An interview with cartoonist Adrian Tomine

The California-born, Montreal-connected artist’s Killing and Dying is being widely hailed as a masterpiece.

Adrian Tomine Killing and Dying
From Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine

Adrian Tomine is a veritable giant among cartoonists — a prodigy who began self-publishing his long-running comic series Optic Nerve as a teenager in the 1990’s and who illustrated his first New Yorker cover in 2004. Tomine’s latest hardcover collection Killing and Dying is being widely hailed as a masterpiece.

Although he grew up in California and now lives in Brooklyn, Tomine’s development as a storyteller and artist over the past 20 years has a strong Montreal connection: He was among the first handful of cartoonists to be published by our very own Drawn & Quarterly when it was still being run out of a small Mile End apartment. The work of both artist and publisher are frequently cited as being critical to the popular growth of the comic and graphic novel format, and the embracement of cartooning as a serious creative forum for exploring the depths of the human condition.

Issue 1 of Optic Nerve
Issue 1 of Optic Nerve

“I started publishing my work with [Drawn & Quarterly] when I was about 19 and I’m 41 now, so I’ve had a long, fruitful working relationship with them,” Tomine says. “In a lot of ways they’ve sort of spoiled me in terms of working professionally with anyone else because they’re so generous and so hands-off and supportive. One of the things that I think you don’t get elsewhere is that it’s still a small company with a very friendly atmosphere, and it doesn’t feel like I’m working for some corporation with different chains of command — it’s more like there are these friends of mine up in Montreal and they help me get my work out into the world, and that really means a lot to me.”

In Killing and Dying — its title referencing the terms stand-up comedians use for onstage success or failure, and reflecting the ambitions of the story’s protagonists — Tomine has crafted six multilayered, often heartbreaking stories whose characters deal with failure, disappointment and loss. Among the themes that Tomine explores here is the question of how to best support a loved one whose talent may not rise to match the level of their passion.

“It comes from several directions,” Tomine explains, “one being as a creative person myself, the insecurities that you feel and the concerns you have about what you might be putting your family or loved ones through as you pursue this obsessive dream. I’ve been doing this kind of work since I was actually a kid living at home with my parents and they were my original audience, and going through the process of trying to figure out how much is just parental encouragement or how much are they to be believed, and how your work will really be judged out in the real world.”

Adrian Tomine
Adrian Tomine

It’s a question that’s never far behind for even established, celebrated artists. When asked about his reaction to Killing and Dying’s positive reception, Tomine says, “I’m relieved because I had been working on the book for quite a long time without really any sense of how it was going to be received. That’s always the danger of working alone on something for a long time. It could be devastating if it turns out that you created something terrible!”

Across the book’s six stories, Tomine employs different drawing styles with more or less detail, colour use and dialogue, unified by one of his greatest strengths as a storyteller: his ability to relay a lot of meaning through each uncluttered frame, where the characters’ expressive faces, postures, gestures and surroundings say as much as their words. No doubt this is a skill that’s been honed by his work creating dialogue-free, single panel illustrations and covers for the New Yorker.

A New Yorker cover by Adrian Tomine
A New Yorker cover by Adrian Tomine

“I definitely started out more as a cartoonist who was telling stories in panel form,” he explains, “then eventually I started to try and take some of what I learned from that and put it towards creating single images that might have some sort of narrative content built into it. A lot of that process was the result of the guidance and the encouragement from Françoise Mouly, who’s the arts editor at The New Yorker — she’s the one who first encouraged me to start doing covers for the magazine.”

Where will Tomine go from here? “I’ve got a bunch of different things that I’m working on. I’m trying to give myself permission to pursue a lot of endeavours that I’d had to set aside while I finished this book. I don’t have the same type of workaholic mentality that I used to have when I was younger, which in hindsight was really just a way of filling up emptiness in my life that I certainly don’t have now with my family. I’m very busy and very much enjoying being a father, so that has slightly diminished my need to always be working.” ■

Adrian Tomine will appear in conversation with Leanne Shapton at a double book launch for Tomine’s Killing and Dying and Shapton’s Was She Pretty? at the Rialto Hall (5711 Parc) on Friday, Feb. 5, 7 p.m., $5 (available at Drawn & Quarterly, 211 Bernard W.)