I Got to Meet Adrian

Adrian picAdrian Tomine is only 24 years old, but he's been putting out his comic book, Optic Nerve since he was a mere highschooler. Back then, Optic Nerve was a self-published effort, but now it's published by Drawn and Quarterly, which in addition to the comics has put out two collections of Adrian's work: 32 Stories and Sleepwalk and Other Stories which you may actually be able to find at your local bookstore (or if not, or if you're a recluse or something, amazon.com's got them at a discount).

A couple of weeks ago, Adrian graciously agreed to talk to me about his comics, which was very exciting for me, since I've been reading his stuff for years. Anyway, here's the interview...

(By the way, all of the art on this page is ©1999, Adrian Tomine, so don't you dare use it for your own nefarious purposes.)

JW: So, we'll start with a real stock, boring question: how did you start doing comics?

AT: I guess I was sort of always doing it as a hobby since I was really young, before I could even read...I was drawing little stick figure comics.

JW: Comics, like, sequential pictures that told a story?

AT: Yeah, well, you know how all kids will draw a picture of a war, and it'll all be on one picture: "OK, here, these guys are fighting" and it's like a narrative painting, where it'll be the same guy in a bunch of different spots on the picture.

JW: So you really were born to do comics!

AT: I guess so, I don't know, I feel like my brother did that, too, so I probably learned it from him. But yeah, in my mind I had little movies, I saw little movies and I would just draw it on the page like that. And then at some point I started to become more aware of comic books, and started to find it frustrating having one little guy all over the page. So then I started doing comic strips. And then by the time I was in junior high I started to get more serious about it, and started to actually write stories.

And then in high school I started actually doing the stuff that people have seen in print. I started doing the mini comics, Optic Nerve. That was also the time of my foray into children's educational comics, and non-fiction civil war dramas.

JW: Wait, what was that?

AT: Oh, it was a school project, I did this massive, 50-page thing about the Civil War...

JW: In comic book format?

AT: Yeah, and I actually tried to be really dramatic and have these characters and all this stuff...and then was when I was about 15, that was when I started doing the stuff that was later put in to the Optic Nerve mini-comics.

JW: It seems like in your earlier comics you had a greater variety of themes, and now your work seems less experimental. Is that a result of having a real publisher and responsibilities to other people now?

AT: No, no...I mean, I think experimental is really the right word. because when I was doing those mini-comics I was just running around...I didn't know what I wanted to do, I didn't know what would appeal to people, I didn't know what would be fun for me, and so with the one- or two-page things I was really just trying everything. I mean, I can kind of see why people admire that kind of experimental attitude, but for the most part, most of those experiments were not very successful.

So I think that what's happened is that I've focused in on what I find to be interesting. Hopefully I'm still being experimental, I'm still growing in ways...in terms of trying to do more ambitious stories, or trying to develop characters. At the same time, I do keep that in mind. I'm trying to write my next issue right now, and I've got these two battling ideas in my mind. I'm not sure which one I'm going to eventually go with...one is more of a throwback to the earlier stuff which had me as a character. I don't know, I just feel like the problems I had, the reasons why I stopped doing those kinds of stories, are still problems now.

And just yesterday, when I was writing it...if I make it a really good story, with all the things I really want to have in it, it's gonna be something that will create a lot of problems in my life. I'm too concerned about my ex-girlfriends' feelings to put all the stuff I really want to put. And then I tried to chop out all the controversial stuff, and then I was like "well now, who cares?"

So, now I'm working on another, supposedly more artificial story, and I think it'll be more interesting. But I don't want to have everything hinge on the success or failure of a male/female relationship, I don't want that to be the one focus the comes up over and over.

JW: It's interesting, the issue of public autobiography...it's something I've dealt with a lot myself. In the interviews I've read with you, both the interviewers were trying to determine what elements of your stories were autobiographical. Why do you think that is?

AT: I think people can sense that something has a real basis. Like, I can tell the difference between watching a sitcom, which--

JW: But ideally, wouldn't you be writing something that seems real, but is actually a creation on your part?

AT: That would be fine, and I think there are some people who I've tricked into believing that I do that. Some people who don't know me at all do think that, but then there are other people...like when I finished my last issue, I gave it to Dan [Clowes] to read, and he said "yeah, it was good, but y'know, why don't you try using your imagination for once? Why don't you write something?"

He knew the truth about every little vignette in that story. He said "you're not a writer, you're a collator!" That was his line...

