Comic and Film: A Conversation with Adrian Tomine on Shortcomings

Brooklyn-based cartoonist Adrian Tomine arrived on the '90s comics scene as a self-publishing teenage wunderkind and the envy of many in the industry. Jonathan Lethem, Alan Moore, Lisa Hanawalt and Chris Ware have all professed their admiration for Tomine over the years, whose subtly-rendered clear line illustrations are perhaps most known for gracing the cover of the New Yorker on numerous occasions.

Montreal publisher Drawn & Quarterly began releasing Tomine’s comic book series Optic Nerve in 1995. The three-issue “Shortcomings” story arc was serialized within its pages from 2004-07 and collected as an original graphic novel under the same name. It introduced readers to Ben Tanaka, a jaded Japanese-American movie theatre manager whose personal relationships begin to crumble around him in his early 30s.

Last week, on August 4, Sony Pictures Classics released a film version of the book, also titled Shortcomings, directed by Randall Park and starring Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Tavi Gevinson and Debbi Ryan. The film marks Tomine’s first foray into screenwriting, and is the second feature-length adaptation of his work, following Jacques Audiard’s use of the Optic Nerve stories “Amber Sweet”, “Killing and Dying” and “Hawaiian Getaway” as the basis of his 2021 film Les Olympiades, released in English as Paris, 13th District.

I corresponded with Tomine to discuss the doubtful continuation of Optic Nerve, the appeal of imbuing his characters with a degree of inscrutability, and the complicated racial politics surrounding Asian representation in American cinema.

-Jean Marc Ah-Sen

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JEAN MARC AH-SEN: How was the experience of adapting your own work into a screenplay? Did you spend time considering what was untranslatable between mediums, or did you find that comics, owing much to their similarity to storyboarding, lend themselves easily to cinematic adaptation?

ADRIAN TOMINE: I really enjoyed the adaptation process--much more than I expected. I’ve always been a fan of film, and I think to some degree I’ve spent my life studying it, rather than just passively taking it in. Even before I had any possibility of doing this kind of work, I was reading books of interviews with screenwriters, memoirs by screenwriters--anything like that I could get my hands on. So even when I was just writing the Shortcomings script on spec and I had no idea if it would ever get produced, I still felt like I was living out a childhood dream in some way. Just typing in Final Draft and seeing my words in that format felt cool to me. Especially since I’d spent the past 30 years fulfilling another childhood dream--being a cartoonist--it was a nice change of pace to be doing a different kind of work.

I’m sure that adapting a comic rather than prose made the process easier in some ways, but I never thought of the comic as storyboards for the script. For the most part I tried to free myself of the specific imagery of the book and aimed to just write each scene in what I thought was the best way possible for the film. There are definitely visual allusions to the book in the film, but a lot of those specific things in terms of blocking or composition came from Randall’s very generous insistence on honoring the source material more than anything I put into the script.

TOP: Page detail from the graphic novel Shortcomings depicting Alice and Ben. BOTTOM: Justin Min as Ben and Sherry Cola as Alice in the film of Shortcomings. Photo credit: Jon Pack. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

It's almost been two decades since Shortcomings was first serialized in the pages of Optic Nerve. What were your initial impressions revisiting the book? Do you feel that the book was ahead of its time in terms of its racial politics, especially in relation to the current social moment we are living in?

My first impression when I revisited the book was that I had put a lot of work into it that no one ever really cared about. I set the book in mostly real locations, took reference photos that I assembled in a binder, and I figured out all the backgrounds with one or two-point perspective. I put thought into what each character’s home would look like, what kind of clothes they’d wear, etc. etc. I even have, like, architectural maps of each character’s home. And 20 years later, no one has ever commented on any of that. So, advice to young cartoonists: don’t waste your time like I did! Beyond that, as with any of my past work, it was hard for me to read it objectively, and I mostly kept thinking about things that I wanted to fix or do differently. And in a lot of ways, the screenplay allowed me to do that.

I have no idea if it was ahead of its time, and I don’t think it’s really my place to make the judgment. I knew there weren’t any other books quite like it when I was writing and drawing it, and that was kind of the main motivation. But mostly I was just trying to write honestly about myself and the people I knew at that time, even though it is very much a fictional story. And I wanted it to be funny.

To my mind, the film seems to draw inspiration from quirky romantic comedies and the dialogue-centric writing of Preston Sturges, Todd Solondz, and other filmmakers of that ilk. What kind of lineage did you want to trace with this film, and was locating it within an established comedic tradition a precursor to writing it?

I definitely didn’t sit down and make a list of movies that I was going to consciously use as inspiration. I’m sure the finished script reflects a lot of different filmmakers that have impacted me over the years, but I don’t think so highly of myself that I would say, “My script is going to be like a modern day Preston Sturges film” or something like that. And if I did, I’m sure about 10 different people in my life would’ve put me in my place immediately. I think I was mainly going through the graphic novel and thinking about the best way to adapt each piece. It also probably goes without saying, but the film itself is very much a collaboration between many talented people who all brought their own varied sets of influences and inspiration, so it’s really an amalgam of all of that.

