I hadn’t read Tomine in a long while before I picked up this book. He’s one of my biggest influences. My first published comic, in 2000′s Tango #4: Love and Death is very Tominesque. I’ll tell you about it sometime. A couple of years later, when I was deciding what kind of longer comic I would write and draw, my first idea was for a serious, unhappy, Tomine-flavoured comic about Themes and Motifs and other stuff of which I thought my 12th grade English teacher, Mr Cremer (whom I hated passionately), would approve. I was visualising something like Craig Thompson’s Blankets, I think, and just as long. But I rejected that idea and went with another idea that had been gnawing away at me for the past six months or so, something funny, silly and light; Egg Story. As I sat there in Otago University library, writing dialogue and plotting scenes, I often thought it was totally ridiculous. I imagined Mr Cremer standing behind me, frowning and judging. I saved the Themes and Motifs and Layers for my second comic, and people didn’t seem to notice them much.
The title is worth commenting on. Blondes are usually thought of as fun and attractive, more attractive than brunettes. By another author, the title Summer Blonde would indicate something like a fun holiday romance. But in the world inhabited by Adrian’s characters, and people who love his works, blondes are wicked. They are phantoms, style over substance, all matter and no essence. They’ve grown up not knowing rejection, only being praised for how they look. They will bewitch you. They will reject a you for material reasons, such as not looking right, or not having money, or confidence, or whatever. They may be sought-after, but they’re bad. That’s the received wisdom, anyway.
Look at some comics sometime and count up the number of sympathetic portrayals of brunette female characters versus blondes. This is a hunch, mind you, I’ve never counted it myself. But I think I’m right. Girls who look like this are the kind of girls we like and trust and want to get to know:
I mention this because Tomine is definitely being ironic with his title. Summer Blonde sounds like it’s gonna be a light, fun read. You might like it, but fun it ain’t.
There are four stories in this tome. Alter Ego is about a whiny, ugly drip called Martin Courtney, who just loves to tell the few people close to him about how crummy his life is and how bad it was in high school. He won’t shut up about it. He’s described as an ‘asshole’ by one character. He has writer’s block. He gets a postcard from someone he thinks is a former classmate of his, a cute blonde whom he had a big crush on, but who rejected him, and he follows it up. The postcard’s not from her, but in trying to find her he locates the girl’s sister, also a cute blonde. He winds up ruining all his relationships, including the one with the cute blonde. He doesn’t learn or change from this. The end.
This story, of a put-upon nerd who has trouble relating to people, writing about his pain and trauma, and being accoladed for it, resembles The Playwright. It is a lot harder to feel sorry for Martin Courtney than Dennis Benge, though. Courtney never stops whining, while Benge never says a word; and while both characters are ugly, Courtney is drawn in a less aethetically pleasing style.
Summer Blonde is the second story, and it’s about a put-upon nerd who has trouble relating to other people. He looks at internet porn. He’s also got a crush on a cute blonde girl, the summer blonde, but he creeps her out by stalking her. His next-door neighbour is a jock tool who shags lots of different sexy women, most of them pretty stupid, including the summer blonde of the story’s title. He believes that a woman’s attractiveness fades the more one sleeps with her. It seems to be his main problem. At the end, nothing much has changed, though the jock tool gets bashed by the boyfriend of the summer blonde.
Hawaiian Getaway is the third story, and second with an ironic title evocative of a fun holiday read. It also ain’t fun. It’s about Hillary Chan, a slightly chubby but not unattractive girl who hates herself, wishes she could talk to people but never really gives it a proper go, and is constantly harrassed by her Chinese mother, though you get the impression that her problems all come from herself. I remember once reading a comment by comicker Sam Kieth, who noticed that readers were more likely to be sympathetic to a female character than a male, and it’s the same here, too. Plus she’s a brunette. Hillary is definitely the most likeable of the main characters. During the story her life starts to fray, she has a couple of awkward encounters with people, and by the end, not much is different.
