Comics artist Adrian Tomine’s latest collection, Killing and Dying, took a long time to materialize. Since the release of his highly praised tripartite book Shortcomings in 2007, Tomine has continued to publish his pamphlet serial Optic Nerve (founded as a minicomic in 1991), illustrate covers for The New Yorker, and release other, smaller collections, but the arrival of two daughters thwarted his usual work routine.
Eight years later, Killing and Dying arrives — courtesy Drawn and Quarterly — as a sweeping anthology that appears, stylistically, like a retrospective, although all the stories were drawn in recent years. Parsed to their core narratives, the tales converge on themes of putting creative work out into the public sphere: a wannabe stand-up comedian ‘dies’ spectacularly on stage, only to be revived unexpectedly, mirroring another story drawn like a traditional newspaper strip (alternating black-and-white and color) in which a frustrated gardener pours his creative juices into tree sculptures, only to be criticized by just about everybody he encounters. Pop culture references are peppered throughout; the story “Amber Sweet” is inspired by David Lynch’s cult classic Mullholland Drive, and the stand-up comedian recites lines originally performed on stage by Sarah Silverman and Jerry Seinfeld.
The book is, essentially, as much about Tomine’s creative process as it is about everyone else’s — in several of the shorts, there’s a moment of being constrained by routine and then breaking free. “I don’t want to be stuck drawing in such a rigid, precise way, stuck with these specific tools and equipment,” he told Hyperallergic. We spoke to Tomine about the book and process of completing it.
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Ysabelle Cheung: When you started working on Killing and Dying, what kind of vision did you have for it?
Adrian Tomine: The main thing I had in mind was that I wanted to do something different from Shortcomings, which I worked on for a long time in this rigid style of writing and drawing. So when I had the chance to start my new book, I had the chance to do something different and to try different approaches in terms of writing it or drawing it.
YC: Tell me a bit about why you chose the title of one of the stories, Killing and Dying, as the title of the book — how does it relate to the others?
AT: I guess it’s open to a lot of interpretations. There’s literal meaning behind it — these are colloquial terms that have to do with standup. It’s an essential part of the comedy, the distance and difficulty between if you can make the audience laugh or if you’re dying on stage because your jokes aren’t good and there is deafening silence. It also kind of works as a book title too — I mean, just because it’s provocative, but also, when I go back and look at the book, there’s a lot of consideration of struggles with artistic ambition or kind of grand plans for one’s work. So there’s some amount of the killing of those ambitions or the natural death of them.
YC: I do see that with the first story, “Hortisculpture,” which might be my favorite of the book. Did you base the character in that story on anyone in particular?
AT: Yes — that and “Killing and Dying” are connected, even though they were created far apart. No, no … it’s not based on any one person in particular. All my fictional characters, in some bizarre way and to varying degrees, are often a stand-in for me.
YC: What I always find reading your stories is this mix of black humor and darkness; with Killing, this balance seems even more refined.
AT: One of the things I learned — if I learned anything — from the comics I made leading up to this is that it’s easy to push the story from one extreme to another. People are generally going to pick up what you’re going for. For example, of course the Garfield comics are supposed to make you laugh, and then with some of the comics I did earlier in my career, it seemed implicit that you’re meant to feel sad. I think, after drawing comics for 20 years, that’s too easy of a challenge. I don’t feel that there should be any success in being able to just sledgehammer someone emotionally in one direction with comics anymore.
YC: “Go Owls” touches on domestic violence in one scene. When mapping out that story, did you struggle with the moral implications of how to narrate that?
AT: That was a scene I had in mind from the start, and I thought it was important to include. I think one of the big differences between fictional narrative and real life is the notion of an omnipotent moral judge, and I’m trying to make my stories more like real life.
YC: The last story, “Intruders,” is quite violent as well. Why did you choose to end the book with that?
AT: To me there is definitely some humor in that story, but I guess it’s consumed mainly by the drama. Why did I choose to end with that one … a lot of these decisions are things that only make sense to me, but in some way I feel like that story connects to some of the earliest comics I did in Optic Nerve, in format and in drawing style and in tone. I feel like it’s an interesting way to end a book, and I thought I was ending a chapter in my career. For the stories leading up to that one, I was trying to push out in different characters and techniques, but I sort of then did something stripped down and back to basics, to see what would come out when you go back to doing comics the classic way.
YC: It sounds like it was cathartic, to go back to the beginning like that.
AT: I guess there’s a part of me that feels like there are obviously always new goals to achieve and things to strive for, but I get the certain feeling that fictional short stories are what I started out with, when I was a teenager, around 25 years ago. Doing this book and finishing it … I felt like I had learned a bit in those 20 years, and I feel like these are better or more interesting versions of what I was doing when I was starting out.
YC: Earlier you said you said you felt like you were ending a chapter in your career. What’s the next chapter?
AT: I have several routes that I’m interested in pursuing; the road is sort of wide open right now, and I’m not contractually bound in any way to do anything. In terms of comics, the challenge of what I’m doing next is how to make works that have a better effect or impact or achieve things differently. The other challenge is how to make the process less cumbersome. There’s a part of me that’s really envious of prose writers who can just pick up their notebook or laptop and go sit outside for a while and work, or go to a café or a library. And so I think that’s an ongoing challenge for me: continuing to make work that I’m proud of without getting mired in the process of creating that work.