How Cartoonist Adrian Tomine Captured What It's Like to Work in Comics

Long-Distance Cartoonist - Publicity-H 2020
Adrian Tomine/Drawn & Quarterly
The creator pulls back the curtain on the autobiographical book 'The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist.'

Cartoonist Adrian Tomine doesn't like comics. That's not really true, but it’s a claim made midway through his latest graphic novel, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist — an autobiographical tour through decades working in the comics industry, and the many and varied ridiculous, embarrassing experiences to be found there.

Returning to autobiographical work after decades of critically acclaimed fiction (Killing and Dying, Sleepwalk), the new book is a hilarious and revealing glimpse into Tomine’s life specifically and, more generally, the life of anyone working in a creative field today as it relates to every part of the job outside of the actual creative work. 

The Hollywood Reporter talked to Tomine about lessons learned from returning to scenes from some particularly humiliating crimes.

I want to start with something that's a joke and not a joke at the same time. The book portrays how strange it is promoting work and, in many ways, dealing with other people's reactions to that work. Is it strange promoting that work now, and dealing with other people’s reactions to it?

Well, it would have been much more surreal If it's the book tour had had gone according to plan, you know. In the winter, when we were making our plans for the book tour that got canceled, I started really having this sensation that I was going to be having a Charlie Kaufman kind of experience traveling around the country and going to poorly attended events, talking about a book about going to traveling around and going to poorly attended events. So it definitely crossed my mind. (Laughs.)

One of the main concerns that I had about that was that the present day experience could have possibly eclipsed some of the material in the book, and I would feel like, ‘no, no, no, this is the real stuff!’ And of course, now none of that transpired. So it's a different experience for sure. Although now we're in quarantine, and I'm talking about a book about isolation and loneliness. So there is always some kind of twist to my life.

Reading the end of the book, you almost negate traditional interview questions like, ‘where does this book come from?’ You're very clear with the final section of the book — it’s literally the origin of the book.

That's right. (Laughs) I should tell that to all the journalists who keep asking me, how did you come up with the idea for this book?

”It's in the book! just read it!” (Laughs.) You end the book by starting to work on the book — is there a sense of catharsis, having completed it? I ask because, it feels as a reader that revisiting everything that's in there would provide some sense of perspective or catharsis. You know, ideally, putting something in there that would give you some sense of release from all of this.

Yeah, definitely. On several levels. I mean, I think one of the weird quirks of my brain is that the version of things in the book tends to overwrite the the actual experience in my memory. So, when I think back on, like, the time I went to teach at my daughter's preschool or something, I really remember it more in terms of how I portrayed it in the comic than how I actually experienced it. And in that regard, a lot of these genuinely unpleasant experiences are now encased in sort of a cartoony humor in my brain, and I feel like I look back at them with amusement more than with shame and terror. 

But also, you know, the other aspect of that is that I think especially towards the latter part of the book, I'm able to transmit some thoughts and messages to my wife and children that I don't think I necessarily would be comfortable doing directly and just sitting down and saying the words to them and so, to sort of be able to say those things without really saying them, I think it's a bit of a relief for me too.

This book returns to the autobiography — and to some degree, autobiographical comedy — that you were doing in your really, really early work, and that you've moved away from since then. Was it strange going back to that now?

It was weird. It was hard. I'd really gotten in the mode of writing fiction and finding a way to express everything I thought I needed to express through fiction. And the book that I did prior to this one, which was called Killing and Dying, I mean, it sounds insane when I say it, but it took me about seven years to complete. That whole time, I really was in the mindset of thinking about kind of somber, short stories. 

And so when that book was done, I kind of had to reset my brain because I remember actually finishing the book and sending it to my publisher, and even the next day thinking like, "okay, now another story that would be good for this book is -- oh, shit, the book is over. Why? Why am I still thinking of that?" And so, it was an intentional challenge to move away from that and say, ‘okay, now do something that's explicitly about me.’

Early in the book, you’re struggling with, essentially, imposter syndrome — when you're revisiting these stories, is there a sense for you of, ‘thank God I don't feel that anymore,’ or just the opposite? Are you like, ‘oh, God, I still do feel like that’?

