Monday, April 7, 2008

Tomine's Scene

Had it been widely available, Adrian Tomine’s 2007 mini comic Scenes from an Impending Marriage likely would have made its way onto many best-of lists.

Scenes features a stripped-down approach to storytelling in a simply designed, attractive book, two hallmarks of Tomine’s work. It includes six strips (each is 1 to 4 pages) and two single-panel full-page gags, all of which narrate humorous moments as Tomine and his then-fiancée-now-wife, Sarah, prepare for their wedding. They almost hire a DJ, who gives them some CDs so they can “get a sense of his flow,” but they’re not feeling it; they visit a salon, where Adrian supportively comments on—and according to Sarah, tries to decide upon—her wedding-day hair style. The couple also undergoes the “bizarre ritual” of registering for wedding gifts; and they negotiate their two families’ request for different kinds of traditional ethnic entertainment.

In the indicia Tomine writes that “some of the characters and . . . events . . . are fictitious, or at least highly distorted for the sake of clarity and/or humor,” reminding us that, as with all autobiography, Scenes should not be taken literally, though it’s fun to do so. And Tomine’s work, like that of many artists I like, is often far funnier than it's given credit for. And his sense of humor is on full display here. The comic is only 16 pages, but Tomine packs a lot of comedy into the small 6-9 panel grids, making it feel far longer, like a typical full-size comic book. When I talked about the comic with someone who had read it, he recalled it being around 30 pages . . .

Tomine takes a looser approach in Scenes than he does in recent work like 2007’s Shortcomings where, for example, each panel shows a high level of detail, with backgrounds that are meticulously drawn:

The comic features a polished version of the style that Tomine uses for strips in his sketchbook, as in this one from his 2004 collection, Scrapbook

and it has an incredibly appealing breezy and minimal visual look that’s cute and almost delicate, with a thin and relaxed, natural ink line (the only straight lines to be found are the panel borders).

And its cartoony-ness is a little like that of Tomine’s recent New Yorker cover

or in his story The Donger and Me, which first appeared in Giant Robot a few years ago and more recently was posted on NPR’s webpage:
As in Tomine’s other comics, what stands out in Scenes is the way he connects facial expressions and body gestures, though here they have more of the exaggeration typical of newspaper comic strips (a few panels show a clear debt to Peanuts). In one scene—a phone conversation with the almost-hired DJ— Sarah’s facial expression changes slightly from panel to panel—the eyebrows shift slightly, the head moves up or down, she bites a fingernail then a thumbnail, and the gentle comedy of the visuals matches the quickly shifting rhythms of the conversation’s ebb and flow. There’s a lot of charming self-deprecating humor, as in “Poor Us,” where Tomine draws attention to the couple’s narcissism as they obsess over problems with the wedding and honeymoon plans. This story, too, shows Tomine’s skill at cartoon gestures; it includes a perfectly executed nine-panel sequence of distinct poses that ends in a great moment of Peanuts-esque self-pity.

In the mini comics tradition, each copy (a few hundred were made) was hand-assembled, and in a way it’s a throwback to Tomine’s roots, as the early numbers of his series Optic Nerve were assembled and self-published (Tomine recount his self-publishing history in the introduction to his mid-'90s collection 32 Stories). But the fact that this comic was self-produced in a short period of time shouldn't mislead us. It’s the polished work of a confident and sophisticated cartoonist who knows how to work to great effect with an economical visual style and a compressed narrative sense.

All in all, a perfect mini comic.

A few panels from Scenes:

The Shortcomings Site
The "Donger and Me" at
Tomine Interview at The Believer
Tomine's Official Site