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

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The most recent of Tomine’s books, Shortcomings, was released in 2007, and is his most sustained. In contrast with his earlier books, Shortcomings is a self-contained, full-length work, a “graphic novel” in the true sense of the term. His short pieces in the past had garnered comparisons to those of short-story master Raymond Carver (who also lived in Sacramento), thanks to Tomine’s attention to the details of urban tension and twentysomething melancholy. Shortcomings focuses on a young Asian-American man’s inner conflict about dating Caucasian women—you could say that Tomine had moved from Carver to Philip Roth. The New York Times did just that, and praised him for being “daring in his restraint.” The San Francisco Chronicle flat out called Shortcomings a “milestone.” Tomine hung out at the old World’s Best Comics store on Watt Avenue. (Photo courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly)

And that work, in turn, has led to high-profile commissions from magazines, including Details and The New York Times Magazine. “He’s like a dream artist for me,” says New Yorker Art Editor Françoise Mouly when asked about Tomine. “I’m always looking for artists who do narrative storytelling images. The other requirement is for images that look good, and with Adrian, he’s pretty high up on that ladder. Not only do his images tell a story, but there’s this aura of mystery. You keep wanting to look at it, because it posits a ‘before’ and an ‘after,’ so it’s perfect for The New Yorker.”

As of this writing, Tomine’s most recent New Yorker cover appeared on the February 2, 2009 issue. His sixth for the magazine, it depicts a lonesome ice cream truck in the dead of urban winter. Behind the truck stands the grand but beleaguered city, bleak and grey, and in the middle ground is a desolate public park, its trees reduced to spindles as narrow as the New York society women whom Tom Wolfe famously captioned “social X-rays.” A flurry of snow sweeps across the page. The only hint of warmth in Tomine’s picture is a muted yellow glow emanating wanly from inside the ice cream truck—but even the driver, who’s reading the newspaper (people are always reading in Tomine’s work), is bundled for a blizzard.

Despite his Sacramento rearing, Tomine knows New York winters. He lives in Brooklyn these days, and like the Virginia-reared Wolfe, he’s a New York City transplant whose outsider vantage has given him just enough detachment to see the city in a way that transfixes the natives. He says of his New Yorker and Times work, which also includes drawings for interior pages, “I feel like I’m in tune with the right level of observation that some of these assignments require. Maybe I’m noticing things that lifelong residents might have become jaded to—or, I might be more of a tourist, and easily impressed by things that aren’t as significant to someone who’s lived there their whole life.”

Tomine was born May 31, 1974, to two Sacramento State professors, who divorced shortly thereafter. He spent an itinerant childhood largely with his mother, a psychologist, while his father, a professor of engineering, remained in Sacramento, to which he and his mother returned in time for him to attend high school. Both parents have non-academic creative pursuits, including silk-screening and documentary filmmaking, which along with their work ethic he credits as an inspiration.

Though his fans today might imagine otherwise, young Tomine was no less keen on superheroes than were his pre-teen peers. He just grew out of it more quickly. “I had a long period of my childhood where I actually envisioned myself working for Marvel Comics,” he says, “and I did a lot of my own versions of superheroes [laughs]. But, yeah, I got that out of my system.”