JW: So does that criticism have any effect on you? Are you going to do more fictional stories?

AT: Well, I always say that, probably since Issue 3 I've said that this was going to be a totally fictional story. And then when I start to write it, things just start developing, or even in retrospect, I'll go back and read it and see how much it was really taken from my own life.

So I can always kind of push it, like this one that I'm formulating in my mind right now is based on real things but pushed in a much more extreme, creepier area. But Dan will still read it and go "Oh! I know what this is all about!" So there's no real escaping it.

I think there are probably good writers who can totally make stuff up, I'm not sure who is doing that...

JW: So, this title "Optic Nerve," where does that come from?

AT: Mmmmm...I don't know.

JW: So it's just a cool-sounding name?

AT: I've got to develop an answer to this question. I get asked it so much, and I can't even remember. I mean, I remember when it came to me, I remember writing it down. I don't know. I think maybe I proposed a list to my older brother, I just had a list of potential names, and he said "yeah, that one sounds cool."

JW: So it is just a cool-sounding name...

AT: I guess...

JW: I guess people probably give you flak for the fact that most of your characters are hip, attractive youngsters, and that you draw very visually appealing comics. What is your response to that criticism? Why don't you draw more ugly people?

AT: I think it's been getting that way. Hasn't it been getting that way?

JW: Well, now you're drawing people who are, like, hipsters with weak chins...but they're not really...

AT: The main character in Issue 5 was a real ugly guy!

JW: He was a hipster with a weak chin!

AT: He was an ugly guy! He wasn't a hipster!

JW: But he was like one of those cool guys who wears the nerdy clothing...

AT: Well, the most recent character was a normal-looking, kinda slightly overweight girl. She was not a hipster at all. Although, she had kind of a cute face, I guess.

Well, the same people who make that criticism are also the same ones who seem to be buying the comic, so I think it's sort of appealing to people, but then they feel guilty about it for that reason.

I think it ends up being received like that more than I intend. Like what we just said, to me, that guy in Issue 5 is just an ugly dork, but you were like "no, he's just a hipster trying to look dorky!"

Maybe it just has something to do with my drawing style. I have nothing against attractive visuals. One of my biggest influences was Jaime Hernandez, and he is the drawer of the most beautiful people ever, and it doesn't affect the impact of his more serious stories, so I don't think you have to draw like R. Crumb in order to tell a meaningful story. I don't think people have to be ugly for you to have sympathy for them.

JW: You've talked about your comics influences in other interviews, Jaime Hernandez and obviously Dan Clowes. Do you have any other influences from, say, other media, like movies or fine art?

AT: I just try to have an open mind. I kind of have a single-minded way of living life in that everything that I do, every experience, I'm always trying to relate it back into the comic in some manner. So definitely, there's a lot of other comics, other artists. And it's the same thing with movies or books.

Is this a general question or a specific question?

JW: Um, I guess I intended it to be more of a specific question.

AT: Oh, OK. Well, then, also Gilbert Hernandez...not as apparent, but equally as important. A lot of the other Drawn & Quarterly artists, also, I've been reading Chester Brown as long as I've been reading Dan. And Seth, and Joe Matt...I'd feel really proud if I could do something like Joe Matt's The Poor Bastard. I mean, I think that's a great book.

[JW laughs and gives him a weird look]

Well, OK, I don't know if "proud" is the right word, but...I do envy that accomplishment, I think that's a really good book.

JW: Well it seems like it came at the price of a lot of self-sacrifice...

AT: What do you mean?

JW: Well, just in the way that he portrayed himself...

AT: Well, not only do I admire the cartooning and the humor and everything, but I also admire that he is able to overcome a lot of the restrictions that I have on myself. Like, stuff that I have to rule out as subject matter, he just dives right into.

Of course, he lives a pretty miserable life now, you know? But in the history of comics that book will be held in higher esteem than some of the boring kind of fictional things that I've done.

JW: Are you planning on coming out with any more collections?

AT: Well, there was that Sleepwalk book, that was the first four issues. We're basically gonna do a collection every four issues, so it's two down and two to go and then there'll be another collection.

I think collections are going to be very important, and I think that's going to be the way we attract more of a regular audience. It's so much effort, people don't want to buy this little comic and read it in five minutes. I think if it's something people can read for a while, it'll be more appealing.

JW: Have you ever thought about doing a longer, serialized story?

