“I’ve Got Decades Worth Of Suppressed Emotions”: An Interview with Adrian Tomine

Adrian Tomine’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Cartoonist made my pandemic times far better than they would have been otherwise, at least during the hour I spent reading it and laughing helplessly. It’s not a hefty book in any way, but that’s what I needed, and although it takes its title from a play on Allan Sillitoe’s short story “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” I’m not sure that it has much in common with that work, which features its title character stubbornly refusing to play a game he’s been forced into. Maybe Tomine feels that way about the game, or maybe it’s just a catchy title. Mostly, the book is a series of well-constructed jokes or, really, variations on the same joke, which could be paraphrased as: “Adrian is an asshole.” I don’t mean “asshole” as “mean person,” here, but instead as “schlemiel.” Each short story in the book can be graphed as a curve that starts low (“I can’t do this”), gently slopes up (“Sure I can! Why not?”) and then jumps off a cliff as reality smacks him in the face. You wouldn’t think it would be funny over and over and over again, but it’s a solid way to construct a joke, and the repetition in some ways makes it funnier. Anyway, Adrian chatted with me over a couple of emails, and here’s what resulted.

Hillary Brown: Hi, Adrian, we chatted over email about five years ago for Paste, and I asked you a bunch of questions about things like how you organize your home library. We're probably going to go in a different direction this time....

Adrian Tomine: Hi, Hillary. Nice to talk to you again.

So. How are you doing these days? I saw your cartoon about being trapped indoors during the pandemic ("Day Two") and laughed and laughed and maybe cried a little because I felt so seen. How have y'all adapted (if you have)?

It's been a long and challenging stretch, mainly because I have two kids who would normally be in school. But relatively speaking, I can't complain too much. I know people whose lives were profoundly, negatively impacted by the pandemic, so any complaints I might have are pretty small. I've always worked from home, so that wasn't a big change for me. And I actually really like having my kids around. I might like it if they were around, say, 10% less, but it's mostly been very sweet to have this time together. Having said that, there have definitely been days when I thought I was going to lose my mind from stress and anxiety.

Is the new book designed to resemble the notebooks in which you like to work? Why?

Yes, exactly. And I think the reason why is explained at the very end of the book, so I'll leave it at that.

I guess what I really meant to say was: Why do you think you like to work in those notebooks? Is there something appealing about the grid?

I've just always liked the way those notebooks look, both as an object and as a place for my sketches. And the grid is useful for drawing panel borders freehand, without having to use a ruler or t-square or whatever. But more importantly, the new book looks the way it does because I wanted to create something that would grab a potential reader's attention in a bookshop, and maybe tie in the form with the content in a way that a digital version couldn't.

I also think it’s interesting that you draw yourself wearing a checked or plaid shirt a lot of the time. It seems to mirror that grid and equate you the person with you your work. Intentional or just a plaid fan?

I wish I was smart enough to have some master plan involving all these grids and whatnot, but I'm just drawing myself as accurately as possible. Like many cartoon characters throughout history, I've kind of just settled on a standard outfit that I wear everyday.

How much screwing up do you do as you work through a notebook? Do you like to fix a page or do you just need to rip it out and throw it away?

I used to rip up pages a lot more often when I was younger. I was so obsessive that I'd sometimes start over on a page, even if I made a minor error that could've easily been fixed with white-out or a paste-up. Now I've generally done so much preparatory work--either in my head or on paper--that I kind of know what I'm doing when I draw the final pages. And also, I'm just less obsessive, and more pressed for time.

Craft seems like something that's tremendously important to you. Could you talk a little bit about that and also perhaps why.

There's probably a lot of depressing psychology behind it all, mostly stemming from my childhood, but it just feels like an obsession that I can't fully shake. I don't set out to be perfectionistic when I start a project, but then I can't help myself. I often wish I could be more carefree and speedy in my work, and this new book is actually my attempt to do that. And like with all my endeavors, I kind of aimed big and probably ended up getting about halfway there.

What do you mean, exactly? Is perfectionism something that your parents instilled in you?

Oh, if you want to get into it, I think that living through my parents' divorce (and then other subsequent re-marriages and divorces) created a need for stability and order in my mind, and that led me to comics. It's not a huge leap to think of cartooning as a process of funneling the random messiness of life into neat, orderly boxes. And then, moving around a lot, starting at new schools...it gave me a lot of time and incentive to stay in my room, and to make my life feel full and satisfying by working endlessly towards perfecting my craft.

