Adrian Tomine has been making art since he was a teenager in Sacramento, California. A New York resident since the mid-2000s, Adrian now lives with his wife and young daughter in Park Slope. We spoke to him via phone about his heartfelt and hilarious new book, Scenes from an Impending Marriage, fatherhood, what inspires him to write and illustrate, and the upcoming MoCCA festival (this weekend).
I found Scenes from an Impending Marriage to be very funny, which I’m sure doesn’t come as a surprise. Was your wedding planning process just as comical? How autobiographical was this book? It’s pretty autobiographical, I’d say. If it’s untrue in any way it’s only through omission—it’s heavily edited and a somewhat cleaned-up version of the real experience, which wasn’t always as lighthearted and goofy as I made it seem. All that stuff pretty much happened. It was originally something that we gave out to the guests at the wedding. Between that version and the one you’ve seen, I did do some editing. I didn’t want to hurt the businesses of any of the people who are in the book.
How do you determine what’s too revealing? This is the silliest and most inconsequential book I’ve ever done, but it’s actually the one I spent the most time fretting about, because it was presented as clearly autobiographical and set in the real world. The other books of mine that are presented as fiction, even if it’s very thinly veiled, that veil is enough for me to sort of cast off most inhibitions and not worry too much about revealing too much.
Was it cathartic for you to write this in the middle of planning your own wedding? It was made in the weeks leading up to the big day. I think, yeah, there was a part of me that was enjoying some sort of, uh—a lot of the [wedding planning] process you aren’t supposed to complain about or make fun of because it’s such a self-indulgent thing. Getting some of that out on the page was fun. At that time having sort of a fun project that was going to be pretty much not seen by anyone other than our guests was a real comfort for me. I ended up putting together the published version and adding pages, a lot of that was done in the next super stressful period of my life, which was right after my daughter was born. This book was actually a good little escape for me, and a good project, I could feel like I was being productive without being too fussy during a hectic time.
Many of your characters are misanthropic misfits figuring out how to communicate with and care for other people, but ultimately there is an optimism that comes through, especially in Scenes, because it is about a happy couple going on to happy things. Do you believe in peoples' ability to transcend their individual neuroses and connect? I think it’s too risky to make a broad statement in either direction. A lot of people have said this book caught them by surprise, that it’s coming from a completely different worldview than my other books. Both points of view have existed in my mind. I guess, in my life, I've just known people who— there’s no one path. I know a lot of people who have made amazing turnarounds and made a reversal of fortune and people who have stayed completely the same their entire lives. It’s unpredictable. I’m glad to be able to add this book to the pile of stuff I’ve put out into the world. It does represent a realistic facet of some people’s life, certainly of mine.
Do you have a particular audience in mind when you write? With the wedding book I did. It was just the specific people who were going to be attending our wedding, which is why there isn’t any swearing in it, why it tiptoes around certain things. I feel like there is always, I’m always tricking myself into being a little more free in the creative process all the time. Even in the case of that book, that imaginary audience was altered quite a bit when I published it to the whole world. When I’m working on my regular stories, I try to, as much as possible, shut out any kind of thought about who will be reading it, so I don’t feel inhibited or that I’m pandering to a certain kind of audience, or placating certain critics.
Do you see yourself making books for children, since you now have a child? I don’t know, but that’s come up! I'm still, as a reader, trying to get my head around children's books. I’ve got some friends who are artists or cartoonists and have an interest in children’s books and appreciate the art. I was just totally cut off from that between the time that I was a child and had a child. So now that I’m buying these books again, it’s kind of interesting and perplexing to figure out why some of these books have been in print for so long and have been popular and why some come and go. My daughter gravitates towards some and not towards others. I still feel like I’m under-prepared to create something like that myself.
