After a few stumbles out of the gate, I think I got the hang of doing interviews by the time I wrote “Palmer’s Picks” for Wizard #46. The fact that I was interviewing Optic Nerve creator Adrian Tomine was a big help. I’m roughly the same age as Tomine, so I found it fairly easy to talk to him. We had a few things in common, like trying to balance college life with freelance work. I guess that’s where the similarities end, because Tomine has gone on to receive countless accolades and worldwide recognition for his comics while I’m here reliving the past on this blog.
I had written forty “Palmer’s Picks” by this point, so the column was starting to become a well-oiled machine. I would regularly receive blind submissions from artists who wanted to get some coverage for their work. Not all of them were ready for prime time, but there were quite a few that made the cut for inclusion in the pages of Wizard.
Once I started interviewing my subjects for the column, I was able to do a little bit of networking. It carried a little more weight when a cartoonist would write to me and mention that someone I had previously interviewed passed my name along. Thanks to Paul Pope, Adrian Tomine wrote me a short note in early December, 1994 wondering if I would be interested in Optic Nerve. Plans were being made for Tomine’s minicomic to make its debut as a full-size comic from Drawn & Quarterly, so it was the prefect time to set up an interview.
I had already been corresponding with D&Q publisher Chris Oliveros, so I was on their mailing list for press releases and previews, all sent through the mail in those early days of the Internet. At this stage of the game, I was doing my best to work up a schedule for “Palmer’s Picks” so that I would be able to time each column close to when a new series would debut. Oliveros was able to help me coordinate things by setting up an interview with Tomine while also paying attention to small details like making sure that Wizard had color artwork before their deadline. It might seem insignificant, but having someone as dependable and trustworthy as Oliveros working behind-the-scenes to ensure that everyone had what they needed was a definite plus.
It was a pretty big deal when Tomine decided to take his minicomic to the big leagues. He had built up quite a reputation for his small press work, and a lot of eyes were watching as his debut loomed. The comic also marked a turning points of sorts for Drawn & Quarterly. They had previously been pigeonholed as a company that only specialized in Canadian cartoonists or autobio comics. Anyone who was paying attention could see that this wasn’t the case—a brief glance at the wide range of artists and topics in their flagship anthology series would easily disprove those notions. Nevertheless, publishing Optic Nerve was a clear indication that they were a company that was not going to be defined by one or two comics.
Tomine has stuck with D&Q since 1995. New issues of Optic Nerve still appear sporadically, and Tomine is one of the few cartoonists from the heyday of alternative comics to stick with the traditional comic book format. The most recent issue was published in 2015, so time will tell if Tomine’s next release will be another comic book or if he’ll finally make the jump to stand-alone graphic novels.
A little extra bonus from my files: a selection of Drawn & Quarterly promotional material from the 1990s.
By Tom Palmer Jr.
It is almost impossible to ignore the fact that Adrian Tomine, the artist behind Optic Nerve, is only 20 years old. You’d think that by now he would be sick of people making such a big deal about his age, but he doesn’t seem to mind. “If it’s just as a side-note to describe me, then that’s fine,” Tomine explains. But Tomine is bothered when reviews of his work say that he’s incredibly talented for a 20-year-old. Tomine has a much more humble view of his abilities. To him, he simply draws comics that any other 20-year-old in his position would.
Tomine started Optic Nerve at the ripe old age of 17 as a self-published mini-comic. His early comics gathered a lot of attention, and got him work in such high-profile magazines as Pulse (a publication of the Tower Records store chain) and Details. As Tomine describes it, “One of the editors [at Pulse] was a big comics fan. He saw my stuff, called me up, and gave me the job, basically. Then the editor from Details saw my stuff in there, and as a result of that, he called Pulse and talked to me and got me a job in Details. So it was just kind of like this chain reaction of people seeing stuff in different places.”
Tomine didn’t neglect his mini-comic while moonlighting for the “Big Guys.” He refined and honed his skills over seven issues of Optic Nerve, along with help from a grant from the Xeric Foundation (for issue #7). While Tomine’s work evolved over each issue, there is a startling increase in maturity between the sixth and seventh issues. Tomine explains that he spent more time on the seventh. “It was almost a year between #6 and #7, so a lot of evolution took place. There was stuff I did and completely threw out.”
This harsh self-criticism came about because Tomine became more serious about his comic work. “There was a lot of time where I was just coasting through. I thought, ‘I have all the knowledge I need to do comics. I can do fine comics.’ But then I started looking more critically at my stuff and I [realized], ‘I need to learn about anatomy and I need to learn about perspective.’ So, between six and seven, I really got a lot of lessons from other artists and from books.”
All of this hard work seems to have paid off. An all-new Optic Nerve series is now published as a full-size anthology comic by Drawn & Quarterly Publications (the first issue came out in March). The attention surrounding Tomine—including a large number of college-age fans—can be attributed to his prodigious talent. Not one panel (or even one line) is wasted on inconsequential details. His unique, concise drawing style is coupled with a distinctive narrative voice. You can’t mistake an Adrian Tomine story for anything else; his realistic comics have a somber air about them, and are peopled with characters broken and worn down from love and life. He has his finger perfectly on what it means to come of age in the ’90s.
