I Got to Meet Adrian
Adrian 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
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
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: Optic Nerve gave you a lot of success at an early age...how does
that put pressure on you now?
AT: Uhhh...it puts me at a much more accelerated trajectory towards burnout?
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
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
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
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: You said before that all your friends read your comics, but are there any
people in your life who avoid reading them?
AT: I don't have a lot of friends! It's not like this huge pool of
Well, I mean, there are definitely varying degrees of interest. Some people are, like,
dying to get it and read it and talk to me about it, and other people, I'll send it to them and
they're polite and complimentary, but...
I don't think there's anybody who's avoiding it...well, my first girlfriend, since
our breakup, she's avoided it because...I hang out with her a couple of times a year and
catch up with her, and I'd refer to my last comic coming out and she'd say "oh, you have
another one out?" and she wouldn't know about it. I never send it to her, and I know she
doesn't seek it out, so I think it's probably too upsetting to her. Or at least at that time,
right after our breakup it was too upsetting to her. She's probably just not that interested.
But if the issue was reversed, and an ex-girlfriend of mine was doing autobiographical
comics, I'd be like "Is it out yet? Is the new one out yet?" [laughs]
JW: Yeah, I would be like that, too
JW: I have to know what everybody's saying about me
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: When you write your comics, do you have an audience for them in mind?
Or do you just draw strictly what interests you?
AT: It used to be more the latter when I was doing the mini-comics, it was just
whatever I wanted to do to amuse myself. And I think that unfortunately now, it's become
sort of unavoidable that the feedback that I get does somehow...I'm not sure how strongly
it affects me, but it certainly has an effect on my decision-making process.
It's not like I make every decision in order to please the audience, but every decision is
somehow now contrary to or satisfying of a certain kind of feedback. It's always in my
mind. But I've never done anything that for my own interest I wouldn't want to do, but did
just because it would be popular.
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: OK, the next question is not really a question, it's more like an anecdote
that I wanted to get your reaction to. There was this guy who I knew online, and he was this
young guy who was just starting to get into comics, and he was reading Optic Nerve
and then he started reading Eightball. And so he read it and he wrote that he liked it,
but thought that it was kind of an Adrian Tomine ripoff. So, I sent him this scathing e-mail
back and all...
And then later, I was telling this story to Ivan Brunetti, saying that this guy was basically
a dumbass, and Ivan said to me that he thought it actually might be truer than anyone is
willing to admit. He felt that the influence went both ways in your collaboration.
JW: Well, your friendship or whatever. So, what do you have to say to that?
AT: I don't know if it's anything that would have occurred to me, but I hold
his work in such high regard and he was such an influence on me. But I've heard certain
people say that stuff to me, and write things like that to me in letters.
I don't know, it's hard for me to tell, because what people could be perceiving as that
influence could also just be based on the fact that coincidentally, around the time we started
being friends, he made this conscious shift with Eightball to start telling these more
serious, dramatic short stories.
Especially with the David Boring story, I think that people are keying into the fact that
the characters are young more than anything else But the David Boring stuff is just totally
his own, and it would have existed with or without Optic Nerve.
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
[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
JW: Why do you think that comics aren't more popular? Why is there such
a small audience?
AT: Well, I think the biggest problem is a cultural thing. It's pretty exclusive
to America, there's such a stigma attached to it, and it's pretty much thought of as a
children's medium, and it's a nerdy thing...it's kind of uncool, and for boys only.
I know a lot of strides have supposedly been made in the last year or two towards
making it more acceptable, like articles in the media. But, I think that the next problem that
arises is distribution, and I think that a lot of people just don't know how to get ahold of
these comics, even if they get over their stereotypes. Either they don't know where to find
them, or it's too much effort, or the stores that do sell it are too creepy.
JW: What about the collections? Are those available at bookstores?
AT: Yeah, Drawn & Quarterly actually got a pretty good book distribution
deal. We're really well distributed in the Virgin Megastore chain, and in other book chains.