What are some of your daughter’s favorites? She was immediately attracted to Dr. Seuss. Maybe it’s the sing-songy thing. A lot of it is just the physical construction of the book, because she’s so young. A board book is preferable than the thin paper pages, it’s something that she can carry herself without having someone to hold it for her. It’s partially guided by what I bring in the house. I try my best to steer her away from Elmo or something, but in the end it’s not really up to me. It’s tempting to be this evil puppet master who’s controlling this innocent brain. I’m always fighting against that impulse. Fortunately, sometimes your survival instinct kicks in and you say, Ok, if this makes you happy, read this stupid Elmo book.
How has becoming a father changed the way you approach working? It’s definitely made me realize how much time I’ve wasted in my life up to this point. Until you have that experience of having a kid, or anything that changes your notion of time, you sort of think, the way things are are the way things absolutely have to be. It takes me x number of hours to achieve this much work, and some of that is going to involve sitting around and staring out the window or listening to the music and waiting until the mood hits me. Now that’s really not an option. I have the feeling of being a sprinter at the starting line as soon as my daughter goes to sleep. Time to turn on the talent! Which is not always as easy as I’d like. Like I said, it just makes me look back and think of all the years that I’ve been working as being much more leisurely and wishing that I had more of this fire lit under me back then.
Do you listen to music in your studio now? It depends on what part of the process I’m in. I’ve gotten to the point where if it’s at all possible, I do the writing in silence without any kind of distraction but that’s a rare commodity these days. But when I’m drawing, especially when it’s the more mindless aspects of drawing, then it’s useful to have some music playing. I feel like such a different person from when I started my career because I used to be so involved with up-to-the-minute music, rock n’ roll and pop, and going to the record store was a weekly ritual and [I was] spending thousand of dollars on CDs and records. I had an expensive turntable and listened to vinyl, and since moving to New York and having the kid, I’ve really kind of turned into this...my former self would be appalled to see that I have an iPod and a laptop plugged into speakers and listening to classical music. I guess it’s sort of like when, your day-to-day actual life is really noisy and chaotic and jarring, the appeal of going into your studio and blasting punk music is pretty diminished.
Are you in the middle of a project? At the moment I’m finishing up some details about a fundraiser I’m doing with Drawn & Quarterly, to send some money over to Japan in response to the earthquake and tsunami. We’re selling prints of my artwork, and we’re getting those up on their website pretty soon.I’m also working on my next book, I guess my next comic book, as a series, and then we’ll later put it out as a collection, as a hardcover book. I was actually working on it before I put that wedding book together. So yeah, that’s the main thing.
What’s the difference between working on a book and illustrating for magazines? In my case it’s the difference between complete freedom and independence versus a collaborative situation. My publisher acts as that—as a publisher and not as an editor. For as long as I’ve been working with Drawn & Quarterly, the system is, I go off into my studio and do my work and send it off to them and they get it out there. A lot of times, my publisher says he doesn’t even get a chance to read it until the printed copies come back into the office. Working with magazines, it’s more of a collaboration between me and the art director and maybe an editor. Once I accepted that and understood that that was the situation, it made the whole thing run a lot smoother and probably made me a more attractive freelancer to work with. I enjoy both and am grateful that I can bounce back and forth between the two modes of working. You can get stuck if you’re in one method of working for too long.
Where do you go and what do you do when you're able to get out of your studio? That’s changed a lot, too. Like a lot of people in New York, I used to justify the exorbitant rents by saying that you have access to the theater and museums and events. Now that I don’t really get out as much as I used to, it’s sort of mutated to, I’m paying that kind of rent so that in theory I could go out and attend all these things, and there’s a comfort in knowing it’s out there if I wanted to make the effort. At this point, my wife is a full-time student and she’s out of the house a lot, so pretty much, most of our time getting out of the house involves something with the kid, getting her to the park or taking her on errands or going to have a meal.