The new, full-size Optic Nerve is distinguished from the mini-comic version by its lack of direct autobiographical stories. With this change, Tomine hopes to take his work in a different direction. ‘There are no characters in this that are supposed to be exactly me. I’m not drawing myself, and I’m not recording the events verbatim as they happen.”
Tomine has found some advantages to writing fictional stories. “When I started to make this decision to move into fiction, I found that I ended up being able to write stuff that is actually more revealing or more honest about myself than the straight autobio. By veiling it in fiction, I can delve a little deeper into myself.
“On the surface, most people would read it as fiction, but different people who know me or different people who are sort of involved with the inspiration for these stories will definitely see their origins from my real life.”
Tomine explains some other benefits of fictional stories. “It also makes for better stories. When I was doing autobio stuff I was really thinking, ‘Well, I have to show it exactly like it really happened,’ and usually that doesn’t make for a good read. Sometimes it does, but sometimes you have to belabor details that the reader just doesn’t care about. So right now, my criteria is just to tell a good story, and if that means relying on something that really happened to me, that’s fine. If it means really departing from it and fictionalizing it, then that’s fine, too. I just want it to be interesting.”
Unlike most artists with their own comic books, Tomine has to find time to work on his art between classes at college. An English major at the University of California, Berkeley, Tomine is able to squeeze in time for Optic Nerve, “by cutting out all social and fun activities. I go to school during the day and then sit at my drawing board until 3 or 4 in the morning. It’s the only way I can get it all done.”
Tomine is definitely having a different college experience from his friends and roommates. “They have a lot of free time to watch TV and go to parties and talk and sit around, and I just use a lot of that time to work on my comic. It doesn’t make for a very fun friend or boyfriend or anything.”
Tomine is also unlike several comic artists in another way: he has long-term goals in sight. “It might be fun for a night to sit and get drunk and watch TV with your friends, but in the long run, that night isn’t going to amount to anything. But maybe I might have finished drawing a page of comics that will stay in print for a long time. You just have to make decisions. Maybe when I’m 30, I’ll regret having lived these years as I have, but it’s gotten me to a lot of places that have really made me happy.”
All of this dedication and hard work put into Optic Nerve distinguishes Tomine from the typical college student. Let’s face it—how many people his age have their own comic book? But if you ask Adrian, he’ll pose a different question: “How many people my age would want to have their own comic book?”
The freelance writer formerly known as Tom Palmer Jr. has changed his name to an unpronounceable combination of a yield sign and the Nike logo.
Pick Of The Month
Action Girl Comics #3—Don’t be fooled by the title of this anthology edited by Sarah Dyer from Slave Labor Graphics. You don’t have to be a girl to like Action Girl Comics. With excellent work from Megan Kelso, Ariel Bordeaux, Jessica Abel, Elizabeth Watasin, and others, it’s hard to pass up the new issue of this thoroughly enjoyable anthology.
Adrian Tomine’s Recommended Reading: Adrian says his favorite comics right now are some of the best of ‘regular’ comics and mini-comics. “I’m equally into both. For the real comics, my list would have to be Love and Rockets, Eightball, Acme Novelty Library, Dirty Plotte, Peepshow, Palooka-Ville, and Hate. For mini-comics, which I enjoy almost as much, I’m really into Deep Girl [Ariel Bordeaux,
573 Scott St. Apt. 1, San Francisco, CA 94177], King Cat [John Porcellino, PO Box 18510, Denver, CO 80218], Girl Hero [Megan Kelso, 4505 University Way NE Box 536, Seattle, WA 98105], and Sof’ Boy [Archer Prewitt, 1723 West Julian No. 2R, Chicago, IL 60622]. Those are my main faves right now.”
Tom’s Recommended Reading
Optic Nerve: The first issue of the full-size Optic Nerve was released in March from Drawn & Quarterly Publications. If you frequent a quality comic book store, they should still have copies, but if your local shop doesn’t, you’ll have to order directly from the publisher. Just write a check or money order for $2.95 postpaid (or $8.95 for a four-issue subscription) to Drawn & Quarterly Publications,
5550 Jeanne-Mance Street #16, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2V 4K6. Optic Nerve is a collection of short, self-contained stories, so you can pick up any issue and enjoy. The first issue features “Sleepwalk,” a long story detailing what happens when Mark spends his 24th birthday with his ex-girlfriend, Carrie. Other stories in the issue include “Echo Avenue,” which concerns living in a big city and dealing with voyeuristic neighbors; “Long Distance,” a story about a relationship split across the country; “Lunchbreak,” which flashes back to the ’50s; and a one-pager set in Japan called “Drop.”
Optic Nerve mini-comic: Consider yourself extremely lucky if you can find the early issues of the Optic Nerve mini-comic. The seventh, and final, issue featured a color cardstock cover and is still available from Drawn & Quarterly for $2, but the others are quite rare. Don’t kill yourself hunting down Adrian’s mini-comics, because Drawn & Quarterly will publish a book collecting most of the mini-comics in the fall of this year.