Thursday, September 15, 2011

Optic Nerve #12

Debuting as a mini comic in 1991, Adrian Tomine's "Optic Nerve" has just celebrated it's 20th anniversary with a new issue. #12 is a concentrated effort by it's author to return to the one man anthology form he started out in, the very subject covered in one of these new shorts. The last several "Optic Nerve" issues made up "Shortcomings", the writer/artist's most ambitious narrative so far, followed upon with the last year's "Scenes from an impending marriage", themed around his wedding. The new entry in the series offers up three stories told in different formats, built upon with equal skill and ardour.

The first and the longest one is "A Brief History of the Art Form Known as Hortisculpture", formatted as a newspaper comic strip, covering roughly the first month of it's "run". Thus, two black and white daily strips get presented on a page, forming a story that runs across six installments, corresponding to the Monday to Saturday format of the paper. Thus, the Sunday episode debuts after every three story pages, published in color and presented in a familiar double length. The story features a gardener undergoing a mid-life crisis, while his pregnant wife has to deal with her husband's new found delusion of self importance. It goes without saying that Tomine uses the storyline to gently mock the artistic process, but even at his fiercest, the writer/artist maintains sympathy with the aging, out of shape "artist" dedicated to creating sculptures interwined with plants, needing his monthly maintenance. Most of the comedy comes from the reaction Harold's sculptures provoke in his friends and neighbors, who while not being artistically inclined themselves, still uniformly feel awkward and disdainful at his new found calling.

Harold's wife tries her hardest to cheer him up, but their mixed marriage continually suffers from his ill tamper. The gardener's endless defensive monologue on the nature of art and the artist in the modern age turn into verbal abuse towards the spouse once she shows even an inkling of doubt, with this relationship forming the crux of the narrative. There is a sudden five year jump needed to get their child come to come of age where she can respond to her dad's work, but eventually the sculptor comes to a decision, and involves his family in the plan that finally gets them all on the same side.

Tomine's cartooning is loose but effective, fitting with the character based subject material. In keeping with the stylings of the newspaper strips, the writer/artist rushes some of the background details, but his Harold is continually on the form. The gardener is portrayed somewhat more cartoony, fitting with such an overblown character, with the rest of the cast rendered more typically in Tomine's understated, yet all too human stylings. The pacing is effortless throughout, with jokes being intelligent, if not too obvious, delivered as verbal punchlines playing on the protagonist's lack of maturity and perspective.

In many ways, "A Brief History of the Art Form Known as Hortisculpture" feels like an answer to Dan Clowes' "Wilson", covering similar ground of mid life crisis as told using formal tricks of the gag strips, but feels more restrained without the need for veering too much into the experimental. "Wilson" certinaly represents a more profound, philosophical work, while Tomine feels completely content in developing a single idea using one representational technique, with a clear idea of his thoughts on the subject. After the complicated morality of "Shortcomings", with it's take on relationships, friendship and same sex attraction, "Hortisculpture", much like "Scenes from an impending marriage" that directly preceded it, represents a more playful, observant side of the writer/artist's character, still enamored with the medium and the possibilities it represents, without being superfluous.

The unique anthology format allows the reader to get a deeper perspective on "Hortisculpture" as Tomine's own feelings on art get discussed in the third and shortest entry in the 40 page installment. Seeing the writer/artist himself pondering on the chosen format for the work in a two page autobiographical sequence feels both informative, as well as intimate. Tomine utilizes a large number of panels to get across not only a very atypical afterword, but an entry that espouses his own feelings on the matter of artistic choice and the audience's reaction. The Japanese American author directly references Clowes when discussing the prevailing preference for abandoning the pamphlet format in favor of longer, spine bound works. Tomine obviously felt very strongly towards continuing his original series in the more traditional comic book format, yet he illustrates the follow-through in a bitter sweet epilogue that anticipates the audience's indifference and hostility of the market that has changed so much in the twenty year of the publication of "Optic Nerve".

The middle section of the book also offers a revised edition of "Amber Sweet", the writer/artist's story from "Kramers Ergot 7". The full color somehow adds to the detached feeling of the short, representative of it's narrator, an introspective young woman sharing an uncanny similarity in both name and appearance with an adult film actress. Tomine covers her late teens, as the introspective character takes a long while to understand the derogatory reactions of the community, without any provocation of her own. Contrary to Harold's attempt to engage his middle class peers, Amber's own passivity and cluelessness seems to contribute to the problem, with her resorting to Internet twice and both times coming away shocked and dismayed.

Tomine's decision to resort to a long internal monologue broken up by outside snide comments, paints a portrait of a very lonely young woman, who simply cannot understand how her own beauty and femininity can become such a liability to her way of life. Amber is eager to learn, smart and attentive, but what she lacks in empathy she seeks to learn by investigation, signified by the sterile look of the technology that reappears at key points in the story. With only her status as an object of desire to keep her from feeling like an outsider, she seeks comfort in relationships, but is continually plagued by the presence of the doppelganger.

While avoiding the association with the porn star she resembles both in the name and looks, the young woman is continually challenged to question her own self worth and seek out an identity that would bring her happiness and a semblance of regular life. It is only when she finally acts out, and strikes out from a creepy boyfriend and changes her hair style that she achieves an intimate moment. That she meets her doppelganger face to face might seemed contrived, but Tomine offers the openness of the LA setting to make up for the needs of the story. That the writer/artist really utilizes the encounter between the two Ambers to provide a real human moment, and emotional pay off to the story, goes a long way to justified the story logic and proves essential to the protagonist.

Faced with the very same outside attention that became a source of frustration for her namesake, the porn responds in a casual, even patented way, which is crucial in understanding the "real" Amber. If the protagonist had only managed a way to deal with the association that used good humor, and had not let the rage swell up inside her, she would have lead a much healthier and relaxed life. Of course, her character, as shown in these eleven pages, certainly leaves room to connect her reaction to the events in her lives previous to the beginning of the story. That Tomine was able to so fully flesh out the narrator as a both vulnerable and very relatable speaks to his strength as a storyteller adept at utilizing the short story format for maximum effect.

The closure Amber gets from the encounter feels genuine and definitely earned, with the final panel acting to place the narration in the context of a new relationship that finally seems close and personal. Her transformation from someone that kept a deep resentment to an unknown woman with particularly brutal urges toward revenge, towards an adult that tries to talk about her feelings and the uncanny resemblance without just hoping that it never becomes an issue in a society that's increasingly open to Internet pornography, feels like a character arc important both to the character and the reader subjected to Tomine's mastery of the form that realized it.

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