Yeah, it takes a combination of really good availability to the public and really good
JW: I totally agree with what you said about the perception of comics as being
only for guys. Comic book stores can be pretty hostile towards females, especially if
you're looking at these kinds of comics, because they're in the over-18 section next to all
the porno comics, and there's usually some big sweaty guy there standing around reading
Cherry Pop Tart and sneering at you because you're invading "his" space.
AT: Yeah, either that or raping you with his eyes or something.
JW: Nah, it's not so much that, it's more just that they're embarrassed.
AT: They don't want you invading the boys' club.
JW: Right, right. So, are you planning on coming out with any more
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: Almost all of your characters exhibit isolation and alienation from the
people around them. Is that an autobiographical thing?
AT: Sure. It's definitely my own circumstances and personality coming
through. That's another thing I need to work on diversifying a little bit. I was working on
this next story, and I was like, "now what fake reason can I have for this character to be at
home all the time?" Because in Issue 5 it was a writer who worked at home, and then in the
last issue, the girl was unemployed, so she was at home all the time, and I was like "this is
getting too ridiculous" coming up with all these fake excuses for people that live like I
Sometimes it's hard for me to imagine writing a strong, realistic portrayal of someone
who goes to the office every day.
JW: That's a pretty boring existence, too, although I actually think that Ivan
Brunetti did a really good job doing that in Schizo #3.
AT: Yeah, he did, that was good. But like I said, I'm not a very imaginative
person, so it's hard for me to write beyond my experience.
JW: So, you don't have a computer...are you one of those weird Luddite
AT: No, I have a computer, there's just no modem. It's a very ancient
JW: Well, OK, how come you don't have a modem? This is the nineties!
AT: It's almost the end of the nineties! Well, for a long time I didn't really
have any interest in it, and then when I started to need it for my comic, to do the coloring, I
actually met a guy who worked at a design firm, and he did it all for me, and it was very
good. It was much more convenient to just have my publisher pay him to do it for me than
for me to learn how to do it.
He moved away recently, so I had to learn how to do it, but he was the same guy who
did that stuff for Dan, and Dan decided to buy the whole setup, and he said "you can just
come over and use mine," so for the work related things, the last issue I did all myself with
the color separations and typesetting. So, I know how to do it and I have access to it, but I
just don't have it in my house.
And the internet, well you know how a lot of people consciously get rid of their TVs
because they know that they're gonna spend too much time watching it? Well, I think
that's part of my resistance to getting the internet. In fact, my dad actually had an extra
modem that he was getting rid of, and he said "I'll bring it over" and I was like "No! No!
I told him not to , because I think it would just suck up all my time...I already have a bad
enough time with TV.
People who have no real connection, people who are just interested in model airplanes
can get obsessed with the internet, but I could just go and type in my name, and read all this
stuff about myself. I think I'm better off not knowing.
JW: I guess I'm just surprised that there really isn't much of a comics
presence on the net. I'd think it would be a really ideal forum for publicizing comics. I
guess a lot of it is to do with the fact that comics people are just so wedded to paper that I
don't know of anyone in comics who has an official presence on the net.
AT: Yeah, I'm all in favor of it as an advertising tool. My publisher has a
website, and that's probably good enough.
But yeah, I think that my comic would become even more infrequent if I bought a
JW: Speaking of which, how come it took a year for Optic Nerve #6 to
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: When did you finish school?
AT: In May of 1996. Three years I've been out...Jesus!
JW: Do you generally work on the comic every day? How do you set your
AT: Yeah. I slacked off a little bit after I finished Issue #6 because I was so
burnt out on it. I went to the East Coast for two weeks and just relaxed. Now I'm trying to
get back into the groove. But once I start drawing, it's every day whenever I have time for it,
aside from other necessary activities. So, right now I'm trying to write this, but I've also
got all kinds of weird illustration jobs that I'm doing.
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: You said in your Comics Journal interview that you didn't feel
like your college experience was of any benefit to you as a cartoonist. I find that hard to
believe [AT laughs] if not for the intellectual stimulation, then at least for the opportunities
to be around so many people...
AT: I didn't take advantage of all those opportunities, though!
JW: But you lived in a dorm! You can't help it, you have all these people in
your face all the time!