Your aesthetic is very clean in a way that makes me think of West Coast culture, even the street art in San Francisco and Berkeley and Portland. Do you think your aesthetic reflects where you started making art? A lot of the specifics of it, people from the West Coast pick up on the details of the street scenes or backgrounds of clothing—a lot of that was done, not out of laziness, but out of me sitting there and thinking, I don’t know how to draw a streetlight, and looking out my window and just drawing what I saw out there, without any real design on capturing the place where I was. When I first started drawing comics, I had the opposite interest—I wanted to get away from where I was living, in Sacramento, being a pathetic high school loner. It wasn’t until much later that I was explicitly setting the story in Berkeley or Oakland. A lot of people who I’ve met who really aren’t interested in illustrations and only know my New Yorker work say, You must be a born and bred New Yorker!
How does living in New York, or Brooklyn specifically, impact your art? It’s hard to separate the influences. The book I’m working on now and even the wedding book are pretty different from the things I’ve done previously. Maybe that’s the result of living in a new setting, but it also coincides with making comics for a long time and feeling the necessity of doing something a little different, shaking up my approach. I know a lot of artists talk about how New York—there’s an energy that feeds their creativity, I don't know. I guess it’s not the same as if I were a graffiti artist on the streets interacting with people all the time. If anything, it’s, I guess I’m just thinking about this book that I’m working on now, which seems to, not intentionally, but seems to be taking place entirely on the West Coast. To some degree, instead of New York totally pervading my work, it’s sort of making me reflect back on the place that I’m not. A lot of the assignments I get for The New Yorker really involves me engaging with the city in a way—sitting on the subway for an afternoon and sketching out and figuring out how the minutiae of the shapes on the orange seat are laid out.
Do you spend time with other graphic novelists? Most of my oldest friends are scattered all around the continent, we don’t live in the same towns for the most part. I do feel some sort of strange affinity with a very specific kind of cartoonist, I wouldn’t say all cartoonists. The times that I have hung out with people who do newspaper strips or superhero comics, I feel like you might as well be complete strangers working in different professions. There is a certain type of cartoonist I get along with well, and that I’m on the same wavelength with. When I lived in Berkeley, I had two really good friends and we all lived on the same street within a three block radius. We became really good friends and had a couple, at least a weekly standing date, to get together for lunch and go to the comic store and sit around and have coffee. That was really influential to me because I grew up enjoying and creating comics completely in a vacuum, without anyone to share that with, and even trying to keep it hidden form my peers. To suddenly have these friends who had read all the same stuff that I’d read, and had the same points of reference and concerns as professionals—it was really excited. I have attended any of these cartooning schools or classes, but my feeling is that it’s pretty hard to beat the education of spending time with professionals that you respect.
One of the reasons that I like MoCCA is that it narrows the focus a bit upon that segment of cartooning that does appeal to me. At this point, the idea of comics or graphic novelists, especially in North America, is so broad. If you go to the Comic-Con in San Diego, it’s a real reminder of the how much of the industry is really off-putting and unappealing. With something like MoCCA or APE in San Francisco, or the Brooklyn Comic Arts Festival, these are the ones that appeal to me in particular because it’s more focused on the art and subject matter. It’s great, especially if you’re holed up in your studio.
You mentioned earlier that your creative process at one point involved waiting around to feel that spark of inspiration. In your current life, while you're going about doing the necessary and mundane, what tend to be the things that continue to inspire you? The thing that I’ve been noticing is that, in a way, my life has become a little more prescribed or limited, at least in a physical sense because I have to be home so much and I have a lot of responsibilities around the house. The reason for that is, it sort of...changes your perception of even the most mundane aspects of life. I think when you’re a freewheeling bachelor artist guy, there’s a lot of things that you wouldn’t notice, that would pass by you without a thought. And I guess, being at the age where I have a child, and all our parents are getting older, things like that—I think the extremes of the life experience are more on my mind on a regular basis. The positive things about the beginning of a person’s life, and at the same time, the more dreary aspects of getting older. Both those extremes, I think, are very far from the average twenty-year-old’s mind. Fortunately, for me, those areas of life are, for the most part, the stuff of more significant art.