Writers & Company

Adrian Tomine on The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist and finding solace in storytelling

In conversation with Eleanor Wachtel, the Japanese American illustrator talks about how solitude has shaped his life and art.
Adrian Tomine is an American contemporary cartoonist. He is best known for his award-winning book Killing and Dying and his illustrations in The New Yorker. (Submitted by Adrian Tomine)

Graphic novelist and illustrator Adrian Tomine has been called "the Chekhov of comics; a master of the story form — done in pictures." He's known for his incisive observations of modern life, both poignant and humorous, through characters often struggling with uncertainty and isolation. 

In his latest book, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, Tomine considers how solitude has shaped his own life. The comic explores his childhood as a Japanese American kid in California, his parents' divorce and how he found solace in drawing and storytelling. In fact, Tomine has been creating comics since he was just two years old. 

Tomine's previous books include the short story collection Killing and Dying and the graphic novel Shortcomings, both widely praised for their subtle complexity. He has created many covers for The New Yorker magazine, and his work is often featured within its pages. 

He spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Compelled to create 

"For better or worse, my compulsion to create comics is something that's an inherent personality trait. Now that I have kids, I've talked to other parents who sometimes say, 'My kid's interested in being a cartoonist. Can you give us any advice on how to make that happen?'

"A lot of times I say, or I want to say, that I actually do have the perfect recipe — but I'm not sure that I would advise it. 

"For me, it wasn't a decision to put the blinders on and become single-minded about becoming a cartoonist. There were a lot of other things going on in my life, such as my parents getting divorced and me moving to a different state from where my father lived and trying to make new friends. 

For better or worse, my compulsion to create comics is something that's an inherent personality trait.

"That was the beginning of a series of events that either necessitated or facilitated that single-mindedness for me." 

An interior image from the graphic novel The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist by Japanese American writer and illustrator Adrian Tomine. (Drawn & Quarterly)

How art gave me solace 

"A lot of people hear the word 'solace,' and they think, 'Oh, that sounds so sad.' But solace is a good word. 

"Creating art was an escape for me. It was therapeutic. In The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, I make a lot of jokes about being single-minded about becoming a famous cartoonist. But more importantly, it was something that was useful to me, even if it was done in a vacuum, and it was just for me in that bedroom. It was still completely useful. 

"I have that same experience, even as an adult. You hear sometimes of artists talking about that experience of time slipping away — where you get lost in the work — and you look at your watch and can't believe that five hours have passed so quickly. 

Creating art was an escape for me. It was therapeutic.

"There's a very simple way of looking at it, especially with the kind of comics that I do, where I'm writing about my own experiences and observations about the real world. It's about tackling the unmanageable chaos of life, which is something that, especially for a kid who's living through a divorce and moving away, is how you view the world. 

"Comics are this very organized and tidy way of controlling that. You're putting things into little squares, and you're deciding how things should look and what people should say.

"That's comforting, I think, for people who sometimes feel that the real world is overwhelming."

My support system

"In my memory, my parents were nothing but encouraging and supportive.

"There was never an art supply that I had to do chores to earn, or anything like that. If I needed pencils, they would take me to the art store and get them. 

"Now that I am a father and I've got young kids, I wonder if I was seeing that through a very small pinhole — that they'd smile, hand me my art supplies, close the doors and go, 'Oh my God, what's going on with this kid?' 

In my memory, my parents were nothing but encouraging and supportive.

"It's complex, because they probably were aware that some of that was in response to situations that they had created. It wasn't like I developed that personality in a vacuum.

"I was fortunate to have the kinds of parents who valued art and thought of artists as heroes — and held that up as a noble endeavour. It didn't feel like I was doing something that was so outlandish to them. 

"At the same time, I have to imagine that it's a parental instinct for you to want your kid to go out and play with other kids and socialize."

An interior image from the graphic novel The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist by Japanese American writer and illustrator Adrian Tomine. (Drawn & Quarterly)

A New York(er) state of mind

"Drawing is a great way for me to learn about anything — about people, about a place, about myself. I had previously been to New York a number of times to visit and I'd spent time as a tourist and visiting friends. 

"But it took the experience of being here for an extended period of time in order to learn about the city through my drawings. I would carry around a sketchbook and do rough sketches, with a pencil or a ballpoint pen, when I was on the subway or walking around or waiting for my wife to get her haircut. 

"There's something about that act — it feels like a process. It sounds strange, but there's some intimacy that comes from drawing for me, whether it's the exterior of a building or an object. I've even found it with people, people that I don't even know. 

"There are times where I'll have an illustration assignment for The New Yorker and they'll have me do a drawing to accompany a movie review. I have to draw these celebrities and I'll spend days poring over photos of them — from different angles and different ages — and sketching them. 

Drawing is a great way for me to learn about anything — about people, about a place, about myself.

"This sounds totally insane, but I've had this experience where I start to think that it's someone that I know. The same experience happened with moving to New York.

"It was a big step in making me feel like this was my new home. It also opened my eyes to a lot of aspects of the city, in terms of people and architecture and detail, that I think the average person, or even an artist, would just gloss over unless they were taking the time to do a drawing of it."

Adrian Tomine's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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