Cheetos and Dr. Pepper: The work of Adrian Tomine
(This piece can also be found in my book Four Essays about Four Modern Books.)
Recently my friend and I were exchanging masturbation ritual stories, a topic which is a source of endless fascination for almost all males (and now that I think about it, most every woman I know too). My friend admitted that in his youth when he lived in the neighborhood I currently live, there were certain nights of lonliness in which he would rent unusual pornography (well, unusual for him, maybe not for society in general) and would also purchase a big bag of Cheetos and a two-liter bottle of Dr. Pepper, which he would then consume over the course of the evening while watching his videotapes, masturbating. I found the entire image fairly disgusting and absolutely hilarious, and an inside joke soon formed between my friend and I, the magic phrase "Cheetos and Dr. Pepper" producing fitful bursts of unexplained giggling from us in public.
I can think of no better compliment to give the writer/cartoonist Adrian Tomine, no better way of explaining what I think of his work and why I enjoy his stories so much, then to hesitatingly and with no little trepidation give the following confession: last week I had a Cheetos and Dr. Pepper incident concerning one of his stories. It was "Hazel Eyes," a story originally from his award-winning comic book Optic Nerve but collected in the recent Sleepwalk and Other Stories (Drawn & Quarterly Publications, 1997) of which I was reading that night. The protagionist, the one with the hazel eyes, had been drawn as any number of exchangable ex-girlfriends of mine -- short hair in a boyish cut, fair skin, small breasts, clothes straight from the retro-bin at the local thrift store. In the story she is visiting with two recently-estranged female friends, both now with boyfriends and more normal lives. Tara, our hero, starts ruminating on her own ex-boyfriend, who to her chagrin still maintains a close relationship with the two women. Our omniscient narrator for the tale tells us in the 13th panel:
"Discretion was never his strong suit, and Tara worries often about Al regaling her friends with the sordid details of their relationship. In particular, she regrets ever confiding in him her erotic attachment to the scent of old books."
The accompanying picture is of a dapper gentlemen in v-neck sweater, a rough alt-collegiate look, regaling a circle of likewise-slackeresque friends in a bar, all laughing and bugging out their eyes. He is saying:
"...And once she actually wanted to lay an open copy of Baudelaire across her face while we fucked!"
Something about this 13th panel struck me. I've had lovers like this before. In fact, it was precisely because of these strange literary/erotic connections that I have been attracted to some of these past lovers. There was the woman who, after seeing The Pillow Book, insisted on my drawing of e.e. cummings lines on her naked back as we had sex that night. There was the woman who would start humming Ani Defranco songs under her breath without realizing it as she approached orgasm. Oh yes, and there was that woman who whispered a poem in my ear as we fucked with which she had just recently won her local slam. She was very proud of the poem and wanted to make sure I heard it before we parted ways.
I lied there in my bed and thought how very much I'd love to fuck a woman while she spread an open copy of Baudelaire across her face. In fact, this woman, Tara, right here in the story, that's who I'd love to fuck. I lied there and thought about the incredible sex I'd had in my past with other literary lovers, what incredible sex it would probably be with a woman like Tara, and... well.
Don't get me wrong, it was a good masturbation and I had a good orgasm. But afterward, sitting in the lone afterglow of my singular sexual coupling, I had one of those strangely surreal moments of lucidity that one has sometimes after an unusual bout of masturbation (of which topic was the original reason Greg admitted the Cheetos and Dr. Pepper story in the first place). You have an unusual fantasy one night or get excited by an unusual source or physically masturbate in a way unusual for yourself, and you have your orgasm and then suddenly have a moment of great clarity, an opening of the clouds to glimpse the bright sun suddenly imparting pearls of wisdom upon you. And you suddenly feel pretty damn foolish about what you just did, while at the same time being immensely pleased with yourself for actually achieving your orgasm in such an unusual way.
Don't get me wrong, it was a good masturbation and I had a good orgasm. But as I lied in my bed afterward, I was suddenly struck with the thought: "Good Lord. Did I just successfully masturbate to a cartoon character?" This is the power of Adrian Tomine.
