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Adrian Tomine goes back to his California roots in 'Killing and Dying'

by James Kim and Elizabeth Nonemaker | The Frame

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A panel from "Tanslated, from the Japanese," from Adrian Tomine's new comic "Killing and Dying." Adrian Tomine

"Killing and Dying" is the latest graphic novel by the acclaimed writer and illustrator Adrian Tomine. It's a collection of six fictional stories about parenting, relationships and letting go. 

Tomine has been making comics since he was a teenager, but he garnered attention with his collection of sixteen short stories titled "Sleepwalk and Other Stories" -- which won him the Harvey Award for Best New Talent. He became known for portraying characters and writing stories that find the significance in the smaller moments in life -- heartbreak, unrequited love, and in his latest comic, the fears of parenting. 

While Tomine's work is respected in the comic world, he's also well known to the general public for his cover illustrations for The New Yorker. Every one of those illustration, comic and cover has been cataloged in a book called "New York Drawings." 

The Frame's John Horn talks with Adrian Tomine about his new comic, "Killing and Dying," his fears of being a parent and how California has heavily influenced him. 

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

One of the things you do in this book that’s noticeable is your use of time. Your characters age, bald, get fatter. You’re doing a fast-forward through their lives. Is that more intentional in this work?

I think so. A lot of the qualities in “Killing and Dying” is sort of a response to work I’d done previously. I wanted to push myself in some different directions. One of those is what you’re talking about. Instead of showing a dialogue between two people over the course of one evening, I’m trying to capture a wider impression of the characters’ lives.

One of those stories with that use of time is a story called “Hortisculpture.” The story’s about a middle-aged gardener who thinks turning shrubbery into sculptured art, derisively, is a brilliant idea. Except no one else thinks so. He’s at a moment of crisis at the end of the story and he says, “It’s the artist’s duty to ignore and outlast the naysayers. A true artist can never be deterred” Then he looks at his own art and says, “Jesus fucking Christ. These things are hideous.” That feels really personal, about how an artist looks as his or her own work.

Yeah. I started writing that story just after the birth of my first daughter. She was an infant. I assumed I was writing a fictional story that had nothing to do with my own life. Obviously, a lot of my own anxieties worked its way into the story. But I think we’ve seen and read so many stories about the heroic artist persevering against all odds, triumphing against adversity — but I think at that moment in my life, and still, I think we haven’t heard enough about the heroes who are self-aware enough to give up on their art, to some degree, and be a responsible parent or husband.

Do you think it’s important for an artist to be his or her own toughest critic? How do you criticize your own work and how does it improve the end product?

Fortunately, I’ve never had to be too critical of my own work, because the world is critical enough. And especially with the internet, I’ve always tried to stay in touch with criticism of my work. There was a point a few years back where I could have gone either way. There are some artists who could bury their head in the sand, and anyone who criticizes them is wrong.

For me I think the turning point was when I would get a postcard or a letter in the mail with some kind of criticism, and I would think, What an idiot! And five other postcards would arrive independently with the same criticism. And I would think, Okay, how is it that there are so many idiots making the exact same point about my work?

This is like the old joke where if six people tell you you’re drunk, you should lie down?

Yes. In some cases, that’s what was going on. Of course I have the protective emotional responses at first. But it’s useful, if someone has made the same point repeatedly — it’s worth at least considering.

I want to talk specifically about your being a parent. The title story “Killing and Dying” is about a daughter who wants to be a stand-up comedian. She has a stutter, she doesn’t have a strong presence. Her parents suspect it’s not a great idea but they want to encourage her to be all she can be. But I’m curious about being a parent and looking at the parent-child relationship in this story — how your experience informed it — and how you’re thinking of what kind of parent you want to become when you’re working through a story like this. Or do you separate out your own experience completely?

Like all the stories in the book, that one was intended to be a complete work of fiction. I thought I’d extricated my own personality and circumstances from this fictional story. Of course, I’m not capable of that, I don’t think. It’s a very personal story. I think a lot of people I’ve talked to assume I identify most with the father character because I have two daughters. And that’s a big part of it. I mean, I was writing that story around the time my oldest daughter was old enough to start taking classes, ballet classes. But of course I see myself a lot in the daughter character. I was thinking about what it was like for my parents, to have a strange kid with a hobby or a pursuit that maybe they weren’t that familiar with. It must have been a strange experience — nerve-wracking, in some ways. You want to shield your kid from criticism.

Did you parents ultimately end up supporting your choice to be an artist?

They’ve always been supportive. There was never discouragement. I think I was trying to get at the conflicted feelings a parent might have about the balance between encouragement and protection, and the possibility that maybe your kid is good in a way you don’t understand.

