Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Adrian Tomine, _Shortcomings_

NOT THAT I read every graphic novel out there, but I've read a handful of particularly good ones -- Maus, of course, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Craig Thompson's Blankets, Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, Charles Burns's Black Hole, and now this -- and I'm starting to wonder: is the realistic graphic novel (excluding, that is, the superhero and sci fi  and fantasy and noir stuff) always going to be about childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood?

Tomine's book is a sharply observed and subtly narrated study of the dissolution of a romantic relationship between two Asian-Americans in their 20s.  Our main focus is Ben Tanaka, intelligent but touchy, sarcastic, and lacking any obvious talents or ambitions.  He is preoccupied with the idea of sex with white girls, but anxious about the size of his penis (a point signalled not only by the title but also by a ruler running along the bottom of the hardback cover binding). This preoccupation annoys his girlfriend Miko, as well it might, as does his indifference to her ambitions and his unwillingness to generate any of his own.  

Miko's departure to New York City for an internship produces a farewell scene so awkward and tense that it feels like a breakup; Ben later drops in unannounced in New York City to see how things stand and discovers that in fact, yep, it's over, and goes home.

Favorite detail: the visually rhyming infidelities in the upper right hand corners of pages 65 and 95.

Favorite character: neither Ben nor Miko, both of whom are a bit exasperating, but Ben's best friend, Alice Kim, grad student at Mills College and take-no-prisoners lesbian.  But how did Ben, who is a pill most of the time, ever become such good friends with someone as smart, saucy, bold, and grounded as Alice?  

A fine graphic novel, but I'm still wondering, are we ever going to get graphic novels about middle-aged people?  Even people who are middle-aged (Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Alison Bechdel) seem to focus on childhood and youth.  Is that because comics, no matter what, are bound in so many ways to youth?

Well, there's always Harvey Pekar and, occasionally, Chris Ware...

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