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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Among the artists who fascinated him at a precocious age was Yoshihiro Tatsumi, a somewhat esoteric figure from the world of Japanese manga who favored stark realism over fantasy and entertainment. (“Manga” is the Japanese word for comics, but their popularity in Japan dwarfs the role of comics in American life; in Japan manga is arguably a more powerful cultural force than are TV or movies.) Tasumi’s troubling stories of post-war Japan often bring to mind novelist Nelson Algren’s tales of mid-century Chicago, or closer to home, Sacramento-based writer William T. Vollmann’s visits to the moral dark side.

A page from  Tomine’s 2007 book  Shortcomings (Photo courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly)

Tomine first read Tatsumi’s stories about dissolute veterans and conniving madams in the Sacramento comic shop World’s Best Comics at around age 13. “There was one, almost like a bootleg translation of Tatsumi’s work, that even he wasn’t aware of himself, but that I stumbled upon,” Tomine says. “And it was, like a lot of the comics that I was discovering at that time, more disturbing than anything else.” Though Tomine was born into a Japanese-American family by parents who were both in internment camps, he says that the Japanese origin of Tatsumi’s work wasn’t what drew him in. “That experience of being freaked out by a comic was really inspiring to me,” he says. In recent years, Tomine has been active in bringing Tatsumi’s work (legally) to an English-reading audience, first through three short-story collections, and this year in an 840-page memoir, A Drifting Life, due out April 14, all of which he edited and designed.

Other influences were closer to home. Though they didn’t meet until more recently, Tomine knew at the time that R. Crumb, the underground comics legend, lived in nearby Winters through the early 1990s. (Crumb later moved with his family to France.) “I was very excited when I watched the documentary [Crumb] about him,” he says. “He talked about having a friend drive him around so he could draw some of the street lights and telephone wires and things like that, and to me it was very clearly Sacramento I was recognizing in his sketches.”

Tomine also got to know Justin Green, an innovator in autobiographical comics who had his own Pulse! strip for a decade, and Green’s wife, the talented cartoonist Carol Tyler. A visit to their East Sacramento home sticks with him: “I remember it being really interesting to see adults who took comics not just seriously but matter-of-factly, and there were comics and art books sort of strewn all about the house, not just hidden away in the kids room. And to see a home studio was exciting to me.”

As it turns out, Tomine wasn’t the first Sacramentan to draw a New Yorker cover. He wasn’t even the first on his block. “I remember my stepbrother coming home one day and saying that there was some famous artist who lived across the street from us,” Tomine says, thinking back to his childhood, “and no one paid much attention to him. And then years later, I remember reading an interview with Wayne Thiebaud, and realizing he was the guy who lived across the street from us.”

Thiebaud, of course, has painted several iconic New Yorker covers, including an August 2002 issue showing two upside-down clown-faced ice cream cones. So, yeah, Tomine isn’t the first Sacramentan to feature ice cream, either. (At least one other Sacramento resident, Stephanie Skaliksy, also did New Yorker covers and cartoons in the early 1990s.)

What Tomine has done is contribute to the modernization of the New Yorker’s look. Says one collector of his original art, Steve Bodow, head writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, “Unlike with Crumb or [cartoonist] Chris Ware, I feel like I’m looking at my world, a world that I recognize. He’s observing the world in a way that’s similar to the way I do, the real world—except he has the talent to actually express that visually instead of just yapping about it.”

Says Mouly, “I know he’s a favorite artist of some of the younger people here at the New Yorker. They recognize his art as being emblematic of their ‘cultural cool.’ He has a mixture of very vibrant sensibility and very sharp coolness.”