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Book Review: Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine

When a newborn baby comes into the world, everything is a wonder. The bright lights, the strange noises, the sensation of being surrounded by tall strangers poking around overwhelm the senses. The baby enters the world a blank slate waiting for instruction. And yet, on some basic level, it already has everything it needs to know to face life. No one taught it how to blink, how to cry, how to kick its chubby legs. This is performed by instinct.

Shortcomings, a graphic novel by Adrian Tomine, is life by instinct. On the surface, the characters have been programmed with survival skills to face life's challenges. Ben Tanaka, Tomine's aimless protagonist, is a fully functioning grown up. His slate is full of sardonic criticism of the world he lives in. He is intelligent, maybe too intelligent. He is able to break down life's complexities into neat little compartments that he can deride without attachment. But for all he has learned, he is powerless to control his own shallow life. Instinct has kicked in. Biological impulses prevail over brainpower. Ben is helpless as, well, a baby.

Ben's life unravels through the slow disintegration of his relationship with the beautiful Miko Hayashi. At some point they loved each other enough to cohabitate, but now the relationship is on autopilot. Ben guards his thoughts with his girlfriend but openly shares them with his only friend in the world, Alice Kim, a lesbian whose only reason for staying in grad school is to satiate her overactive libido. But Alice doesn't dispense advice; she merely keeps his cynicism in check. The distance between Ben and Miko gets literal when she ups and moves to the opposite coast in pursuit of a job opportunity in New York.

This allows Ben to explore his own self-worth as he delves into the realm of interracial dating. Here, Tomine really exposes the heart of the Asian American male identity crisis by cracking jokes at everything from the male length issue to being seen in public with his "white prize." In the last chapter, Ben ends up in New York with his gal pal Alice to see if order can be restored with Miko who by now has cut off all contact with him. Instinct led him there, but is it enough to help him find meaningful love?

In Shortcomings, Tomine stabs at the relational issues that seem to be de rigeur for growing up Asian in America. And his knife is sharp. White guys who love dating Asian girls, Asian guys who would love to date white girls, Koreans who hate Japanese for hating Koreans, educated lesbian girls who must deal with their church-going families—everything is fair game. But Tomine doesn’t exploit relationships because they are easy to poke fun at, he engages in what makes us vulnerable as human beings through thoughtful insight and by presenting multiple perspectives.

Tomine, 33, started self-publishing his own comics as a teen in his hometown of Sacramento, California. Shortcomings is actually a compilation of issues nine through eleven of his comic book series, Optic Nerve, published by indie comic company Drawn & Quarterly. His other books are Summer Blonde and Sleepwalk and Other Stories.

Tomine has illustrated for The New Yorker, Esquire and Rolling Stone, including several covers. That’s a big jump from once making your own comic books; so there has to be something more than just ink on paper. His style, or perhaps more accurately, the mood of his style is emblematic for his generation: unattached, cynical and bathed in irony. As for his artwork, Tomine's clean line style is aesthetically neutral and lacks emotion—something that actually complements his evocative storytelling. Tomine’s brilliance is in his writing, however. He won’t say something “sucks.” Rather, he uses his power of observation and grip on social subtext to tear something apart. And then he walks away without claiming responsibility or worse, any sense of wrongdoing.

Panels of artwork from Tomine’s Shortcomings were chosen for the Giant Robot Biennale: 50 Issues exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, CA. The exhibition, curated by Eric Nakamura of Giant Robot magazine in collaboration with the National Museum is a celebration of the 50th issue of the Asian American pop culture magazine and features ten cutting-edge artists from around the country. The exhibition closes January 13, 2008.

For more information, visit the Adrian Tomine entry in the Discover Nikkei Nikkei Resources section.

© 2007 Bobby Okinaka

adrian tomine artist graphic novel