AT: Yeah, I think I'm slowly inching towards that. I wouldn't want to make the mistake of doing it before I was really ready. I wouldn't have wanted to five years ago just attempt it and then give up halfway through it like a total failure. I'm cautiously tiptoeing towards that. Just doing these one-issue long stories is still kind of an effort for me, and I'm still just trying to figure out how to manage that.

But definitely my mind is working more towards that. Like, right now, if I had to do a whole issue of little one- and two-page stories it would be really difficult for me, because my mind isn't thinking like that anymore. What I'm probably going to try and do is two more issues of one story per issue so I can have three books of short stories, and then after that maybe try something a little more ambitious.

JW: You talked a little bit about this before, but a lot of your stories center around romantic relationships, which is kind of unusual for a male cartoonist. So, are you just Mr. Sensitive Guy or what?

AT: [laughs] It is sort of embarrassing.

JW: Do you just have a lot of romantic regrets in life?

AT: That's part of it...it just has to do with writing stories that are gonna interest me. For whatever reason, it's such an obsession that I actually have to say "OK, I don't want to write this story about 'will this boy and girl get together?'" It's actually an effort for me not to do this.

The only explanation that I can come up with is that maybe other people who had more of a successful time in that arena, or who had more experiences, it doesn't haunt their thoughts as much! And so for me, it just seems to be the most common topic.

And also, I think I probably just have a "sissy" personality. Like, I'll pick up a book, and even if it's terribly written, if it has some slightly realistic romantic thing, I'll totally get sucked right into it.

JW: You're just a sensitive guy!

AT: Yeah, I guess so...

JW: So how come it took a year for Optic Nerve #6 to come out?

AT: Ummm, well, it was a longer issue for one thing. It was the most complicated story I ever wrote. It was the most detailed artwork I've ever done.

JW: So is every issue from now on gonna take a year?

AT: No, I hope not. I hope I'll get this one out faster. Those aren't the only reasons. It's hard to control because working at home and doing this kind of work it's so tied in to your whole mood and personality. So, that year that I worked on issue 6 entailed a lot of up and down drama with this girl. We were going out, she moved away, we had a long-distance relationship, and then she moved back, and she moved in with me, and we had these problems and she moved out...that all took place over the course of that one year, and physically that took up a lot of time, but also it was such an emotional thing...

Working at home, you have to be in a certain mood to get down to work, and not only that...working at home you also are available at all hours, so if someone wants to have an argument, that person can reach me on the phone at any time any day, and I have no choice but to get involved with it! If I had a job I would have to take 8 hours a day to do my job and then come home and have the problems.

So, a lot of times, you have no choice but to make the comic take a back seat to real life. I'm glad...other cartoonists have had big gaps in their work because of personal things and then done something that was not as good or just the same, I take a little consolation in the fact that at least this was a more substantial, more ambitious issue, too, and it seems to be getting a pretty good reaction. That really makes me feel a lot better about it.

It was a combination of the two: it was a harder thing to do, and my personal life was more convoluted than before.

JW: Can you talk a little bit about your creative process, like how you actually put the comic together?

AT: Sure. The writing is the process that I feel like I have the least control over, and that's where I have to start. There's no real science to it for me, I just have to sit in my room thinking and taking notes and then once I get all the ideas down, the next big task is trying to organize it in some way and construct it. And for the most part, at that stage, I'm dealing only with words, I'm typing stuff on the computer and taking notes, and then once I've got a really solid script together, then I start putting it into panels with little stick figures, visual things, so I know what happens on each page.

And from there I get into the serious drawing which is a very involved process. I do these tracings on vellum, and flip them over on a light box, and redraw it to make sure it doesn't look retarded when you flip it over, and then retrace it onto the bristol board and ink it, and sometimes putting the zipatone on it takes a whole 'nother day. So usually the writing will take me several months, and then once I start drawing, I can usually do a page in about 4 days if I'm working really well.

So, back to the last question, barring personal distractions, the physical process of doing it actually takes me a long time anyway. A page takes, at best, four days, sometimes a week...so it's a long process.

JW: So when you write your stories, where do your ideas come from and then how do you pick one? Is it just all from your experience?

AT: It always has to start there in some capacity. It has to arrive from some point of experience. I don't know what the process is...it's basically that I have a million different ideas, and then it's finding the one that's going to hold my interest through this long, arduous process that I'm faced with.