Do you think that focus is something that drove you to cartooning? An ability to sit in a cramped position, probably with terrible posture, for hours and hours, trying to get the position of an elbow just right seems like something endemic to the field (and not really characteristic of other visual fine arts). What is the difference between cartoonists and painters anyway?

Painters can conceivably get very, very rich.

It seems like you've always been very good at compartmentalizing your feelings. Do you think so? If yes, where do you think that skill/weakness comes from?

Wait, do we know each other in real life? How do you know this about me? You're right, of course, but I wasn't sure that came through in my work.

I think I understand that tendency because I do the same thing myself, despite very much not being a cartoonist or artist in any way. I don’t know how people get through life without it. Do you think it makes it hard to talk about your feelings? And/or is it a sort of floodgate when you start?

It's always been easier for me to express certain aspects of my personality through art, and that's one of those habits that kind of reinforces itself over time. Subconsciously, I'm thinking, "Well, this is working out fine for me," and then it's kind of a wake-up call when my wife or kids say, "Well, actually, not really." I've got decades worth of suppressed emotions, and it would probably be healthier if I just unleashed it all in real life, but to be honest, I kind of think that's what gives the best comics their special, electric quality.

Do you feel like you've changed since you were a child? Or not? (This is a dumb question. I'm sure the answer is yes and then also yes. I'm just curious what your thoughts on aging and learning are.)

Wouldn't it be depressing if I said "no"? I think the true answer is that I have changed a lot, but also that who I was as a child will always be some core part of my personality. Unfortunately!

I guess as a parent, one thing you learn is that your kids pretty much are who they are at birth. That’s reassuring because you can’t screw them up all that badly unless you try hard. But it also makes you realize the same thing about yourself. Being a perfectionist is one of those core traits that I’m not sure you can change in yourself. You just have to learn how to work with it and set up systems for yourself that account for weaknesses and strengths. Do you have things you do to keep yourself from giving in to character traits you don’t like or feel are unproductive?

Writing and drawing comics about those character traits is actually pretty therapeutic for me. I'm sometimes able to be more objective about them when I put them through the creative process and I can see them reflected back on the page. I mean, I also sometimes do normal, human things to deal with that stuff, but this is The Comics Journal.

What gets you out of your own head?

My kids. And being out in New York City when it's at full capacity.

Do your kids like comics? Which ones?

My older daughter loves comics, and it's actually her favorite type of book, regardless of content or even quality. There's a lot of weird, hypocritical scenes in our house where I yell at her about reading a "real" book for school, and then immediately sit down at my desk and start working on my comics. But her absolute favorite cartoonist in the world is Raina Telgemeier, and it's been a fun experience reading those books along with her. We've had some great discussions about Raina's artistic choices and techniques. My younger daughter seems less interested in comics, but you can never tell what's her genuine nature and what's something she's doing to differentiate herself from her sister. Maybe she'll be the high-brow literature fan in the house.

Is it hard to reveal yourself in this way? Or is it a relief? Or both?

There were two things that made the revelatory aspect of this book easy for me. The first was working in secrecy. I didn't tell my publisher about the book until I was at least half-way done, so I was able to work in the mindset of, if it gets too uncomfortable I can always just throw it out and no one will ever know. It was kind of like trying to get back to the mental space I was in when I made my earliest mini-comics. And the other thing that's been unexpectedly helpful is releasing the book in this particular, strange time, where I'm not obligated or even allowed to go out and promote the book to people face-to-face. I was kind of dreading having to answer questions and talk about myself so much in a public setting, and I was fully prepared for the present day experience of going on tour to eclipse the humiliations and embarrassment I depict in the book.

Have you heard from anyone you portrayed in the book?

Yeah, I think it was kind of inevitable. It's been great to hear from some of the other cartoonists that appear in the book, because there were many times during the process where I thought, "This might not make sense to anyone else, but I really hope that so-and-so gets it." And I've gotten two apologies: one from someone who correctly recognized themself in the book, and one from someone who was not in the book at all. I actually got a nice response from Terry Gross, and that was kind of mind-blowing to imagine her reading a story about my insane neurotic experience on her show. I'm still holding my breath and wondering if I'll hear from any of the random strangers in the book, like "I was the woman that you said 'I'll spank YOUR ass' to."