully accompanied by his consistently remarkable illustrations.

I'll assume this is a fiction (based on the visual setting) rather than something passed down to Tomine. As such it is a remarkable fiction - indeed, one of the finest pieces of narrative art released this year. Tomine's ability to build an expansive, detailed life and give us just hints at the depths involved in such a short space showcases a remarkable gift as a storyteller. This is not a translation of a real letter, but Tomine's translation of the terror of parenthood and the indescribably difficult paths family life can take. I haven't felt this absorbed into a character, since Chris Ware's Building Stories. (And Tomine did it in eight pages.) His draftsmanship, design and coloring in this piece is just flawless. "Translated, from the Japanese" will easily stand as one of the best short stories of the year - prose or comic.

"Go Owls" and "Translated" both depict women lost in moments of transition. Where "Go Owls" is specific and omniscient, "Translated"'s subjectivity lends it a startling power that is not present in "Go Owls." I can't really connect to either lead in "Go Owls" but the connection to the mother in "Translated" is total. Tomine inhabits the mother's character, and we as readers inhabit her, too. I've heard comparison's between Tomine and Daniel Clowes in the past couple of days, a comparison that makes no sense to me in light of Optic Nerve 13. Clowes seems incapable of writing a sympathetic, genuine character. Here, in just a few pages, Tomine gives us a snapshot of a whole human life, one we are intimately connected to. In "Translated," Tomine takes his place in league with the likes of Ware and Los Bros Hernandez.

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