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Adrian Tomine on Obsessive Organization, Muted Colors & the Art of Killing and Dying

Comics Features Adrian Tomine
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Adrian Tomine on Obsessive Organization, Muted Colors & the Art of <i>Killing and Dying</i>

To the masses, Adrian Tomine may be better known for his illustrations, which appear regularly on the cover of the New Yorker, than for his astute, understated comics. But, like many of the illustrators art director Francoise Mouly has brought in for the magazine’s covers, he’s not only from the comics scene, but well-versed in the possibilities of the art form. In other words, he’s a bit of a formalist, often shaping his works from an abstract idea than from a burning emotional need to tell a story. That doesn’t mean they can’t be moving—they often are—but their power comes from reticence. Tomine is a habitual underplayer, but he manages to pack a lot into his panels through intelligent, informed decisions.

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Tomine has published his shorter works in Optic Nerve, an occasional compilation released since 1991 under Drawn & Quarterly. His new book, Killing and Dying, collects six stories that appeared throughout Optic Nerve #12-14. Tomine answered our questions about the new compendium, the state of his desk, how he organizes his comics library and the influence his New Yorker covers have had on his comics.

Paste: These works were published in Optic Nerve originally, but not everything in Optic Nerve appears here. Who decides what does?
Tomine: It should also be mentioned that not everything in Killing and Dying appears in Optic Nerve, and that there were some corrections and alterations to the material in the book. Drawn & Quarterly has always given me complete editorial control over my books and comics, so any decision about what to include or exclude from the book was my own. I’ve always thought of the comics and the books as two very different ways of presenting material, so each version includes all of the central content but with distinct ancillary material.

Paste: I’m pretty nuts about the design of the book as an object (the square back, the binding that lets the pages lay flat, the thick and lovely paper that’s almost pearlized). What kind of influence do you have on that? How do you feel about books as things? What’s your home library organization system?
Tomine: That makes me so happy to hear. I think more than ever we have an obligation to make the book an appealing physical object—something that bookstores will want to display and that will tempt people to not just download the content. I designed the book myself, but I had a lot of help from Tracy Hurren at D + Q. I think her official title is managing editor, but she has a meticulous eye for design and detail, and is a genius with pre-press and computer stuff that’s way beyond my comprehension. It’s one thing to have the idea for an acetate cover with white printing that lines up precisely with the edges of the book, but to achieve that goal was something I’d never have been able to do without Tracy’s dedication and expertise.

I probably put too high of a premium on the design of all things, including books. There’s a lot of books that I’ve purchased simply because of the cover design. On the other hand, there’s certain books that, even if I’m very curious about the content, I can’t bring myself to buy if I really dislike the cover. But this can also be a slippery slope into madness, especially if you have kids, so I’m trying to be a little more flexible!

Not surprisingly, my home library organization is…pretty organized! Our living room is filled with bookcases, with separate areas for prose and comics, but all arranged alphabetically by author. I’ve seen friends just absent-mindedly browsing the shelves and then suddenly they realize that it’s all alphabetized and they get this horrified look on their face, like when Shelley Duvall finds Jack Nicholson’s insane typing in The Shining. I assumed this was just a standard way of organizing your books, but people always look at me like I’m out of my mind.

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Killing and Dying “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as Hortisculpture” interior art by Adrian Tomine

Paste: Comics libraries: which author do you alphabetize by? My books with just words in them are alphabetized by author, but I never know how to do it properly for comics, so that shelf is a mess.
Tomine: Yeah, the wildly varying book sizes is definitely an issue here. My compulsive tendencies pull me in two directions: one voice says I should be strictly alphabetical, even if that means putting a tiny Chris Ware mini-comic right next to the giant Building Stories box. The other voice says that aesthetics and economy should trump alphabetization, and I should arrange comics according to size. I won’t go into specifics and make myself sound any more deranged, but I will say that I basically split the difference.

Paste: I don’t think I’d ask most authors that question, but a hallmark of your work is neatness and attention to detail. What does your desk look like?
Tomine: A crazy, dirty jumble. Just kidding! Let’s just say it’s minimalist. I’ve found that I’m more likely to get to work if the space is not cluttered. I recently started working in a small studio outside of home, just a small room with a window, and my original plan was to fill it up with books and records and furniture. But on the first day there I set up a drafting table, a chair, a taboret and a lamp and I realized that was my ideal working situation. I don’t even have wi-fi in there, and it’s made me incredibly productive.