To be honest, I have never read an issue of Optic Nerve in its original comic book form. There is simply way too many good things being produced in contemporary America's underground literary scene, and I have been forced to lay down certain arbitrary laws for myself in order to not be completely broke and continually in the middle of reading something and not writing myself. One of these arbitrary laws is that I simply don't buy comic books anymore. There are just too many good ones, and the cost-per-page of these 16- to 32-page books are just too high for me to afford. My thought is that if a comic is good enough and literary enough, it will eventually be culled together into a book form, which I can then buy in bulk and read through six or eight issues at once. Which is exactly what's been done with Mr. Tomine, not only with the aforementioned Sleepwalk but his first collection, 32 Stories (Drawn & Quarterly Publications, 1995), a full culling of the rare first seven self-published issues before signing with D&Q. The books themselves are simply gorgeous, a wet dream for all of us Design Geeks out there -- the perfect use of spot color, devastatingly simple font usage, a look that is simply so sharp you're almost afraid of handling the book for fear of getting a mental paper cut.
Likewise I know almost nothing of Mr. Tomine's personal or professional life, save what I've read on the book jackets, his new introduction for 32 Stories, and whatever bits I can pick up in the stories themselves, which even he admits is a strange blur of true-life confession, friends' stories, and out-and-out fiction. Mr. Tomine is one of those people I have been loosely following for several years as we in the underground all are, one of those members of the West Coast Cabal--an informal collection of intellectual, over-educated and underpaid slacker creators all west of the Rockies--generally the same age as me (late 20s), generally all with their starts in the truly underground mediums of zines and comics from which they have become so infamous they have now moved into the mainstream. Everyone in my industry seems to have stories about these people but no one actually seems to know them. Tales of chance encounters make them seem infinitely friendly and accessible, so much so that those of us in the midwest begin to wonder if these people even exist, since no one actually seems to be actual friends with them.
That's certainly what I thought, until last summer when I actually met another member of the West Coast Cabal, Darby Romeo, the creator of Ben Is Dead (which has itself been culled into a nationally-released mainstream book, Retro Hell). It was then that I discovered why none of us know anything about these creators, why they seem to have public lives limited only to the occasional discussion panel or comic convention sighting. Darby's a geek, through and through, and the personality traits that allowed her to put so much time and attention into her zine do not simply disappear when the zine in question becomes popular. Darby seemed pained to talk to me; she refuses to believe even now that so many other people would like her zine besides herself and her friends. She stuttered and shifted her feet around uncomfortably and we actually didn't have one single decent conversation until she was safely back in her Los Angeles apartment and could "talk" to me through her email. One gets the distinct impression, talking to Darby, that even as she wants to be in the limelight, as much as she desperately wishes to be enjoying the fruits of her success, she would be infinitely more comfortable squirrelled away in her apartment or in the corner of the local coffeehouse, her head buried in her notebooks and writing away as a witness to the world around her instead of the main participant. Hey -- just like me!
I look at Mr. Tomine's photobooth portraits in the backs of his books and I imagine the same about him. I imagine him living his life in Berkeley, California, yet another one of these west-coast addresses to which I have never visited and which conjure fantastical visions for me, visions of student protest, cities full of smart and witty and beautiful members of the Intellegentsia. I imagine Mr. Tomine sitting in the back of the local Coffee Shack or Java Jive or Bean Barn, scribbling away in a beat-up sketchpad, injesting fatal amounts of caffeine, frustrating the underpaid employees of said coffeehouse, thinking over and over in his head about how much he'd like to have the courage to put down the sketchpad and just go over and talk to the beautiful woman across the room he's been doing a character study of for the last two hours, but realizing he doesn't nearly have the courage so instead will write an incredibly poignant, serious and profound story about her which will get published in Details next month, be universally acclaimed, sealing his fate even further. This may be presumptuous of me, projecting so much into Mr. Tomine's life. Then again, I've read the stories and I sincerely believe that if Mr. Tomine were to read this essay he would agree with me that this is how our lives do commence.
In fact this is the greatest strength of Mr. Tomine's work, the thing that is at once the hardest thing to describe to someone unfamiliar with his work and the easiest thing to actually show: he has the ability, more so than any other contemporary writer I have read, to present the boring self-indulgent everyday moments from all our lives in such a way that makes them nail-bitingly gripping -- forcing you to read faster and faster, flipping the pages hurridly to find out what happens to his characters, even as you intimately know within yourself that nothing's going to happen to the characters. There is no big payoff, no moral, no explosion or final kiss or ride into the sunset. The stories simply end; nothing profound or exciting or life-changing ever happens to the people who populate Mr. Tomine's comfortly-familiar alternative universe. But somehow he writes and draws the stories so that they hold more punch than the loudest and most-expensive summer action movie ever made.