No, that'll never go away. I think I've learned how to comport myself a little better and put up a little more of a facade. But no, I mean, most, most of the insecurities that I depict in the book still still plague me. It's not like I put them down on paper and it was like an exorcism or something. I kind of hoped that would be the case. I think the best I could say is that it taught me how to how to handle it a little better, at least in a public way — how to give off the appearance of it not destroying me in the way that it actually did. You know, hopefully I won't go running out of parties in tears, like I did in the early part of the book. (Laughs.)

You said that it didn't act as an exorcism, and that's one of the questions I really wanted to ask: when you when you're revisiting some of these things, are there — did you have moments of, "oh, I really fucked that up? But I'd do it differently now."

Oh, yeah. Yeah. I think a lot of people have been have been zeroing in on the behavior of the other characters. Like, "I can't believe that someone said that to you," or something like that. But to me, the real humor comes from my own poor decisions and my own inept way of handling situations. I've never cringed more in the creation of one of my books than with this one.  I did my research, there was a lot of like, going back and finding photos from the time and consulting other people who were there and getting their input on it and just having to relive a lot of things that I've kept pretty well count down over the years. It was constant shivers down the spine.

It feels effortless — that almost sounds like an insult, but if It felt like it was I moved through it very quickly and it felt like there was a lightness, for one of a better way of putting it.

Yeah, it's not an insult at all. I appreciate that because I think, with this book, you know, over the course of my career, I really struggled with the question of what is my style? I'm such a product of my influences, as many people point out within the book. And, you know, it's been, it's been something that's hung over me, maybe unnecessarily for years. And with this book, I really tried as much as possible to be unselfconscious and to not constantly think about "how would Dan Clowes draw this, or how would Jaime Hernandez draw this, or how would Chris Ware approach this?"

One of the things that I kept thinking about was was the idea of handwriting. The idea of how you don't consciously think about how to draw each letter when you're quickly, you know, writing a check or something like that, it just flows out of you in this instinctive way, and yet it still communicates whatever the message is. That was what I was at least aiming for, with this art style. I just wanted it to be as natural as possible. And I was doing that to push myself a little bit, but also, I wanted to create kind of an intimacy — I wanted the reading experience to have an intimacy that might not exist in something that's more polished and kind of distancing.

It has this wonderfully casual feeling. It felt you were telling me stories over a drink or something similar. 

Yeah, that's the best compliment I can receive. Like, I admire so many modern graphic novels now that are so technically dazzling and so impressive, but at the same time, I often sense that they're a little bit alienating to the average reader or that they're difficult to read or they're hard to penetrate. For this material, I thought it was important to be as plain and as direct as possible and, and like you said, like I told many of these stories to friends and family members over drinks, or a dinner or something. And I kind of wanted to replicate that experience. 

When you started working on this, did you imagine it becoming that kind of book? Did you set out to create a record of how you’ve changed?

I originally thought maybe I would just do like a book version of a comedy sketch show, you know, where it's just like one joke after another. But at the same time, once I started kind of thinking about the structure, I realized this is the, by far, the widest timeframe I've ever condensed into a book. I'm usually talking about stuff that happens in in the course of a day or something like that, but this is something that spans basically my whole life, and that felt really different.

I've always been a big fan of those Seven Up! movies, the series that started with Seven Up!, and I just love the idea of the weight that's given to things just because of the amount of time you spent with the characters, of how much time is compressed within those films. I thought this was kind of my best shot at sort of playing with that a little bit. I didn't want to make it front and center, like a story about maturing and starting a family or anything like that, but I love the idea of having that all happen in the background and just be visible enough that it sort of colors your perspective on the stuff that is in the foreground.

As a reader, it’s fascinating to watch your perspective change. You get married, you become a father, and you start modulating your responses; it’s as if you start to realize that these things that are embarrassing are no longer quite so horrific.

And in a less noble perspective, sometimes you just realize that you have to behave better just for the sake of your kids, not for any intrinsic value. I mean, I still definitely wanted to say to the guy like, "if you're such a big fan, why did you give me a Nutella pizza?" or whatever. But, you know, when my kids are, they're looking at me, I feel this obligation to set an example. That's one of the gifts they've given me, is they've sort of forced me to put on a better veneer in dealing with the world. (Laughs.)

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist is available now.