When the first issue of Adrian Tomine’s comic book Optic Nerve came out, in 1995, Tomine was just 21 and still a student. His short, elliptical stories made Optic Nerve an immediate hit, landing Tomine among the first rank of literary comics writers, alongside his idols the Hernandez brothers and his mentor, Daniel Clowes. Shortcomings, Tomine’s first longer work, tells the story of Ben Tanaka, a bitterly sarcastic Japanese-American in Berkeley who loses an Asian girlfriend, gains a white one, and obsesses over his own shortcomings. Dan Kois talked to Tomine about interracial dating, the downside of critical praise, and how surprised he was that not everyone loves Stanley Kubrick.
Why make a character that depressed and hypercritical the center of your first long story?
I think he’s better suited to a longer work. If I tried to depict him in a shorter piece, it could be a quick and shallow glimpse of a jerk, or I could do some lame O. Henry twist and show him cuddling a kitten at the very end. I tend to cut people slack in ways that other people might not. If someone is a great artist or a really funny guy or really insightful in some way, it won’t bother me if they’re also an asshole.
What is it about Ben that makes you cut him slack?
Well, I’m not cutting him a huge amount of slack. He’s self-deluded and blind to a lot of things, but unlike a lot of people he’s as honest as he’s capable of being.
Why is Ben so unable to view himself as critically as he views other people?
Because he’s a human being? It’s interesting, though: From the reaction to this story, I have learned that my scale of what is acceptable might be a bit different from other people’s. It reminds me that there’s been a lot of great works by other artists that I really admire and I assume must be universally acclaimed. And then I do some research and find out, oh, it turns out a lot of people hated Stanley Kubrick’s movies.
Let’s talk about the racial politics of the book. Ben’s Asian-American girlfriend breaks up with him at least in part because of his issues with white women.
Out of curiosity, what do you think his problem is?
Ben has the ability to ignore his own taste while politicizing other people’s, even though he’s kind of obsessed with white girls.
It could be, though I don’t think it’s that clear. A lot of his story points out that—at least in my experience—all the political stances and pontificating fall a distant second to whoever strikes your fancy.
Did you feel pressure in creating your first longer work?
There’s a certain small audience that is watching what I do and, more often than not, praying for my missteps.
You really think that’s true?
I’ve seen it played out in print and on the Internet. It’s not some paranoid thing that haunts me while I’m trying to work, but it’s one of the downsides to being unfairly praised at an early age.
In the middle of working on this book, you moved from Berkeley to Brooklyn—a move a couple of the characters make, too. In fact, Ben says that everyone he knows in Berkeley has a total hard-on for New York. Did you?
I did. Although as with many of the things that Ben says, that’s a little extreme and overly simplified. But I’ve been here four years and I still feel like a hick sometimes, staring in awe at New York City.