Long regarded as the illegitimate offspring of literary fiction, the comic-book story and graphic novel have come into their own during the last generation. Gifted illustrators like Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman have provided visual counterparts to stories of their own and of writers like Harvey Pekar (American Splendor, 1986) and Paul Auster (City of Glass, 1985). Although there has been great interest in fantasy fiction like the Sandman stories of Neil Gaiman, published in ten separate volumes after having appeared in seventy-five comic-book numbers, much of the best fiction has approached the dirty realism of serious fiction writers like Raymond Carver and Richard Ford.
Meanwhile, thanks in part to the success of Japanese animated cartoons, known as Japanimation, or anime, American readers have eagerly bought up translated books of Japanese cartoons, or manga. The edgy illustrated stories of Yoshihiro Tatsumi have found cult following among young cartoonists like Adrian Tomine, who has introduced translations of two collections and has hand-lettered the English text. Tatsumi coined the term gekiga (literally “dramatic pictures”) for the realistic cartooning that he pioneered in the 1960’s. In some ways, it seems preferable to “graphic novel,” a term coined in the late 1970’s for the illustrated fiction of Will Eisner and scorned by many actual practitioners for its connotations of “graphic sexuality” or “graphic violence.”
Tomine gained recognition in the 1990’s with a series of the semiautobiographical tales that he first self-published at the age of sixteen and then produced for the Tower Records story magazine Pulse. By the time he was a college student, at the University of California, Berkeley, his Optic Nerve comic books were being published by Drawn & Quarterly, a leading firm in the new genre. Before he turned thirty, in 2004, his stories from these comics were being reissued in book form. Tomine has told interviewers at New York and other publications that early acclaim as an artist of great promise made him feel pressure to fulfill the promise. With the release of Shortcomings, it should be clear that he has done that but has also taken on new challenges as he has moved into the longer format.
A graphic novel in three chapters, Shortcomings tells the story of Ben Tanaka, a disaffected young man with a liberal arts education and a dead-end job managing an independent movie theater in Berkeley. Ben has a girlfriend, the active and attractive Miko Hayashi, with whom he shares an apartment. He has a single friend, the lesbian graduate student Alice Kim, whom he has known since their freshman year in college. He also has a large collection of DVDs, including a stash of lesbian porn videos. As he enters his thirties, he is overdue for some serious self-reflection.
At first glance, the book’s opening could not be less promisingthe tear-jerking finale of an immigrant story that pulls all the stops and uses all the clichés. The six panels on the first page look like scenes from a bad movie at an ethnic-identity festival, and that is exactly what they turn out to be. On the second page, the film ends to general applause but for one dissatisfied moviegoer. Ben complains to Miko that he wishes people would concentrate on telling a good story rather than making a statement about race. The remark seems insensitive under the circumstances, for she was one of the festival’s chief organizers. It says something about Ben, who is ambivalent about their relationship. It also says something about the author-illustrator. Tomine wants to tell a good story first of all, and only then to say something about the issues that haunt his characters.
After two years together, Ben and Miko seem like an old married couple. They argue over little things. He would rather stay up and watch videos than follow her to bed. When she discovers his stash of porn videos, she is hurtnot because he is looking at other women, but because all the women are white and she is Asian. When she is offered an internship at an Asian film institute in New York City, she decides that they are ready for some time off from each other.
With Miko gone, Ben begins the serious self-reflection that he so badly...
(The entire section is 1771 words.)