Last fall, issue #12 of Optic Nerve came out. I’m a big Adrian Tomine fan, and I’m a little ashamed to say that I waited until yesterday to read the latest issue. I had just put it to the side, next to my reading chair downstairs (which I rarely use), and then kept overlooking the comic. I shouldn’t have, because this was a wonderful issue. If nothing else, this should have been an “event” that would make me want to read my copy as soon as I got it. It’s the first issue of Optic Nerve to come out since 2007, when he finished his Shortcomings storyline. (In fact, Tomine even riffs on his tardiness in coming out with issue #12, but I’ll mention that later.) The issue is basically divided into two sections. The first is the better, and it’s titled “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture.’” this is a narrative that is told in comic strip-like installments, as if “Hortisculpture” was a daily comic strip from the newspapers. There are even color “Sunday strips” that are sprinkled throughout (basically, every seventh strip, as a Sunday installment would be in a collection), all of which underscores the daily installment aspect of the story. Not only is this clever, but I feel that this installment format is an effective means of storytelling. What’s more, this form of graphic narrative reminds me of some of the work of Daniel Clowes, many of whose books are structured in a similar way, e.g., Ice Haven, The Death-Ray, and Mister Wonderful. I’m not sure if Tomine is directly taking a cue from Clowes, but their works nonetheless resonate with similarities. ”Hortisculpture” is about a lawn maintenance worker who creates a new form of art, where he takes a small tree or shrub and wraps it in a sculpture of plastic or plaster. As the protagonist, Harold, says at one point, “It’s a synthesis of nature and craft, a marriage of the wild and the man-made, a living, breathing ‘object d’art.’…It’s my life’s calling.” Scenes like this are wonderful, and Harold takes seriously what everyone else takes for a joke. Really good stuff.
The second half of the comic book is called “Amber Sweet,” and it’s the kind of short story that Tomine used to write in Optic Nerve all of the time (see, for example, the collections Summer Blonde and Sleepwalk: And Other Stories). It’s about a young woman who greatly resembles an online porn star, and how that resemblance screws up her life. It’s the kind of short scenario that Tomine is good at, a slice-of-life story that gets you briefly into a character’s situation, and how unusual and even twisted that life can be. However, one of the best parts of issue #12 comes at the tail end, a story on the last page and inside back cover. It’s an autobiographical piece, and it’s about Tomine’s decision to continue writing comic books, or “floppies,” while all of his cartoonist friends around him (including Daniel Clowes) have decided to give up the floppies and instead turn to the graphic novel form. At first Tomine sees his doggedness and dedication to the comic book as a noble pursuit, but then he sees how this might have been a lame-brained move. He even jokes about how long it took for him to come out with issue #12, about four years after his last issue of the comic book. This is a wonderful short piece that is not only autobiographical–at least, I assume it is…but that can be a dangerous assumptions with writers–but self-reflexive as well. In essence, Tomine is criticizing, or at least evaluating, the comic-book format in a comic book. This makes you wonder, as you read this final strip, if you are just as romantic or lame-brained as Tomine, since you’re the one who has chosen to continue reading comic books just as he has decided to continue writing them. Perhaps this is his way of saying misery loves company. I hope Tomine does more of these kind of self-referential comics.
Now I need to read issue #9 of Peter Bagge’s Hate Annual, a comic book that also came out last fall. Man, I’m behind.