The art of living well.

Comic Genius

Artist Adrian Tomine, who first got hooked on comics while growing up in Sacramento, is now creating covers for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine—and that’s in his spare time, when he’s not busy reinventing the American comic book

Self-portrait of comic book artist Adrian Tomine

Self-portrait of comic book artist Adrian Tomine

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The first time I met the cartoonist Adrian Tomine, the waiter was a rock star. Well, he wasn’t a rock star yet. This is back in late 1991, and the waiter was a polite, meticulous guy named John McCrea. Tomine was still a high school student at Rio Americano, and McCrea was serving quiche and mochas at now-defunct Greta’s Café at 19th and Capitol—that is, when he wasn’t performing irony-riddled pop songs at local clubs with his crack unit, a little band called Cake.

Today, McCrea is a rock star, and Tomine (his family pronounces it “toe-MEE-neh”) is the equivalent of a rock star in the world of comic books. He packs conventions, he’s close friends with fellow cartoonists who are helping renovate the medium (notably Daniel Clowes, of Ghost World fame), and his original art is collected by connoisseurs. Of course, the world of comic books is one in which people spend an unhealthy amount of time alone indoors staring at blank pieces of paper, so it differs a tiny bit from going on tour with De La Soul and Cheap Trick. Still, if there’s a comics-artist equivalent to playing Madison Square Garden, it’s drawing covers for that singular magazine, The New Yorker—something Adrian Tomine has been doing since 2004, the year he turned 30.

The reason Tomine and I were meeting up for lunch that day in 1991 had to do with these intriguing little pamphlets he’d been drawing, photocopying, hand-stapling and selling through local comic shops, like the midtown store Beyond the Pale at 21st and J.

Tomine titled his mini comics Optic Nerve, and filled them with short, taut, hardboiled, hyper-literate stories that melded film-noir sullenness with urban-slacker malaise. This was, in 1991, about the last thing you’d expect in a comic, given the medium’s propensity, especially at that time, for steroid-buff, spandex-clad, vaguely fascistic superheroes. Actually, the last thing I expected that afternoon was to discover that a 17-year-old was responsible, given the worldliness (and, more to the point, world-weariness) of the stories, and the last thing Tomine expected was to be offered to be published in a national magazine.

“I was being pretty realistic in terms of my ambitions at that point,” he says today, “which was really to get some of these things out of my sketchbook and into a little pamphlet. And if I could sell a couple copies at the local comics store, then that would be a great success to me.”

Success came to Tomine more quickly, and more substantially. I had recently relocated to Sacramento from Brooklyn to work as an editor at Pulse!, the music monthly published by Tower Records. Tomine’s strip would eventually run from February 1992 through September 1994, which is when he decided to hunker down and focus on his English degree at UC Berkeley. After Tomine regularly submitted his minis, Optic Nerve was picked up for distribution by the eminent Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly, home to the artists Seth, Joe Matt, Chester Brown and other figures influential in stripping comics of their super-hero tendencies, and making them a medium for personal expression—and for the sharing of intimate, often dark personal details. Tomine fit right in. D&Q’s serialization of Tomine’s Optic Nerve has led, since 1998, to four book collections.