Drawn & Quarterly ($22.95)
by Steve Matuszak
Killing and Dying could almost be the title of a long-lost noir featuring Richard Widmark as a streetwise tough struggling to survive in a chiaroscuro urban landscape of moral ambiguity, all while torn between his love for a woman and his .45. With his penetrating new collection of short stories, though, cartoonist Adrian Tomine has in mind something more ordinary, albeit no less agitated by conflict. Taking his title from words used to denote those extremes of stand-up comedy—roaring success and abject failure—Tomine signals his interest in exploring the ebb and flow that makes up the daily surge of human endeavor, in turn creating a book brimming with well-observed detail and aching humor.
The first story of Killing and Dying, “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture,’” focuses on Harold, a horticulturist who decides to become a “hortisculpturist.” Typical of the protagonists in the six stories that are collected in the book, Harold is unhappy with his life and, gripped with restlessness, strives to make it more fulfilling. Relaxing in a bath after a hard day that included being condescended to by a woman for whom he works, Harold is inspired by designer and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi to dedicate his life to the development of a new art form, a combination of horticulture and sculpture that involves plants growing out of a clay sculptural base. Harold’s heated description of hortisculpture at a party provokes the acquaintance with whom he’s speaking to equate it, rudely though perhaps aptly, with a chia pet.
The retort is the first sign of the resistance to hortisculpture, which will include openly hostile criticism, that Harold will face over the years. His defensive response—“Well, I suppose that’s how one might describe it . . . if they were talking to a child,” a slur that quickly devolves into Harold offhandedly referring to the man as “someone who is essentially a glorified bank teller”—signals Harold’s future struggles, as over-confidence comes up hard against self-doubt, fueling the anger with which he lashes out at the world, including his family. The results are pretty funny.
The ache of the heart that produces the kind of dissatisfaction experienced by Harold—driving one to do something, anything, to quell it, but missing the mark as often as hitting it—lies at the heart of most of these stories. In the title story, for example, fourteen-year-old Jesse sets in motion a bruising family drama when she tentatively suggests to her parents that she might be interested in pursuing stand-up comedy. While her mother fervidly encourages Jesse, registering her for a class in stand-up with the unpromising name “Junior Yuks,” her father is much warier, seeing indecision in Jesse’s decision, telling his wife, “I just think we could be a little more selective about which of her . . . whims we choose to encourage. I mean, whatever happened to that two hundred dollar ukulele? Or those trapeze lessons? That really paid off!” And in the story “Go Owls,” one of the best in the collection, that unease leads to the pell-mell establishment of an unstable, quickly abusive romantic relationship.
The impressive variety of stories in Killing and Dying signals Tomine’s further growth as a storyteller. In the early 1990s, when he was just sixteen years old, Tomine revealed himself in the handful of mini-comics he self-published to be a comics prodigy with an eye for telling detail and an adventurous willingness to experiment. By the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, with the publications of Summer Blonde, an engaging collection of stories about romantically challenged twenty-somethings in California, and Shortcomings, Tomine’s abrasively funny novella about race, romance, and rants, his talent had matured; the books’ themes of loneliness, alienation, and the desire to connect were told with admirable restraint and humor. Still, Tomine’s imagination, rich as it could be, was limited to protagonists who were roughly his same age and social class. The stories weren’t autobiographical—he had, as he claims in the introduction of his collected mini-comics, “learned the useful trick of taking a personal experience and veiling it with a sex change or two”—but one was left with the nagging suspicion that they were only one step away.
However, with the stories in Killing and Dying, Tomine shows a greater ability to “veil” his experience, allowing him more leeway to explore his characters and their actions with openness and honesty. The stories feature a range of characters and situations: a middle-aged small-time drug dealer with more secrets than he cares to share with his new girlfriend; a Japanese mother returning to America to salvage her marriage; a lonely veteran haunting an apartment where he used to live; and a young woman trying to escape her life after she is continually mistaken for an internet porn star.
Tomine’s reach is also reflected in his art, which is as varied as the stories. “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture,’” for example, is drawn in a cartoony, “big foot” style common to daily newspaper strips, an association emphasized by the story’s structure, comprising recurring sections of six black and white, four-panel sequences—which almost always end in a gag—followed by a full page strip in color. It’s a formula familiar to anyone who reads the classic daily comic strip reprints that have proliferated in the past decade. Telling his story like a comic strip renders Harold’s pain comic—making it easier to bear—and familiar, something common that comes into and leaves our lives every day.
In “Intruders,” on the other hand, the book’s final story, Tomine employs a thick line, images menaced with shadow, appropriate for a story in which a soldier, “between [his] second and third tours,” runs away from his unwelcoming family to spend his nights in a motel and his days sneaking into an old apartment, daydreaming there, even eating lunches he had packed and brought along, until a surprise encounter leads him to reconsider his secret visits. “I walked up the block, into the stream of oblivious, happy people with their families, their shopping, their chatter,” he tells us in the final panels of the book, “And starting right there, I tried my best to become one of them.” And we believe him, the ending almost optimistic. But it is undercut by our knowledge that he doesn’t succeed. We know he goes back to the war, to his third tour, borne by the ebb and flow of life back to that place of killing and dying.