A heated conversation between Miko and Ben in the film is centered around representation in the arts, specifically with regard to how populist fare has to break ground among new audiences before more challenging, high art offerings can become palatable. Do you believe this to be the case, or do you think that these two audiences hardly overlap, and exist at most along a contiguous artistic border?

I have to tell you, one of the hardest parts about talking about Shortcomings--both the book and the film--is that people are always pointing to some bit of dialogue and asking me if I personally agree or disagree. I’d really prefer that people take what they want from the work and respond to it directly, and I hope it’s clear that this is a story that aims to raise questions rather than be didactic or something. Having said that, I know for a fact that there are many people who enjoyed our movie and Shang-Chi and Crazy Rich Asians, and I think that’s great. I know firsthand that there were closed doors that other films opened for us, and I don’t take that lightly.

All the characters in the film are coded to be read as flawed social misfits who make disastrous decisions in their personal lives. Throughout your career, these have been the characters you seem to gravitate towards for the most part. What is the central appeal of writing a character who, whether or not they experience moments of growth or awareness, struggles with neurotic tendencies?

I’m not sure I agree! All the characters are flawed social misfits? Maybe I just have a different scale for judging that kind of thing, but I personally wouldn’t paint these characters with such a broad brush. They might be a little different from the characters we typically see in mainstream media, but I find them all to be plausible, true to life, and to varying degrees, relatable. But maybe that just means I’m a flawed social misfit who struggles with neurotic tendencies!

TOP: Page detail from Shortcomings depicting Autumn and Ben. BOTTOM: Tavi Gevinson as Autumn in Shortcomings. Photo credit: Jon Pack. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Ben’s story arc ends on something of an indeterminate note in the book and the film. Viewers and readers gain insight into his behavior and the reasoning behind it through the perceptions of others, but Ben very seldom has moments of introspection that an audience is privy to. I think this inscrutability has contributed to lending him an element of humanistic credibility, but I am wondering if you can talk about the reasons you imbued your main protagonist with such qualities?

I think some degree of inscrutability is great for any and all characters because I think it’s reflective of the real experience of interacting with other people. Again, maybe I have an unpopular perspective on that, but I do think that part of the nature of human interaction is a certain amount of surprise, evolution, and even deception. And I don’t mean that in some paranoid, cynical way, but just that a completely one-sided, absolutely knowable person would be very boring both in real life and in fiction. Of course I wouldn’t argue with anyone who said they found Ben to be too opaque--it’s a valid, subjective response--but that certainly wasn’t my intention.

Audiences are no longer strangers to film adaptations of comics properties. What do you believe are some of the key ingredients for ensuring these adaptations are mindful of the source material and satisfy old and new prospective readers alike?

I don’t want to be prescriptive because I know there’s a lot of different approaches, and they’ve all found their audiences. Some comic-to-film adaptations, (like the Watchmen movie) have been almost microscopically faithful, whereas others (like Les Olympiades, another adaptation of my work) use the source material as more of a jumping-off point to something totally different. So I don’t think there’s any right or wrong way. But in the case of Shortcomings, my priority was always just to try to make the best film possible. I didn’t want to feel obligated to include anything or to portray anything in a specific way just because it would replicate the book. I knew that there would probably be a lot of people who were coming to the film for reasons other than what it was based on (i.e. Justin H. Min), and I wanted those people to enjoy the film as much as the person who bought the book when it was first published.

Your last book, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, struck me as being largely an exercise in writing in different tones—specifically, with writing in a more hopeful, maybe even sentimental register than you are accustomed. If this is an accurate reading, can you talk about this shift, and whether or not you will continue to pursue it in your future work?

I’m sure some of my harsher critics might find this surprising, but every book I’ve done since Summer Blonde has been an attempt to do something different. Now, of course those differences might be imperceptible to other people, but I do find it helpful to set challenges for myself, to rule out certain things if they’re too similar to the previous book, and just generally work in different ways with different materials. So in the same way that Killing and Dying was kind of a reaction to Shortcomings, Loneliness probably wouldn’t exist the way we know it if it wasn’t immediately following Killing and Dying.

Are there any plans to release a complete or colored collection of Optic Nerve, or to continue the series? Do you anticipate that you have made the permanent shift to releasing original graphic novels like your last book, what with comics serialization being practically an act of bravery in the current publishing climate?

I don’t think I’d ever want to add color to the black and white issues, but beyond that, I’m all for repackaging, recycling, whatever. I think I was pretty unhappy when I was creating some of that early work, so there’s something kind of amazing about stories from that period, like Shortcomings, coming back to bring happiness into my present day. Even now when I see my modest royalties for the 32 Stories collection, I feel like it’s a gift from the miserable teenage version of myself. In terms of continuing the Optic Nerve series, I’d say it’s pretty doubtful. But that has more to do with my hatred of the title than anything about the format itself.