I’ve never been a comic book guy. Perhaps I was brainwashed by trappings of “high culture,” the elite traditions of an English major, or perhaps I just never trusted anything that wasn’t so dense with words that it had to provide deeper meaning.
When I was waiting tables way back in the early ’90s, a scrubby cook who looked as if he’d walked straight out of a comic book—bushy red hair, skin and bones, a hopeless music nerd—gave me a wadded-up copy of some stuff by Adrian Tomine (jeepers, he must have been 18 or 19 then). I read it and thought it was great, unlike any other cartoonist I’d read, a poet of small, lonely moments, a minimalist who could fill the mundane with meaning.
I Xeroxed that wadded-up cartoon and never forgot Tomine’s name, so I’ve taken pleasure in watching his rise in stature.
I recently read Shortcomings and thought, in short, that it packed as much punch as any novel I’ve read. Although graphic novels might not be able to offer the depth and texture of a classic like Anna Karenina, they certainly match a short story or a film’s ability to excavate and reveal meaning in the tiny moments of life.
In fact, the graphic novel probably suffers from its comparisons to a novel. It’s more like a film—I read Shortcomings in about an hour and a half and felt like I’d seen a film when I put the book down. His panels combe the precision of line drawings with the gentle pacing of art-house film. The facial expressions and gestures are subtle, and his dialogue is sharp and true whether he’s portraying a squabble in a dive bar or the negotiations that precede a kiss.
The main character, Ben Tanaka, is struggling with love and self—as an Asian-American, but primarily as a human being. Tanaka, a 30-year-old movie theater manager in Berkeley, treats his girlfriend Miko poorly, alternating between bitter criticism and sullen withdrawal. She’s a beauty, but he doesn’t seem to realize this, and takes her for granted—like many men, unable to figure out that his sour, caustic comments aren’t appealing.
After tolerating his increasingly churlish behavior for too long, and then discovering his all-white porn stash, Miko suggests they “take some time off” and moves to New York City.
Ben is crushed but in time he begins to pursue a series of blondes. Following a failed attempt to kiss the artsy punk girl who takes tickets at his movie theater, he has a brief affair with a bisexual graduate student who soon dumps him with the sendoff, “I could be totally brutally honest about why I’m doing this, but I’m going to restrain myself because I’m not sure you’d ever recover.”
Shaken, Ben flies to New York City, where, spying on his own girlfriend, he discovers that she has been sleeping with a white man.
Yes, it’s time for Ben to grow up, to view himself through a different lens, to think about being less negative and more appealing—but we know he’s not going to do this for a good, long while. Ben has too many “shortcomings.”
Beyond his”weird self-hatred issues” and “relentless negativity” that Miko points out to him, he has a pathological fear of change. Tomine depicts these flaws almost too faithfully in Ben’s consistently sullen expression, which stands out all the more among the other characters’ precisely inflected faces.
Ben does have a half-redeeming friendship with Alice, a serial-dating Korean dyke who is something of a narcissist and a hypocrite herself. And he has his tender moments. But he seems consistently clueless about his many flaws.
You might say that Ben is the perfect character for a an adolescent reader, if only because he’s trapped in the shortcomings of his own adolescence.
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