Much is made in the mainstream press of Mr. Tomine's extraordinary literary qualities for being a comic artist, of how his stories hold up even without the pictures included (indeed, several years ago a Chicago theatre company pulled an entire play together out of various stories of his). Ignorning the graphic element of Optic Nerve, however, seems to me to ignore one of the crucial elements of the as-yet unexplained reason his banal stories carry so much weight. Along with strange stories about masturbation, my friend Greg also espouses a pretty astute theory of current underground literature of which he has convinced me to also subscribe. Greg talks about the "small quiet moments" of our lives, the private snippets of time which we as a society share but experience only in lonely individuality. Drinking a glass of water at three in morning, staring out your kitchen window at pure blackness outside. Finishing a lovemaking session and pressing your forehead against your partner's, the two of you lying in each other's arms for ten or fifteen minutes, staring into the other's eyes. Parking your car outside your apartment after work and just being so tired, so weary, so jaded about life that you simply sit behind the wheel, staring blankly at the dangerous world beyond the windshield.
This is an incredibly difficult thing to express in literature -- hell, any form of artistic expression, really. It is the drawings of Mr. Tomine that move the stories themselves from mere tales of fringe existence into the profoundly moving "small quiet moments" of desperate lives that they are. Take the story "Six Day Cold" from Sleepwalk, for example. In it we're presented with a story all-too-familiar with many of us: Paul, a nondescript late-twenties male, has a serious case of the flu but no one to take care of him. The story begins with him desperately walking to the drugstore, vomiting regularly as he staggers down the sidewalk. Ellen, another vaguely artistic-looking late-twenties slacker, sees Paul and runs over. She insists that he go home while she gets his medicine.
As the story progresses we learn through flashbacks that Paul and Ellen are former lovers who went through a particularly painful breakup. When Ellen arrives with food and medicine, Paul almost doesn't let her in, and she has to petuantly yell at him to get him to unlock the door. Ellen admits her slacker-artist life we have expected, confessing that her new job is to design the flowers and teacups printed on paper towels. She stays and takes care of Paul late into the night and decides to crash on his couch. Paul has a nightmare about being buried alive in snow, then wakes in the middle of the night. While making soup he wakes Ellen, who comes into the kitchen to see how his fever is progressing. He awkwardly thanks her for staying and taking care of him. She awkwardly accepts the thanks. Ellen goes back to sleep. Paul watches the soup bubble. The End.
Obviously it is the story itself, the words and plot being conveyed, that clue us in to the uncomfortableness between the two, the horrible combination of longing and hatred that so many lovers feel toward their partners in the months immediately following a breakup. When Paul stammers out a "Thanks.... You know...for hanging around and everything" to Ellen in the kitchen, she at first gives a perfunctory statement of reciprocation, then pauses, looks at the wall and says in a quiet voice, "You took care of me plenty of times when I needed it," and the amounts of double-meanings the sentence holds speaks volumes about the relationship they do/do not have/had. When Ellen starts complaining about the utter uselessness of her new job, Paul interrupts by saying, "Nah. It's great. I mean, just think how many people will see that." It's an utterly proposterous statement, one that no of us would ever believe, but yet one that is desperately needed to be heard sometimes by all of us from someone who at least pretends to care about us.
But it is the panels without any dialogue that my eye keeps returning to, looking over the story as I recount it to you. The panel where Paul undresses, a look on his face like he can't believe the amount of pain one can have simply by removing a coat. The panel where, after waking, he stares at Ellen sleeping away on the couch, a half-drank glass of water in his hand, a look of fatigue and weariness and sickness and hurt and love and longing on his face, the bright white of the kitchen directly contrasting with the deathly black of the adjoining living room. And of there are the last three panels, showing respectively: Paul, his arms folded, watching the soup cook, the light of dawn just starting to break through the window in the background; Ellen, lying wide awake on the couch, blanket tucked up to her armpits but right arm free, her hand curled and barely touching her chin, her eyes blankly focused on some unnamed point beyond our sight; and a cheap saucepan, bubbles of soup caught in mid-explosion, an empty metal can in the background, lid still hastily attached in one tenuous connection.
