US author Jonathan Lethem described comic book artist Adrian Tomine’s contemporary fiction series Optic Nerve as “deceptively relaxed and as perfect as a comic book gets”. Tomine’s stories of everyday people living out everyday lives, laced with a heavy dose of humour, have led to comparisons with fellow New Yorker Woody Allen. Simon Creasey caught up with Tomine during a rare visit to London to promote his latest collection of stories, Summer Blonde, which has just been published in the UK by Faber & Faber…
In addition to working to his Optic Nerve series (stories from issues five through to eight are collected together in Summer Blonde) Tomine regularly contributes illustrations to the New Yorker and Believer magazine and in the past has designed CD sleeves for the likes of Eels and Yo La Tengo.
Simon Creasey: How would you describe an Adrian Tomine story to somebody who is unfamiliar with your work?
Adrian Tomine: I’d probably say something self-defeating like: “It’s probably not your cup of tea. It’s kind of boring”. But probably I should say that it’s kind of like contemporary fiction in comics form.
SC: Where do the ideas for the stories come from?
AT: I like the way that David Lynch has described his idea-getting process [“ideas are like fish: you don’t make the fish, you catch the fish”] because it gets at the mysterious quality of it all that’s hard for me to articulate. I think most people think that I just live some experience, change a few names, and there’s my story. But it really is a lot harder to describe than that, and a lot things do come from some unconscious process that often becomes clearer to me after the fact.
SC: Have you always been a fan of comic books?
AT: Yes. I was “reading” comics before I could actually read. Something about the medium just transfixed me at an early age. As a child, I read pretty good stuff, like Peanuts by Charles Schulz, but as a teenager, I have to admit that I got into some pretty questionable super-hero/fantasy stuff.
SC: When did you realise that you could make a living out of comics?
AT: I don’t think I’ve ever made a living completely from my comics. I’ve always done commercial illustration work to help pay the bills. But to answer your question, I think I was pretty determined to become a full-time “artist” by the time I graduated from college, and by some miracle, it worked out.
SC: How long did it take you to develop your own drawing style? Did anyone in particular inspire it?
AT: Ha! I’m still working on that to be honest. I never really had any formal art or comics training, so I think I’m very much the product of my influences. I don’t think it would be too hard to spot the influence of people like Jaime Hernandez and Dan Clowes in my artwork, but there are a million other great artists who have had some sort of impact on my work.
SC: One of the more refreshing things about Optic Nerve is the letters page in which a healthy proportion of the letters you publish are critical of you. Why don’t you censor them?
AT: Why would I want to censor them? I enjoy hearing a variety of perspectives, and I think it makes for an interesting read. I suppose I’m arrogant enough to think that I can publish some of those negative reactions and not worry about it hurting sales.
SC: One of the biggest criticisms of your work on the letters page is from ardent fans bemoaning how long it takes you to produce the next instalment of a story. Are you a slow worker or just lazy?
AT: Yeah, I’m just a lazy bum who almost never does any work. Just kidding! I think the people who complain about my pace were raised on the type of comics that are made on a production line, so they’re trained to expect that monthly fix. I honestly work as hard and as fast as I can without sacrificing quality, but there’s always some kind of interruption, such as interviews like this!
SC: What’s your view on the need to end a story with a cliff-hanger? Most of your comics just seem to tail off with very little drama in the final cell.
AT: Yeah, some people hate the way I end my stories. I offer no defence, other than that they’re the way I intended them to be, for better or for worse.
SC: What’s the percentage split of your work in terms of comic books and commercial illustrations?
AT: It’s about 73.727% comics, and 26.273% illustration work.
SC: Do you enjoy undertaking commercial assignments such as the stuff you create for the New Yorker where you are working to a brief and as a result you have less creative freedom to take risks?
AT: I’m fortunate enough that for the most part even the commercial assignments I take on are pleasant, gratifying experiences. I go out of my way to avoid projects or people that I think are going to make my life hell. And I also think that it’s useful to occasionally have that collaborative experience.
SC: What projects are you working on at the moment?
AT: Nothing too earth-shattering. Mostly just more illustration work for The New Yorker, and my next book, which I probably shouldn’t say too much about at this point.
SC: I spoke to Charles Burns [fellow comic book artist] recently and he confirmed that David Fincher is on board to direct a film version of Black Hole and that the script was currently in development. Have any of your stories been optioned?
AT: The best advice I received from someone who’s had his work adapted to film is: “Until the movie is in theatres, keep your mouth shut”. The most I can say is that I’m not adverse to the idea, but it’s also not my primary focus.
SC: I understand that you’re married now – does this mean that the relationship issues and problems that plague your protagonists, will give way to sunnier stories, or does it just mean that your stories will move into a whole new ballpark of marital problems?
AT: I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how the next book turns out.
Summer Blonde is out now, published by Faber & Faber; £12.99.