You have characters throughout this book who have flaws, like ordinary people. They have their strengths and weaknesses and they make their mistakes. There’s a bit of that in the way you draw these people. They’re ordinary, average. Has that always been important to you, to draw people as they are in the real world, rather than the fantasy world of so many comics?

Yeah. When I started making comics professionally, I was really working against the tradition of what most people thought of when you said “comics.” Superheroes, science fiction. Part of that was to draw characters that felt like people I knew. I was in my late teens and early twenties. The people I aspired to know were young and kind of good-looking. Certainly not superheroes, but different types of characters I’m working on now. I’m 41. Everybody’s kind of falling apart around me. Their hair is falling out and they’re gaining weight. I wanted to keep trying to draw characters that resonated with me, that almost felt like extensions of myself.

That was a really useful change I made with this book. Like with the first story, I drew the character differently originally. I drew him thinner, without a big mustache, and he had a better haircut. I couldn’t enter into the story that way. I went back and tried to figure out a different way to draw him. When I arrived at his design, I knew how he’d talk and react.

This book is clearly personal. What happened the last time you wrote about personal things was in "Shortcomings." You’re Japanese-American. You got a lot of criticism — mostly from Asian-Americans. How did you walk away from what people said about "Shortcomings" going into this new work?

When I started publishing my work, one of the biggest surprises to me was the recurring question about my background and why I wasn’t doing more stories about Asian-Americans. There was suspicion I was hiding my roots. None of that was on my mind. I was taken aback. So there was a rebellious streak that thought, I’m not going to do what they want. But as soon as I had that thought, I thought, what would a book by me look like if I addressed race and featured exclusively Asian-American characters? That’s where “Shortcomings” came from.

The book tour was a bit of a challenge. There was definitely a mixed response. People I might have assumed were there to compliment me were there for other reasons. And it had something of an impact on me. I think the subconscious whatever is in some ways stronger than the weaker body that contains that. After that book tour, I said, the next book I do will be completely fictional. I want to be invisible as an artist, and have people only focus on the work. That was my plan going into "Killing and Dying." Fortunately for me, I don’t think I was that in control.

You creeped back in.

Absolutely. Whether I wanted to or not. I’m somewhat in the same position again of talking a lot about whether certain characters are supposed to be me, or whether I believe something that a certain character said. But I think that that’s a fair trade-off. I think the stories are better because I allowed the personal element to creep in.

I want to talk about the sense of place. This has a lot of California in its soul — and of Pasadena. The cover illustration is of a Pasadena Denny’s. I’m curious about that becoming an iconic image in this book. What did California, more broadly, mean to the stories and illustrations in this book?

To me, that was the result of trying to find the most iconic version of that restaurant. I liked the way it looked. It also seemed to fit with the mood I was looking for. That mood is this sort of intangible quality I feel when I think about California or when I go back to visit. I lived in California for about 30 years before moving to New York, and it still feels like home to me. What I realized, especially after living so far away, is that if there’s a place that you have nothing but positive associations with, then it almost doesn’t qualify as your home.

When I think of the towns I spent most of my childhood in — Sacramento and Fresno — I have really distinct emotions. Longing, homesickness, where I want to be there… And if I’m doing research and looking at the street view of GoogleMaps, I can also feel this kind of existential dread, like I’m actually shuddering while I look at these streets I knew so well.

That’s really at the heart I was trying to get at overall in this book — my feelings about my home in California.

They seem complicated, that they’re both fond and also bittersweet.

Yeah. Maybe I’m just extrapolating and projecting. But I feel like most people if they’re honest, will have some of those extremes when they think back on the towns that they grew up in. To me, that was what sort of clarified an identity for me. After living in New York, I realized I still feel the strongest connections to these towns in California, that are not particularly glamorous or even scenic. But because of the years that I spent there they feel very close to my heart.

That’s kind of like this Denny’s. Architecturally, it’s beautiful. And yet, it’s a pancake house. I guess that’s what you’re talking about. In these places, where ordinary life happens, there can also be great beauty, even if it’s the architecture of a Denny’s.

Yeah. I loved drawing that cover. I guess it’s a combination of a lot of different real locations. There’s some of Pasadena, Emeryville, Fresno, Oakland, kind of all mixed in. But when I was working on it, I felt a real personal connection to these not particularly attractive buildings, and chain stores. There’s something about figuring out the architecture and drawing the freeways in the background. It was a strangely emotional experience for me in some ways.

Adrian Tomine's new book, "Killing and Dying," is out now. 

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