AT: Yeah, I lived in the dorm, that was the only time in my life when I felt like,
uhhh, what's the word? I could have gone to parties, and I could have tried to score with a
bunch of girls, but I had this girlfriend from high school, and I just shut it all out and
focused all my attention on her and the comic.
And then after I moved out of the dorms, I would just skulk onto the campus right as
class started, and I would sit in the back and listen, and then I'd get up and leave before the
lecture ended. And I didn't hang out on the campus at all.
JW: Well, you really blew your chance. I knew so many weirdoes in college!
For anyone who wants to write about people, it's a great learning opportunity.
AT: I know, I know, I really did...if I could go back and do it all over again, I
would do it differently...
JW: Well, you can always get a master's! But I guess it's not the same
AT: Yeah, people aren't quite as wild and crazy.
But no, it probably did benefit me to be an English major and to read a lot of literature
that I never would have read and to be forced to think critically and analytically about
JW: Did you take any writing classes in college?
AT: No, I don't think Berkeley even has a writing major. But I had to write a
lot of "lit crit." It can only help, I think. I don't think there was ever any direct correlation
between something that I read where I sat down and applied that to my comic, but I'm sure
I'm better for it than had I not gone to college at all. So, it wasn't a total waste.
JW: Well, I'm sure your parents will be happy to hear that!
AT: "See, mom? It wasn't a total waste!"
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: You know, you're kind of different than I expected.
AT: In person? What does that mean?
JW: Well, I was thinking from your comics that you would be this super
AT: Well, I am!
JW: You don't seem like it though. I mean, you were saying in all your
interviews, "I didn't have any friends. I had to sit in my room by myself drawing comics."
AT: That's right!
JW: And then when I met you I was like, "he's so friendly! He can talk to
AT: Believe me, I've never said that it's necessarily because of how I
am...well, it must be, but--
JW: Well, you moved around a lot as a kid...
AT: Yeah, I don't know. I don't know why that would be such an issue when
I got to high school or college. I'd like to blame it on circumstances, but high school can be
hard...the hierarchy. But in college, there really is no excuse.
JW: Well, yeah, except you're supposed to learn that stuff in high school. By
the time you get to college, it's too late!
AT: Well, yeah, and also, not to make you feel weird or anything, but it is
much easier for me when I'm "the artist" sitting at a convention and someone's coming up
and saying something nice to me.
JW: Sitting on your throne...
AT: Right! But that definitely is a lot easier for me. But like, last week, one
of my few friends who isn't related to comics, a friend from high school that I keep in touch
with , she works in advertising, and she's got all these normal well-adjusted adult friends,
and so I went out to some bars with her and I felt so weird. I felt like I was sitting at a table
of all these adults and I was like this little kid who had snuck into the bar, and I just
JW: So you can talk to me because I'm a fan, but--
AT: No, no! I'm just saying it's that initial hurdle that's so difficult, I mean,
now I'm talking to you, and it's fine, but if the way we'd met had not been the same, you
probably would have had a different impression of me. If you were just a friend of that
friend of mine in San Francisco and we met at this bar, I'd be like "uh, hi..."
JW: And then I would have said "hey wait, you're Adrian Tomine! I love
AT: Well, don't think I'm trying to create a false persona, because it is real.
JW: So, uh, tell me about your wacked-out fans!
AT: Well, I think I might be extra sensitive as to what constitutes a crazed fan,
because I think of comics as being so frivolous in terms of people's lives
JW: Why do you say that? That's what you do! It's your life's work, how
can it be frivolous?
AT: I'm not saying in absolute terms that it's frivolous to the world, I'm just
saying that I think most people view it as a little bit of entertainment that they can enjoy for
the ten minutes after they buy it and then they file it away.
JW: But isn't that pretty much true of all stalker bait? It's always a movie
star or a musician getting stalked. Salman Rushdie doesn't have stalkers...well, OK, yeah
he probably does.
AT: Yeah, he probably does. I'm convinced that because of this weird era that
we're living in that anyone can have a stalker.
