Comic books are respectable enough now that it is no longer necessary to attempt to burnish their image by renaming them “graphic novels.” Neither is it necessary to remind readers that comics can be art and, as such, can be as rewarding (or dull) as paintings, novels and songs. We can move beyond such fretting to consider more interesting questions such as one that is sure to arise for those readers who purged illustrated books from their libraries at about the same time they boxed up their baseball cards and Barbie dolls.
The question that will nag at those who have spent the bulk of their lives deciphering unadorned text is: How does one read a comic book? Clearly, racing through the words does not do justice to the pictures, and just as clearly, focusing overmuch on the illustrations can hobble the narrative’s momentum. Adrian Tomine’s excellent “Shortcomings” gives us an opportunity to consider how text and visuals work together, and how we might best process the two components of this, and other, comics.
The story Tomine tells in “Shortcomings” is one that could be (and has been) told in other forms. A precis of the narrative — depressed and cynical sad sack loses his love interest and ends up with nothing — could, one is certain, fit any number of the short stories churned out by graduates of America’s better writing programs. For two reasons, however, Tomine’s tale does not read like a rehash of something we have paged through several times before.
The first is that, into the sexual politics at which his young Berkeley Bohemians play, Tomine injects the issue of race. The depressed and cynical protagonist is a Japanese-American, Ben Tanaka, with a Japanese-American girlfriend, Miko Hayashi. Their relationship is disintegrating, in part because of Ben’s relentless negativity, but also because of his attraction to white women and his ambivalence about being Asian.
As one enjoys Tomine’s unflinching examination of this disintegration one begins to see that it is not only the racial politics that makes his work new; it is the manner in which he illustrates — literally — his take on how those racial politics affect Asian-Americans. We read, for example, Tomine’s spot on rendering of the sort of argument lovers falling out of love are apt to have. Leaving a film festival that Miko has helped to organize, the “Asian-American Digi-Fest,” she and Ben move out of the dark theater and into the light of the lobby, light rendered as the white that comes to dominate the panels. Moving into the black of the night, they argue about the film that took first prize, and soon the quarrel turns personal.
“Why does everything have to be some ‘big statement’ about race? Don’t any of these people just want to make a movie that’s good?” Ben wonders. Miko responds: “God, you drive me crazy sometimes. It’s almost like you’re ashamed to be Asian.” “After a movie like that,” Ben answers, “I’m ashamed to be human!”
What we may not notice on our first pass through “Shortcomings,” but will certainly feel, is that the darkness — the percentage of each frame given over to black — increases with the bitterness of the words. Though the dialogue is well written, the content of the scene borders on the banal: who hasn’t read accounts of, or been involved in, similar spats? It is Tomine’s skill in combining the words with differing quantities of light and dark that revivifies what could, in less capable hands, be a tired situation.
Also impressive is the manner in which Tomine brings us to understand who his characters are entirely through their words, their actions, and the way in which they are drawn. In dispensing with explanatory panels hovering at the edges of his frames, Tomine makes his readers do some work, but those willing to fill in gaps for themselves will soon understand that Ben, though we may agree with him about the badness of a certain strain of overly earnest filmmaking, is, in his lack of self-awareness, a far from attractive figure. Though Miko may have her own problems, we don’t, in the end, blame her for leaving him.
That she does so for a white man is, of course, too much for Ben to take. “When you see a white guy with an Asian girl, it has certain . . . connotations,” he believes, and the connotations are not, for him, positive ones. We recall his lament early in the book about people turning everything into “some big statement about race,” and understand that he is as guilty of this as anyone, unable, as he is, to see people as individuals rather than representatives of their races. In his narrow-mindedness he brings to mind those benighted folks who won’t read comic books because doing so, they worry, might have . . . certain connotations.
David Cozy, a writer and critic, teaches at Showa Women’s University.