Between the ages of 17 and 20, Adrian Tomine self-published 7 issues of his mini-comic Optic Nerve, which comprised of short stories displaying the first hints of the distinctive, realist style that he would go on to perfect. In 1994 Optic Nerve was subsequently published for 14 issues by Drawn & Quarterly and would be where his acclaimed graphic novels (Sleepwalk & Other Stories, Summer Blonde, Shortcomings and Killing & Dying) would be first serialised.
His Eisner Award winning book, The Loneliness of a Long-Distance Cartoonist, was published in 2020, which Alan Moore described as:
"In this heartfelt and beautifully crafted work, Adrian Tomine presents the most honest and insightful portrait you will ever see of an industry that I can no longer bear to be associated with."
You have a distinctive palette of muted, neutral tones, yet you’ve still managed to highlight your subject against the background. How important is light in your compositions?
I’ve wasted an insane amount of time thinking about lighting in Zoom meetings, so it seemed fitting that it would be central to this image. I’d love to be one of those effortlessly beautiful people who can just open their laptop in a dark room and look terrific, but, instead, I’m often rearranging entire rooms, running extension cords to various lighting sources, and scheduling meetings based on when I can get natural window light. Also, I was looking at Edward Hopper as I was working on this, and light was probably the most consistent thread that ran through his work.
You recently published a book, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist,” which makes a cameo on this cover. The book was very well received. Did the praise help you with the next project, or paralyze you?
Everything paralyzes me, whether it’s praise or criticism. Somehow I always find a way to carry on and to keep making things, but there’s literally no reaction to my work that I can’t twist into something to obsess over.
In your book, and in your New Yorker covers, you seem to home in on painful moments to find the humor in them. Do you experience a eureka moment when you locate that contradiction?
I think that’s a good way of putting it. To be honest, I don’t know how someone could get through life without being able to bask in that contradiction. In my personal life, I’ve often felt very moved by that act of finding humor in pain. If someone can authentically pull that off and be really funny, that’s worth more than a hundred words of earnest consolation to me.
I know you and your wife have been confined at home with two young children—but what’s with the cat? Is that from life or from your imagination?
That’s my tribute to our cats, Dolly and Pepper. Dolly passed away, unfortunately, but it felt nice to immortalize her in this way. I’ve drawn every other member of our household on the cover at some point, so it seemed only fair. (For the record, we keep the litter box in a much more socially distanced location.)
Sometimes a cover image will just appear in my mind, fully formed. In other cases, I’ll have the vaguest semblance of an idea but no sense of how to turn it into a cover. Those movie-set trailers are a good example of this. I’d drawn them in my sketchbook a long time ago, and I knew they were an ubiquitous, specific part of New York life, but I didn't have a story beyond that. Then, a few years ago, I decided to try my hand at screenwriting, and in a particular moment of frustration and despair this image popped into my mind. The apron on the back of the chair was a spur-of-the-moment addition while I was sketching, and I think that was the last piece I was looking for.
I think New York is one of those cities where, whatever your ambition is, you can look around and instantly see someone achieving that dream, often at a level that you never even knew was possible. That experience can be dispiriting, but also extremely inspiring, and that’s part of what I was trying to capture.
Spending time in nature is something I do solely for the happiness of my children, like going to puppet shows or listening to Katy Perry. I can wander around the city with my kids, potentially surrounded by psychopaths, and I’m completely at ease. But put us in some tall grass, and all my neurotic, protective instincts come out.
Where I live in Brooklyn, there’re always a lot of books being set out on the sidewalk, and there’re also a lot of authors walking around the neighborhood. Lifelong New Yorkers may take for granted the sight of people setting stuff on their steps to give away, but I still notice it. I’ve had the experience of seeing stacks of New Yorkers with my cover out on the street, though I haven’t seen my books put out - but then, I also don’t have a giant photo of myself on the back cover.
I think it's kind of beautiful and hilarious to see people eating their organic kale and quinoa salads while gazing across the opaque, fetid water. It’s strange to see the recent proliferation of health-conscious and environmentally conscious restaurants and grocery stores, right next to the piles of scrap and rubble. I guess it proves that there's no part of the city that can't be revitalized, recontextualized, or ruined - depending on your point of view.
When I heard that the 9/11 memorial and museum were going to be the top tourist attractions in New York this summer, I first sketched only tourists going about their usual happy activities, with the memorial in the background. But when I got to the site, I instantly realized that there was a lot more to be captured - specifically, a much, much wider range of emotions and reactions, all unfolding in shockingly close proximity. I guess that’s the nature of any public space, but when you add in an element of such extreme grief and horror, the parameters shift.