As I was familiarizing myself with my new surroundings here at Sequart.com, one of the things I’ve noticed was that, like with the rest of the internet, save a few exceptions, a lot of action / superhero comics are reviewed here. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. I’ll have you know that some of my best friends are superhero comics. I’m sure I’ll get a lot of angry letters stating that quite a bit of crime comics are reviewed here as well. Well sure, as the lady told Elwood Blues, they play Country and Western.
Don’t get me wrong. I love superhero comics as much as the next guy and it’s not like I’m trying to undercut my new cohorts here at Sequart.com in any way, shape, or form (other than Bryan Miller, who got Sammy Glicked so hard over at Savant, Elia Kazan was all “Hey, that’s fucked up, Comrade!”). The comics reviewed here on this site are top shelf indeed (except they aren’t necessarily published by Top Shelf) and the Matt Martins of the world are very classy dudes. This isn’t to trash the content of this site, which, as I’ve already stated, is Three Times Dope and all that. It’s just that I’m left with the impression that a lot of you may not have been exposed to, or never considered taking a look at, some of the works I’m going to talk about here, despite the fact that these aren’t all that obscure.
This is exciting to me, because if it’s within the realm of possibility introduce people to some great material, then um, you know, my life will finally have meaning… or something. I mean, isn’t that what the internet’s all about? Looking for some meaning to our meaningless lives? We all need a reason to go on. That’s why we “First Post!” it over at Newsarama and said things like “Bill Jem-ass,” when deep down inside we all loved him, and make sig posts with Jeff Stryker for all of Delphi to see. Nobody wants to be alone and we all want to feel like someone’s listening. So read on, and then go take a look at SUMMER BLONDE, which all ties in nicely to this little rant because I’m just all Jean-Paul Smartre or something.
Drawn & Quarterly Productions
Adrian Tomine is the best storyteller in comics today. Period. Don’t listen to the fools that tell you he’s over-rated, or he’s past his prime, or that he’s just phoning it in. Most writers wish they can “phone it in” as well as Tomine can. The people who make these accusations didn’t just make Time magazine’s 20 Graphic Novels for Smart People list (or whatever bone it was that the mainstream media decided to throw comics that day) as SUMMER BLONDE has. This collection compiles four very controversial (in that Tomine’s talent was the controversy and not the stories) tales from his brilliant OPTIC NERVE series he’s been writing and drawing since high school. One only has to look at the 32 STORIES collection to see the unique talent he’s always had.
The reason he’s such a critical darling with a devoted following because Tomine writes honest stories about lonely people trying desperately to fit into a world they either don’t understand, or understand a little too well for their own good. Whether it’s the office schlub who goes to a secluded park to watch men have intercourse or the angry punker who tries to make the moves on his friend while he’s asleep, everyone in these tales wants to make some kind of lasting or temporary bond with someone. Everybody wants to fit in, even when they say they don’t. Those people are being dishonest, and in SUMMER BLONDE, Tomine captures characters fooling themselves with the precision of Jack the Ripper’s scalpel.
Consider Hillary Chan, the protagonist in this collection’s “Hawaiian Getaway,” a lonely girl who makes vicious prank calls to a phone booth outside her apartment in an attempt to have some kind of human contact. The facial expressions and actions Tomine imbues her with suggest a cold, angry person but the first person narration tells a completely different story. The girl behind the coffeehouse counter, the standoffish roommate, the sleazy DJ she gives a handjob — all she wants from them is some sort of connection.
Hillary’s the standout character in a menagerie of memorable losers and misfits, because she perfectly sums up one of Tomine’s favorite themes: We all pay for our mistakes. The moment we realize she’s doomed to loneliness, it just feels so inevitable.
Even well-intentioned mistakes, such as the lonely wretch of the title piece, who stalks an emotionally neglected young woman in an attempt to help her or the frustrated writer in “Alter Ego,” who befriends the forlorn teenage sister of the girl that ignored him in high school. Without glossing over the inherent creepiness of their actions, Tomine somehow infuses within them a quiet Sisyphus-ian nobility that can’t be overlooked. The boulder’s going to eventually roll down at a heartbreaking pace, yet pushing it uphill is all they know and all they can do to keep going.
This quiet dignity is found in Scotty, the teenage protagonist in the much discussed “Bomb Scare,” who’s so emotionally detached, he doesn’t want to experience anything new. His dream is to have everything go back to the way it was four years ago (before high school) and freeze, so that he doesn’t have to face anything monumental or, presumably, scary. Being a teenager sucks, and Tomine perfectly captures this limbo in this boy who hates those years of his life, yet isn’t too keen on taking the next step towards adulthood, either.
“Bomb Scare” is also notable in its very frank and astute portrayal of sexual awakening in a teenage boy. The guilt and trepidation Scotty has to overcome in order to finally make the choice to lose his virginity is poignant and, in that unique Optic Nerve way, triumphant. It’s not portrayed so much as soft-focus romance and Zalman King saxophone scores or the kind of filthy, dirty sex I have with your mom every second Thursday of the month, as it’s simply two lonely people reaching out to one another, because it’s what they both need at that time. They do something desperate; yet keep their dignity intact.
The name Raymond Carver is frequently bandied about when it comes to this “slice of life” subgenre in comics, and Tomine in the only one that even comes close. Granted, there is only one Raymond Carver, and comics and prose are two completely different things, but Tomine has the same minimalistic grace and the flair for the climactic anticlimax that only Carver seemed to possess.
What most writers would use as a subplot or filler, he turns into a fully formed story with layers and genuine emotion. The “inconsequential” seems pretty damn important in his hands, because it is important. People fall in love. They fight. Sometimes, they make up, sometimes they don’t. The aforementioned Carver gave us possibly the greatest title in the literature with WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE and this title is about as appropriate as it comes when discussing SUMMER BLONDE. These are love stories. Some end badly, some not so badly, but they’re all told with grace, intelligence, and honesty.
Writers are not all professional liars. The great ones simply speak to emotional truths that real life sometimes glosses over. SUMMER BLONDE doesn’t lie or cheat the reader, which is a rarity in the age of dull knives that just ain’t cuttin’. If this is over-rated or passé, that’s just a damn shame, because we can all use a lot more honesty in our lives and in comics.