Shortcomings (Drawn & Quarterly)

short-header.jpgAdrian Tomine explores racial identity and sexual politics in one of the finest graphic novels of the year.


112 pgs. black & white; $19.95 hardcover

(W / A: Adrian Tomine)

Adrian Tomine is the rarest of the rare among comics authors, an artist who is not only recognized but celebrated and wholeheartedly embraced by the world outside of comics. His illustrations have frequently graced the cover of The New Yorker, the pages of Rolling Stone and Esquire, album covers and posters for bands from Yo La Tengo to Weezer to Luna, and advertisements too numerous to mention. The promotional material for his latest release features quotes not from comics cognoscenti like Brian K. Vaughan or Joss Whedon but from novelists Jonathan Lethem and Nick Hornby. He has been profiled by such mainstream media outlets as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Village Voice, among countless others. To say that Tomine is one of the most vital and widely-watched artists working in the medium today would be an understatement, and the confident, exquisitely crafted Shortcomings proves that he is more than worthy of his lofty position.


Originally serialized in Tomine’s ongoing, infrequently published series Optic Nerve, Shortcomings stars the bitingly sarcastic Ben Tanaka, a Japanese-American whose relationship with his girlfriend Miko is in its death throes for myriad reasons, not the least of which is Miko’s perception that Ben seems to increasingly only have eyes for white girls. Though Miko has a natural curiosity about her Asian heritage, Ben seems almost ashamed of his; after attending an Asian-American film festival that Miko organizes at a local Bay Area theatre, Ben whines "Why does everything have to be some big ‘statement’ about race? Don’t any of these people just want to make a movie that’s good?" When Miko jumps ship for an internship in New York, Ben insists they’re just "taking some time off" but wastes no time in proving Miko’s suspicions were spot on.


The cover to Adrian Tomine's Shortcomings relies almost exclusively on dialogue and character interaction, not action or plot twists, to advance its narrative, but to dismiss it as simply a "talking head" book would be an absolute crime. Tomine has an impeccable ear for dialogue, using shorthand that makes the characters explode fully-formed from their very first panel. His cast is at once thoroughly unique and yet completely identifiable and relatable because they feel so real; anyone who has been through a break-up will recognize Miko’s defeated tone, anyone with friends whose humor can cut you to the bone will appreciate Alice, Ben’s gregarious lesbian best friend.


Tomine digs deep into serious themes of racial identity and sexual politics, yet his script frequently veers into laugh-out-loud comedy without sacrificing an iota of dramatic weight. Ben dryly states "I figure while the cat is away, the mouse will play," which Alice counters with "Knowing you, the ‘mouse’ will just be playing with himself," cutting through the dramatic tension while subtly revealing the personalities of his characters. The dialogue in the book reads like a master’s course in screenwriting.


The story is split into three chapters, but otherwise Tomine gives readers little chance to get bored, shifting scenes wherever he sees fit—often in mid-page—to keep the story moving at a fast clip. His clean, easy-to-read panel layouts are readable despite a dialogue-heavy script, and his realistic art style—captured with fine ink lines and a minimum of shading—is a feast for the eyes. The greatest weapon in his artistic arsenal is his skill with faces, expressing complex emotions with understated ease. In one particularly strong scene, Sasha—one of Ben’s potential love interests—looks Ben over as he leaves a party; blending suggestive body language with one lone word of dialogue ("Okay"), the amount of desire in her eyes is palpable. Oddly, the one emotion Tomine has trouble nailing is anger; though the dialogue will shift into all bold to illustrate their hostility, the characters took little more than irked. This lack of intensity in a handful of scenes is only a minor complaint, and does little to detract from the nuanced performances of the story’s "actors."


With realistic, attractive art, breezy, believable dialogue, and uncannily true-to-life characters, Shortcomings is, quite simply, an unmitigated masterpiece. It is without a doubt the finest graphic novel I’ve read in 2007 and may just be the best-paced comic I’ve ever had the privilege of reading. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that, though I was familiar with his illustration and advertising work, Shortcomings is my first introduction into Tomine’s sequential art. Needless to say, I’ll be sprinting to the comic shop as soon as I can to snatch up the rest of his catalog, and have now joined the ever-increasing legion of fans waiting with baited breath for what Tomine will do next. | Jason Green

Read a 6-page preview at the Shortcomings minisite!

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