The last story, Bomb Scare, is set in a high school and has three protagonists; an asexual, put-upon nerd who has trouble relating to people, a goth guy who is the same but has friends and has a level of comfort in his own skin, and a promiscuous girl whose parents are divorcing. It’s the same American high school you know well if you’ve seen at least a couple of movies set in one.
In these stories, characters don’t change much, if at all. They are all wounded, and all of them want to love someone and trust someone and be loved, but they’ve been too hurt by their past experiences, as well as the experiences that occur in the stories themselves, to be able to. This is the main thematic point of difference between Summer Blonde and The Playwright. In The Playwright, the main character gets over his past and his self and opens his heart; in Summer Blonde, they don’t. Tomine is a cynic, and maybe more of a realist. People who are hurt and traumatised do stay that way in the real world, often. They often let it shape their lives. In fact, in other comics, traumatic incidents are often the reason they don a costume and go out to fight crime. It’s a widely used device, I suppose because trauma and conflict is more interesting to read than the opposite. And that’s mainly why we read, really, because it’s enjoyable and interesting.
Unlike Batman, Tomine’s characters are not strong, or driven, or disciplined (or ultra-wealthy). They direct their rage and hate at those close to them, or at themselves. Batman uses his to beat up criminals.
By now you’ve got a good idea of what Summer Blonde is all about. But is it art? It’s published by arthouse label Faber & Faber, so at least they think it is. But what separates this from other comics? Like The Dark Knight Returns, for instance? Leaving aside the fact that Batman is a corporate-owned character for now, both works are well-made by artists with a lot of experience, and both works stir the emotions deeply, though in different ways. It may seem odd to compare Tomine and Miller, but please stick with me on this!
Great artists often start trends, and influence other artists. Tomine definitely has done this. Derek Kirk Kim’s early short comics show a strong Tomine twang, as do Matt Huynh’s, to name two. But Miller’s Batman was also influential, perhaps moreso. So it’s not just that.
Aesthetically, Tomine’s work is not really that special. It’s not poor by any stretch, and it’s clean and clear, but it’s not as good as, say, Campbell. His scenes are usually seen from the same angle, and there is very little variation in style. He has experimented with cross-hatching, grey wash and sharp contrasts (not in Summer Blonde), but it’s limited. There are lots of talking heads. Faces have little emotion. Action scenes, such as the bashing scene described above, can seem wooden. His characters are bland, and often ugly. In fact if I were to compare it to anything, it would be 80s Filmation cartoons, which Tomine no doubt grew up watching, and were a big influence on him.
That said, it is also true that Tomine’s drawings serve his type of stories very well. Less is often more, in comics. The reader must fill in the blank spaces between panels with his or her imagination, and very realistic expressions or figures often aren’t as effective. When images are less specific, the reader must fill in the blanks, and in effect breathe their own life, their own essence, into the characters. It’s precisely this that draws readers to Tomine’s works, this ability to see themselves in the comic and relate to the characters. It doesn’t always work, though. When dealing with such unlikeable, depressing characters, you may not want to read on.
Aside from all this, it’s pretty hard to draw detailed, emotionally exact drawings, as I mentioned in an earlier post.
Another thing that great artists do, is do something that no one has done before, and this can definitely be said of Tomine. His stories were unique. We had not seen their like before. However, we hadn’t really seen a superhero comic like Miller’s before, either.
So while all three are the mark of a great artist, it’s neither its influence, nor its aesthetic appeal, nor its uniqueness that sets Tomine’s work apart as ‘art’.
I think the main difference is that Tomine shows human beings in a more realistic way. By that I mean, the characters in Summer Blonde are more like actual people, especially those people who read these kinds of comics and praise them in literary journals. Batman-type characters (by which I mean driven, disciplined, principled, strong characters, not rich vigilantes who play dress-ups) do exist in the real world, and we like to read about them, though they are far rarer.
Reflecting and representing reality in an innovative way is a huge part of what separates ‘art’ from ‘not art’ in people’s minds in this day and age. I’d like to write more about this topic, but it’ll have to wait till future essays.
November 29, 2010
Summer Blonde, by Adrian Tomine. Faber & Faber, London, 2009.
© 2010, J Marc Schmidt