So anyway, that's why I just think it's slightly unnerving when somehow the comic
ends up taking on more significance than that in someone's life. There's a whole range, I
just got a photo in the mail the other day from a girl who had gotten a panel from one of my
comics, with the lettering and everything, tattooed on her arm,
AT: Yeah, it was real! And she sent me the stencil that she used, so I know that
it's real. That was weird to me, and she'd sent this letter saying "that panel was so
meaningful to me, and that's why I had to have it." So I wrote back to her, and I was like
"I pray to God you don't blame me when you regret that two years from now!"
So, things like that or, just the fact that anyone would say anything to me in public, like
the fact that they would come up to me is weird. Maybe it's just that either you are or you
aren't that type of person, but I've been around celebrities, and I would never think of going
up and approaching them or if it was someone that did something that I admired, I would
feel too tongue-tied to say anything. I'd be too embarrassed about it. So I think it's just a
So that surprised me. That the desire to make that contact is enough to overwhelm the
human feelings of embarrassment or shyness.
JW: Well people probably feel like they know you a little bit from reading
AT: Yeah, maybe. It's possible. But I get a lot of interesting mail, basically.
Most of the stuff that happens in person is not so weird, but there are a few people who for
periods of time I'd start to see way too frequently. Like, during the day, I'll walk around
my neighborhood a lot.
JW: Do they ever say anything to you?
AT: Sometimes, yeah.
JW: Well, that does just happen, though, like there's this guy I started
calling "ubiquitous guy," because I was seeing him everywhere I went. But it turns out
that he works in a lab right near mine, and he lives near me, so that's why.
AT: Yeah, it does happen, I know. I have received things in the mail that have
been odd, and sort of disconcerting. Like, there was some guy who did this whole thing in a
zine about seeing me walking down Telegraph Avenue and then he follows me around and
details the minute-by-minutes of where I go and where I'm shopping, and what I have under
my arm. There's a diagram of what I'm dressed in...
JW: So you have people just randomly approach you in the street?
AT: Yeah, yeah. Unfortunately, it never happens at the right time! It's
always when I'm alone and I'll just be like yeah, uh-huh, that's fine. And then other times
I'll be with someone that I'm trying to impress, and I'll be like "doesn't anybody
recognize me? Here I am!" [laughs]
Not that it's very impressive...or like it's happened that people have come up and tried
to talk to me when I'm in the middle of a public argument with a girlfriend or something.
Like, "um, this really isn't a good time" and my girlfriend's here with tears running down
It happens in the weirdest places, like I can sort of understand why it would happen in
Berkeley, because people would say "hey, he kind of looks like--oh yeah, he does live in
Berkeley" and then they put it together.
But just when I was out in New York, this is another example of this being at the wrong
time, there was this girl who I was kind of trying to gain favor with, and she didn't seem too
interested. But I suspected she was kind of seduced by notoriety, so I thought that might be
my ticket. But of course nothing like that happened, and then when she went home, as soon
as I got on the subway, I noticed these teenagers that keep looking at me and I was like
"uh-oh, are they gonna mug me?" And then they were like "hey, are you the guy that does
Optic Nerve?" And everybody on the train was looking at me and trying to figure
out who I am, and I was like "why couldn't this have happened a few minutes ago???"
JW: You need to start wearing your Optic Nerve t-shirt everywhere you go!
AT: No, I wouldn't do anything like that. So back to the subject of weird
mail, there was this book that this girl sent me with photos of all the places around town
she's seen me.
JW: Why would someone do somthing like that?
AT: I don't know...
JW: Like, I can't imagine thinking "Gee, I bet Adrian will really like it if I
send him this thing showing that I've been following him around! He'll think I'm really
AT: Yeah, it's very strange. It is amusing to me. Of course, the people who
do that sort of win a place of immortality in my memory, like, I'll remember that much more
than the letters that just say, "I think your comic's cool." But, even less extreme than that,
but more common, I just get a lot of very personal mail which really surprises me. I can't
imagine writing to some stranger with these very heavy-duty personal kinds of things.
JW: Do you have a lot of younger readers?
AT: Yeah, probably teenagers are the youngest, I don't think anyone younger
than that would have any interest, but probably end of high school beginning of college is
probably the youngest age.
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
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
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,
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?
AT: That wasn't too bad.
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