Kiling and Dying
Drawn & Quarterly
Graphic artist and author Adrian Tomine’s long running zine Optic Nerve is in its twentieth year. In the 1990s, it was a remarkable little publication, one that blended and blurred the line between traditional comics and the independent zine world, not fitting into either niche and being all the better for it. Comparisons then were made to the work of Daniel Clowes and to Gilberto and Jaime Hernandez’s own long-running work, Love & Rockets. Tomine quickly formed his own identity with compelling, emotional stories that blended sophisticated poignancy with a sharp, vivid illustration style that brings to life the already compelling storylines.
Killing and Dying compiles the stories from Optic Nerve’s most recent issues, and though that might be repetitive for the long-time fan, it really isn’t that repetitive. If anything, these six stories have a unifying theme: identity. To narrow it down further, three of these six stories directly deal with identity and the artist, and the use of varying illustrative layouts keeps Killing and Dying lively and engaging. The larger, page-size panels of “Amber Sweet” and “Translated, From The Japanese” allow Tomine the ability to highlight his eye for fine detail—the image on page 96 of a passenger jet airline in a sea of blue sky is easily one of Tomine’s most graphically striking images. The rigid, uniform paneling of the title story give it a relentless drive that propels the plot, while “Intruders” strict use of sepia tones evoke the concept of memory by being stark and monotone. Best of all is “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as Hortisculpture,” which tells the tale of a hapless visionary by applying the daily cartoon strip—six four-panel black and white strips, followed by a long, full-page color offering every seventh strip. “Go Owls” is the most ‘traditional’ of the stories in terms of its graphic retelling of a painful relationship and desperate situation—one that shows that the comparisons to Love & Rockets was never that lazy of a description.
Then there are the plots. One can’t help but take a liking to the lead in “Hortisculpture,” a well-meaning but naive groundskeeper who envisions himself an artist, even when the art he produces is seen as having no value to anyone but him. It’s hard not to tear up at the protagonist’s predicament of abusive relationship with a middle-aged petty criminal in “Go Owls,” even though the tragic outcome is, in fact, perhaps the best thing that could have happened to her. “Amber Sweet” offers up a storyline that provides a scathing commentary about the Internet, yet one leaves the reading wondering why they didn’t think of it first. It’s the lead story, though, that really compels; it’s the tale of a teenager trying to develop her artistic skills with a supportive mother—who is probably only supportive because of a situation that is going on in the background but is never directly mentioned—and a father who is pragmatic to the point of discouragement. His rage and anger are palpable and very real, and Tomine has a way of making you feel his pain without making you realize you are feeling his pain.
Optic Nerve has been the home of unsung, low-key masterpieces for two decades now, and for good reason: Adrian Tomine is a master of his art form, a brilliant combination of storytelling and sharp, beautiful illustrative style. Killing and Dying shows that even after twenty years, Tomine is an artist for whom every recent artistic statement is his best to date.