SHORTCOMINGS (Drawn & Quarterly)
Written & drawn by Adrian Tomine
Collects Optic Nerve #9-11
Adrian Tomine is a creator I’ve heard a lot about from my more indie-oriented comic friends. I even remember when Shortcomings came out in trade format in 2007. Actually, I remember when it was announced the book was coming out a few months before. I was working in the research department at Wizard at the time and if memory serves my buddy Sean Collins was going to write about the book for Book Shelf (the monthly trade review section of Wizard at the time). I loved writing for Book Shelf and reading it, but I also hated that section because it meant a full day of me sifting through boxes in the hot, stuffy comic book library trying to track down certain issues. For the most part we didn’t get advance copies of the trades, so we would just get the issues together and read them all together, asking the companies if there were any extras of note. I developed a bit of a system, writing the cover date month on many of the long boxes, which worked out pretty well, but it was never an easy task, especially if the books were sought after by other folks which meant they would be all out of order. It might surprise some that the Wizard library did in fact include Optic Nerve, but since the book had a non-traditional shipping schedule it took the longest to track down. For whatever reason, possibly bitterness, I didn’t wind up reading the book.
Until now, thanks to a D&Q sale that I took advantage of, ordering Shortcomings along with the first Walt & Skeezix Tinpan Alley volume. The book stars Ben Tanaka a generally caustic dude in a relationship with Miko who winds up heading to New York for an internship. His friend Alice, a skirt-chasing lesbian, seems okay with his general assholeishness because she’s used to it, but it comes as no real surprise when he starts having trouble getting a hold of Miko and tries to start flings with his punky coworker Autumn and later Alice’s friend of a friend and “fence-sitter” Sasha, neither of which are destined to go anywhere. Alice heads out to New York in order to clear her head, finds something that Ben just has to see and the pair of them find out what Miko has really been up to in the Big Apple.
After reading the book in a single sitting, I’m not really sure what to think of Shortcomings. It’s not bad, by any means, but it left me slightly flat. I think one of the reasons for that is that the comic has a lot of echos back to Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Chasing Amy. Ben works at a movie theater, hates his job and seemingly everything else, but doesn’t want to leave it, he doesn’t have any further career aspirations and seems unable to make a real change in his life. He also starts dating a lesbian who has a more varied sexual history than him and things work out until something happens and they break up in a big fight. I don’t want to imply that Tomine borrowed those elements from the movies, but I have trouble thinking of anything else when those elements are put into place in close proximity. I have seen those movies a LOT by the way. One of the guys at the movie theater even notes that Jay and Silent Bob Strike back is one of his favorite movies. I can’t tell if that that’s a subtle form of what the Lost writers called “hanging a lantern” on the festivities (i.e. drawing attention to something in-story that the reader/viewer might be commenting on in the real world) or a dig at Smith (is the soon-shushed guy who also likes Fight Club and Reservoir Dogs being silenced because he’s one of those dudes who never shuts up about movies or because his favorite movies suck?). I’m probably thinking way too much about all this.
I’m also getting a little tired of reading indie books with unlikable characters as the leads. I’m trying to get through Jimmy Corrigan and am having a ROUGH time of it (he’s such a sadsack loser, I’m having trouble caring about him whatsoever). Ben’s nowhere near that annoying and he does remind me of a younger version of myself and plenty of my friends, but that whole “bitching about everything and thinking it’s clever” mentality has been annoying for years to me at this point. Luckily, I don’t equate an annoying and hard-to-like character like Ben with bad writing and Tomine does a great job of turning things around, getting me to actually wind up on Ben’s side by the end of the book. He might be kind of an ass, but at least he wasn’t a huge liar. That’s way worse in my book. Plus, I dug the character of Alice and even more so, her lady friend Meredith, who winds up being the most likable, non asshole-ish character in the bunch, probably because she’s slightly older and definitely more mature than the others.
On the positive side, the story is well told, the characters well rounded for all their craggy exteriors and the art well done in a simplistic but expressive pen and ink style. Had I not seen some of the elements previously, I think the story might have hit me a little harder in the heart or gut. As it is, I dug the story, laughed a few times here and there and had a generally good time with the proceedings, but I wasn’t overly wowed. It felt like an indie movie, but, again, not one I loved, just one I liked.
Speaking of movies, I have a lot of respect for Tomine for having a story in mind, writing it out and turning it into a comic book. Anyone with that level of creativity and follow-through is aces in my book. I wish I could do something like that. He’s actually a lot like the aforementioned Kevin Smith in those regards in that he took something he loved and turned it into his job, something that I think many people want to do, but much like Ben Tanaka, don’t have the guts to drop everything and actually attempt. In Tomine’s case, according to his bio on the D&Q page, he actually started Optic Nerve when he was 16 and has turned it all into a career. I love that kind of ingenuity and spirit and even though Shortcomings didn’t floor me, I like the story and the artist enough to give some of his other work a try. What should I read next?