Like, I was working for almost a month on ideas for this autobiographical story that I thought would be good, and the more I had to whittle away from it, and edit it...and then the last couple of days I've actually tried to sit and write the whole thing out, and it was starting to become more of a chore. And I was like "if I'm getting bored with this when I'm still in the writing stage, I'm gonna hate drawing it." So that's the main criterion, something that's gonna hold my interest for that long and through that much concentration.

And unfortunately, it's gotten to the point where I have to also be cognizant of things I've done and try and see how things fit in. Like, every artist has a lot of repetition dramatically and in terms of characters, but I want to not have every character be the same and not have every conflict be the same. But I'm also thinking now a bit in terms of the book collections. The last two issues and the next two issues are gonna be in one book, so I don't want to have three stories in a row all about men and then one about a woman. I'm trying to alternate that kind of thing.

JW: What's in the works for the future of Optic Nerve?

AT: The future is...I'm just gonna keep trying to do my thing and improve. I mean, basically every issue that comes out I feel like once it's out I can look at it kind of clear-eyed and see all these things that are really distressing to me that I didn't notice before I sent it to the publisher. So, I'm glad that don't feel like I've reached any point of complacency. So that's always a motivator, "I can't wait to have another story to do so I can improve this."

JW: No movie scripts like Dan Clowes or anything else?

AT: Anything else? Uh,

JW: Oh, I forgot to ask you, Optic Nerve was a play? Did you have anything to do with the adaptation at all?

AT: No, I gave the girl permission to do what she wanted and then I witnessed it, they flew me out to Chicago.

JW: And was it a faithful adaptation?

AT: In terms of the language, the dialogue, it was extremely faithful, to a T. But it wasn't exactly visually how I...it was weird to see all these male characters, they probably didn't know this, but in my mind, they were stand-ins for me, and they were being played by these handsome, stud actor guys. Like they did this one where the guy actually goes around in his boxer shorts, and I was like "oh, I can't even...it's just so wrong! So wrong!"

JW: You felt like it was you up there in your underwear?

AT: No, I felt like it was some handsome well-adjusted guy!

JW: So it was like the movie in "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure?"

AT: Right, yeah. It was all wrong! Seeing the play version, all the guys were too good looking and the girls weren't good looking enough! [both laugh heartily] That was my reaction in terms of how I envisioned it.

Yeah, so I had nothing to do with it, they just did it themselves. So no, I'm not heavily involved in any big Hollywood adaptations or anything like that. There's always some weird little thing coming up, and I just don't have the motivation to really pursue it right. And then there's people wanting to do animation, which I'm pretty much opposed to.

JW: Oh really? Like, in theory?

AT: No, not in theory, I'm not opposed to the art form! But as far as adapting my story, I'm opposed to it. Whenever someone wants to do an animated version of my story, I'm like "you don't really get it, then" because it's supposed to be realistic. If there's gonna be an adaptation, I'd want it to be with people rather than badly done computer drawings.

JW: You don't think there'd be a way to do it that would be realistic?

AT: Yeah, but what's the point? If you're gonna do animation that's so realistic, why not just use actors?

JW: I don't know...it's just another visual representation, I guess.

AT: Nah, I don't like it. Most animation I really hate, and the few animated things that I do like are like "The Simpsons" which just could not be anything other than a cartoon. So, I think it's perfect for that, or "Beavis and Butthead" or something like that. But I think that trying to do a very close approximation of reality with lots of facial expressions and subtle emotion, what's the point?

JW: Well, there's a lot of Japanese animation like that

AT: Eh, it's OK. If ever there's gonna be an adaptation that I'm interested in, it will have to be on film with real actors.

JW: OK. But not the ones that were in the play?

AT: They'll probably read this, so...

JW: Well, you already said the girls weren't cute enough!

AT: Oh shit! [laughs] It's not that they weren't cute in real life, they were really pretty, it's just that they weren't, basically it didn't quite match my world view of, um...

JW: They weren't your type?

AT: No, they were fine! Aaah. Well, let's just say that the casting kind of met somewhere in the middle, like, maybe the girls weren't quite as cute as the drawings, and the guys were a little better looking than the guys in the comics.

Well, I'm speaking strictly from an artistic standpoint, not from my personal taste! Let's just say that none of the actors, male or female, really looked like the drawings.

JW: Oh, OK. Well, that's pretty much all my questions, then.

AT: OK. That's it?

JW: Yeah

AT: That wasn't too bad.

Back to Jennifer's Home Page...