Adrian Tomine didn’t expect any of this.
More than a month ago, I made a visit to my local comic shop to ask about Tomine’s latest output. Knowing Optic Nerve #12 was due any day I asked if it was too early to reserve a copy. The shop owner said it wasn’t, and we both shared the relief that it was clear Tomine would not be relegated to a life of New Yorker illustrations.
At this point, I assume you want to know if you want to know if Optic Nerve #12 is worth the six dollars.
I read this issue in my car before going to work. Too excited to coolly walk to my garage, I bolted down side streets so I could enjoy Tomine’s first official comic book in four years, split into three stories — “Hortisculpture,” a tale of a man’s struggle to create a new art form that uses sculptures with plants grown inside of them, “Amber Sweet,” a girl’s story about being mistaken for a porn star and a small two-page comic at the end.
“Hortisculpture,” which is a wonderful (or unfortunate) portmanteau of horticulture and sculpture, is structured as a newspaper comic. You get six days of four-panel black and white comics and then a full-page color comic for the Sunday edition. The story is hyper-serialized with each day’s comic ending in some sort of punchline. At first the format is novel and cute, but as the stories go on, the punchlines, like a lot of Optic Nerve, get more and more depressing. Watching Harold scold his wife on a Monday and then watching it again on Tuesday would have some semblance of humor, but seeing it on the same page adds to the brutality of the story.
However, that’s not to say the story is without humor. There are legitimately funny moments, and there are moments with standard comic punchlines that take a tragic turn because they are witnessed so closely together and aren’t uttered by a precious child.
“Amber Sweet” is built around a girl recounting a time in her life where she was affected by someone she never met. For the first time since his collected issues in Summer Blonde, Tomine uses expository caption boxes to move the story along. However, these aren’t used as a crutch as much as they are used to give Amber moments of reflection for the moments in the story. In a way, Amber Sweet reads like a longer version of Tomine’s wonderful “Donger and Me.”
“Donger and Me” explored what it’s like to grow up as a person of Asian decent in a post-Long Duk Dong world. While Amber Sweet’s story is more specific, it gains strength by telling the story to a more universal audience. Instead of focusing on Asian-American issues, Tomine uses pornography to speak to an audience that will have an easier time understanding the problems of being constantly compared to a completely different person.
“Amber Sweet” is also one of Tomine’s few full-color comics. Not surprisingly, Tomine is restrained in his use of color and uses color schemes for each character. I’m sure a collegiate research paper could be written on why the titular character is in pink and white.
Finally, at the end of the book (after the letters section), there’s a sort of explanation of why this issue of Optic Nerve took four years. In typical Tomine fashion, he is self-effacing about the future of floppies and his own struggle with the public perception of the format. This “throwaway ancillary stuff” may actually be my favorite part of Optic Nerve #12, which may be the whole point. Here we see Tomine at his most honest. He expects a huge book tour to follow Optic Nerve #12 because of his experience with Shortcomings, only to find out that these tours are for books, not “floppies.” By the end of the piece, he assumes he will be relegated to the backroom of a comic shop where he will be mistaken for an employee.
I saw Tomine speak at a Booksmith event for the 2009 re-release of 32 Stories. He had talked a little bit about the next Optic Nerve, which would be in full color (it is). Tomine remained pessimistic, but at the same time hopeful about the survival of floppies.
At the end of the event, I lined up to get my copy of 32 Stories signed. As soon as I approached, I blurted out, “‘Bomb Scare’ [Optic Nerve #8] is why I read comics.”
Tomine looked me in the eye and said, “Thanks. Did you read it in an anthology?”
Staring at the ornate lettering that read “For Andrew,” I corrected him. “No, my sister bought the single issue on a whim and lent it to me.”
I took my newly signed comic and left before Tomine could respond. But I like to imagine as my back turned and as I briskly walked to the door, he smiled and thought to himself, “Fuck yeah.”
Andrew Tan spends his days teaching kids about writing. Before that, he majored in Journalism at the University of Florida, where he worked for a few newspapers. He loves comics (obviously), sad music, duck confit and San Francisco.
Andrew is one of the many people on the internet vying for the moniker of Tandrew. Some are him, some are not. You can find him on Twitter at @TandrewTan.