It is these drawings and not the story itself that provide an epiphanous moment for me. The rational part of my brain realizes of course that I am not the only man in the history of the human race to have an ex-girlfriend crash on my couch one night. I am not the only person to ever have to come to grips with conflicting feelings of love and repulsion toward the same person. I am not the only ex-lover who desperately wanted to slip into my ex-partner's arms at four in the morning, sick and lonely and despondent. But the more emotional part of my brain is shocked by the intimacy of the drawings. How did Mr. Tomine know that I looked exactly like that as I stood in the doorway, watching Monika sleep? How could he know that I have spent more than several moments of my life expressly staring out that kitchen window, glass in hand, silently contemplating the growing morn? He wasn't there -- he doesn't even know me. But yet he does, because he knows himself. Unlike the more obnoxious of our generation who boldly declare in public that they are speaking on behalf of millions, Mr. Tomine never claims to be doing anything other than telling his own story. In fact he is outright apologetic at times, worrying that the stories within will be recognizable and interesting only to himself and his small circle of personal friends. It is because Mr. Tomine writes only for himself that he does end up writing for his entire generation, in a very quiet and powerful way that makes us immediately understand and empathize with the characters while still feeling that we are the only ones out there who do understand it with such a personal sense of profoundness.
And based on the history of Optic Nerve as parlayed through these two books (32 Stories presents the full contents of the first seven issues, arranged chronologically; Sleepwalk presents the contents of the first four D&Q issues, also chronologically), Mr. Tomine has increasingly become more aware of which work inherently resonates and has adjusted his content accordingly. Reading through the first several issues (which according to the book jacket were xeroxed and sold less than a hundred copies apiece) is sometimes like stumbling upon someone's diary -- random moments of profound and compelling work, surrounded by shovelfuls of navel-gazing (an early story, "Disappointment & Despair," is nothing more than a stream-of-consciousness rant about how much Mr. Tomine hates not selling enough comics). But like the best of chronological collections, one can physically see when the author randomly stumbles upon something great, something that he can tell immediately is his forte and is a glimpse of the genius to come. In this case it is the remarkable Amy series, beginning with "Solitary Enjoyment" in issue two. From an original impetus of "a particular girl who seemed to be reading thick novels in the downtown Tower Books every time I went there late at night" (as Mr. Tomine says in his introduction), the series quickly progresses into a rather inventive literary trick -- taking real-life stories from his personal life and masking them in a fictional character, many times of the opposite sex -- allowing Mr. Tomine to pull out of the reflexive gaze of so much of the underground culture and apply objective standards of quality to his work. It is obvious to any reader that these are far and away the best of his early work, and by the time one reaches Sleepwalk, it is seen that 15 of 16 stories in the book are written in this precise style.
On the same vein, it is a treat to watch Mr. Tomine's graphic style evolve over time. The early Optic Nerves are, truthfully speaking, about as raw a drawing style that one could possibly get away with and still call themselves a comic book artist. Each page is a simple four-square grid, boxes are drawn without aid of any straightedge, and frankly it is the quality of the stories themselves that make any of the first two issues even vaguely readable. As the comic became more popular, however, and as Mr. Tomine developed a greater interest in producing quality books, a transformation took place. Mr. Tomine expresses reservation in his introduction to 32 Stories about republishing these early issues, worrying that their crudeness will turn off potential readers of his current work. But it's quite the opposite. I don't think I would nearly enjoy the dramatic cinematic effects of Sleepwalk -- the long horizontal panels, the sophisticated shading and stylized mannerisms -- if not first being exposed to his public "education" displayed on the pages of his first seven issues.
Mr. Tomine is possibly the perfect comic book creator -- a man who marries the literary and the visual with a beautiful, almost inherent, sense of genius. It is for people like him that the entire medium of comic art was even created, for his work would greatly suffer without both elements intact. I'm sure there are plenty of people close to Mr. Tomine, people with his ear, who urge him daily to give up the low pay and dubious reputation of the comic book format. Even I admit that he could probably score a pretty good advance for a book consisting of only the written word, his usual stories or perhaps even a novel which I'm sure he has in him, and in the process gain a newfound respectability from all those sniffling academians who refuse to believe that stories with pictures could be at all good or serious.
But if Mr. Tomine does happen to ever read this essay, I'd like to urge him to stay in the comic realm, if not his sole means of creative outlet then at least his primary means. His stories wouldn't nearly hold the same kind of weight in my bones without that particular format. They wouldn't make me laugh or cry out loud. They wouldn't make me fitfully grab the phone to call ex-girlfriends at three in the morning, just to see how they are. And most importantly, I would never have had a Cheetos and Dr. Pepper moment with just a written description of Tara, our beautiful friend with the hazel eyes.
Copyright 1998, Jason Pettus. All rights reserved.