Paste: Talk to me about your method of composition in “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture,’” where you have six black-and-white strips interspersed with a seventh in color. It’s as though the strips are running in a daily paper, with the seventh being the Sunday comics pages. Why that decision for this story?
Tomine: I had the idea for the story first, and then I struggled with how to tell it. I first tried to do it in a more straightforward, narrative style, but I realized I was wasting time with a lot of unnecessary stuff, and what I really wanted to do was to keep jumping ahead in time to all the significant moments. And I wanted to leaven the depressing quality of the story with some jokes. I was reading a lot of books that reprinted old comics strips at the time, so that was certainly an influence, but I was also swiping from the way that Daniel Clowes and Jonathan Bennett had used the comic strip format to tell longer stories.

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Killing and Dying “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as Hortisculpture” interior art by Adrian Tomine

Paste: Are there particular daily strips you see as influences on your work?
Tomine: Peanuts is a life-long influence, going back to before I could even read. I also like the early incarnations of Little Orphan Annie and Gasoline Alley, both of which are now available in very nice book form. And in general, daily strips were just a regular part of my childhood. So even if I wasn’t a huge fan of most of those strips, I still read them religiously every morning while I ate my cereal.

Paste: Coloring in general seems like something you spend more time and thought on than a lot of artists. Can you tell me about why you made certain choices in each one of these stories? For example, in “Go Owls,” which is basically a two-color story, but with subtle changes in what the color other than black is. I kept trying to figure out “why tan here?” and then “why this pinky/peachy color?” Is it based on feel or is it more systematic?
Tomine: It’s both. I wanted a certain overall aesthetic, and I was looking at a lot of old Japanese comics at the time. They often had very limited color palettes, for a variety of reasons, and a lot of the line art was printed in a dark purple color, rather than the customary black. But the changing background color is also a subtle way of indicating a shift in time or setting, almost like a cut in film. Chris Ware has used this technique in the past, and done it more effectively.

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Killing and Dying “Go Owls” interior art by Adrian Tomine

Paste: “Amber Sweet,” on the other hand, has what feels like a very Chris Ware color palette. Or you could say “a very Adrian Tomine color palette.” You two share some similarities in your color choices. Why do you think that is?
Tomine: Ha! I set you up nicely for your next question. What can I say? Chris has been a huge influence on me. I give a lot of credit to him and the cartoonist Seth for toning down the color palette in comics, and they’ve both inspired me quite a bit in general.

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Killing and Dying “Amber Sweet” interior art by Adrian Tomine

Paste: How do you think your work on New Yorker covers has influenced your longer-form comics?
Tomine: It’s made me better at visual storytelling. Comics are usually about a sequence of images, and the New Yorker covers have pushed me towards telling a story with a single image. It’s also been a great training ground in terms of color. My bosses at the magazine are very generous about letting me see color proofs and making adjustments, and that’s taught me a lot about contrast and harmony, and all the things that I probably would’ve learned if I went to art school. A New Yorker cover is also just a wonderful break from the slow process of creating one of my own books. Instead of working in isolation, I’m collaborating with people at the magazine. And instead of it taking years to see the printed results, I can turn in a cover on Thursday and see it on the newsstand the following Monday. It’s a very lucky situation to be in, and I’m grateful that they keep giving me work.

Paste: Do you think “Translated, from the Japanese,” is influenced by the New Yorker cover work? I don’t remember seeing you do a ton of really big panels, historically.
Tomine: Absolutely, and in the most direct, specific way. I was literally working on “Go Owls” and I had to put that on hold to complete a New Yorker cover. And while I was working on that cover, I started thinking about how I was always putting so much more detail and thought about color choices and composition into drawings for other people’s publications. And I know that type of drawing isn’t always conducive to great cartooning, but I sort of challenged myself to see if I could work in that “New Yorker cover” mode and still create something that worked as a comic.

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Killing and Dying “Translated, from the Japanese” interior art by Adrian Tomine

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