Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying

Page detail from Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying (Drawn & Quarterly, 2015). “Amber Sweet.”

Killing and Dying, by Adrian Tomine. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2015. 128 pages.

THE LANDSCAPES in Adrian Tomine’s comics are stripped down to their most essential lines, so precisely and elegantly observed as to imply the whole world around them. His characters are drawn with the same meticulous intentionality, but their personalities come off as looser, broader caricatures—these are contemptible men and put-upon women. As the volume’s title punningly suggests, Killing and Dying’s six stories (collected from recent issues of Tomine’s comic book Optic Nerve, which has appeared intermittently since 1991, when he was seventeen years old) feint at comedy of various kinds, but there’s no laugh here that isn’t choking on bitterness.

Tomine is probably better known as an illustrator than as a storyteller these days, thanks in part to the fraught moments captured on his New Yorker covers. The closest thing to the style of those single-image tableaux here is “Translated, from the Japanese,” the highlight of Killing and Dying. It’s told entirely in captions and fleeting images of the narrator’s surroundings; we never see any of the characters’ faces. Every panel is crisp, almost painfully clean in its rendering, and evocative of the emotions it doesn’t actually show—even a full-page image of a jet in midair, drawn as flatly as a safety brochure, couldn’t be any other artist’s work.

A formalist from the get-go, Tomine reconfigures his drawing technique and color design for every story. The opening piece, “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture,’” is the story of a gardener who invents a new medium—god-awful tubular sculptures with plants growing through them—and his long-suffering wife and daughter. It’s also an acrobatic display of style, presented as if it were a newspaper comic strip (a gesture borrowed from Daniel Clowes), with batches of six four-panel black-and-white strips alternating with full-page color “Sunday” strips. (Tomine’s allusions to newspaper strips’ history go deeper than the story’s format. The angles from which we see the characters are largely limited to the ones Charles M. Schulz used in Peanuts; the compositions and shading nod to Frank King’s Gasoline Alley.) That form also hustles the plot along, with each scene dashing up to a rueful gag, then bounding forward to the next. And the joke-as-payoff scheme provides the closest thing to a happy ending in the book: An artist destroys his life’s work.

He’s not the only wretched artist that Tomine shows us. The title story concerns a disastrously self-conscious, talentless teenage stand-up comedian (just to underscore the point, Tomine has given her a stutter), with an unrealistically supportive mother and a reflexively sarcastic father. Midway through the story, the metronomic four-by-five-panel grid drops for a moment (there’s a blank space where an image should be), and it soon becomes clear why: That missing panel is where the mother has died of cancer, and everything else in the story is really about how the family has been reacting to her illness and death.

Tomine can crucify a character with a single word balloon, as when a man in “Go Owls” complains of Alcoholics Anonymous that “according to them, you’re either quote unquote sober or you’re not.” But he’s also got a knack for letting his comics’ words and images snag against each other more subtly. “Amber Sweet” is narrated by a young woman who tells the story of how her life has been haunted by having a porn-star doppelganger. The artwork, though, doesn’t quite match up with the text; the implication is that the narrator might actually be the former Amber Sweet, trying to preemptively erase her past for the new boyfriend we only encounter in the final panel, as the two of them sit together, looking down at a smoggy Los Angeles vista.

For all its craft and power, Killing and Dying is riddled with parables of artistic self-doubt—or even artistic self-laceration, in the case of its closer, the brief “Intruders,” which could also have carried the book’s title. The story is told by another in Tomine’s line of awful men and unreliable narrators, a desperately lonely military veteran breaking into the place where he used to live and no longer belongs. Its ragged-edged visual style, though, approximates the artist’s own work from the early issues of Optic Nerve. That’s yet another formal gesture: a return to the territory of the juvenilia that made Tomine’s name, to complete his self-imposed exile from it.

Douglas Wolk is a critic and author based in Portland, OR.