The Creators of Optic Nerve and Palooka-ville
April 26, 2000
But now I don't know what to believe in. I'm not complaining, simply stating a fact. I'm down to nothing. And I have to go on like this. No destiny. Just the next thing meaning whatever you think it does. Compulsion and error, just like everyone else.-- Raymond Carver, "Menudo"For a group of people termed slackers, Generation X has an abundance of spokespersons. Whether it's Kurt Cobain or Douglas Copeland or any number of other creative types, these folks all seem to codify the comings and goings of a people out of place.Adrian Tomine, the 22-year-old creator of Optic Nerve (Drawn & Quarterly), is no exception. His stories have been compared with those of Raymond Carver; they'd be worth reading just for Tomine's eloquent restraint and literary leanings. Indeed, his well-structured, compact tales of divestiture and his wry humor conjure up the Carver karma. Similarity of tone is where the connection ends, since Tomine's medium has him covering over the veins Carver so deftly struck. Still, Tomine's work is more proof that comics today are a hell of a lot more than tales about physically overendowed superheroes.This weekend Tomine is part of a two-artist book-signing tour. He's joined by Seth, the author of the loving, comics-obsessed Palooka-ville.Tomine's flip, hip, autobiographical Optic Nerve chronicles the isolation of growing up in middle-class America. His vignettes bellow with the emptiness of a daily life that holds nothing more meaningful than a mocha latte. There's a passive flexibility to his characters that make his black-and-white drawings all the more stark and chilling. The latest issue of Optic Nerve(#3) tells yet another of his poignant stories of indifference and poor communication, this one featuring twins on a summer-break trip to a comic-book convention. The vacuous details of this trip are recounted with aching clarity. The long faces, with bleary, sunken eyes, of main characters Dylan and Donovan capture the laissez-faire jadedness that's defining the '90s. With its been-there-done-that attitude and disconnected relationships, Optic Nerve does indeed tap into our decade.Much has been made of the transition from this comic's quaint self-published fanzine phase to its current larger publishing-house format -- just as much is made when a cherished indie-rock band sign with a major label. But the change hasn't affected Optic Nerve's quirky charm. When you compare the smartness of his early snapshot-length stories (now collected by Drawn & Quarterly as the instantly gratifying 32 Stories) with the longer works in current issues, the only apparent difference is that Tomine now stretches his artistic muscles like a cat, fitting his insights into a hipper-than-thou frame with rippling good effect.Optic Nerve captures modern ennui; another Drawn & Quarterly title, Palooka-ville, by Seth (a/k/a Gregory Gallant, one of Toronto's triumvirate of groundbreaking comic artists along with Chester Brown and Joe Matt), is nostalgic. Seth is an avid collector of memorabilia -- from Pez to 78 rpm records -- with a special weakness for anything by Kalo, a one-time New Yorker comic artist. The autobiographical Palooka-ville series traces his search for Kalo; it's now collected in the book-length It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken.Propelled by beautifully composed panels, Palooka-ville is well-written and well-paced. Yes, it courts sentimentality, but its mastery of space and line guard against that. There's a tenderness to Seth's artwork that envelops you like a sweet fog. But it's not saccharine; Seth's search is recounted warts and all. In the short time it takes to read the three issues collected into It's a Good Life, Seth creates a hearth-like atmosphere and invites you in for a discussion on the merits of cartoon artists' work; it makes for a damn good comic-art history lesson. Seth presents his Palooka-villeans with nonconfrontational pride and passion. And the stories unfold as a tranquil anecdote to the furious tempo at which we live our lives.