Author: Edward Haynes (@teddyhaynes)
The Loneliness of Killing & Dying
Adrian Tomine’s comics are direct and affecting tales of minute moments in people’s lives, including his own life. In his latest memoir, The Loneliness of The Long-Distant Cartoonist he finds awkward, cringe-worthy humor and sentimentality in his long career and family life. The title story of his collection Killing And Dying shows a teen girl attempting to find comedy in a dire situation as her mother dies of cancer. Humor has a deep connection to emotion in Tomine’s work, utilising awkwardness to bring a natural levity to more serious, pressing situations, while still maintaining the weight of the circumstances.
Both these stories keep consistent panel layouts throughout. Loneliness’s six panel grid gives it a classically American feel, while Killing and Dying has this airlessly tight twenty panel grid. In the memoir, the bigger panels isolate Adrian, a small figure in a big empty space. The book focuses in on his thoughts and anxieties, giving these in explicit text through thought bubbles, which again harkens back to a classic style. In an early part, we see him as a child being so excited about and absorbed by 80’s Marvel comics that he alienates himself from his schoolmates -- the start of his desire to be a cartoonist and the start of his social isolation. By the end, he’s found healthy relationships, has learnt to care for things beyond comics, a health scare drives him to realise that the most important thing in his life isn’t comics, but his children.
Loneliness largely skips over the establishing of these relationships, his daughters just appear as the book progresses. The preoccupation of Adrian, as a protagonist, is on the anxieties of being a cartoonist, flipping between scene after scene of slight humiliation and awkwardness around his peers and the press as his profile and career grew over three decades. Where the change occurs is in the long sequence that ends the book, where he has to run to the hospital, alone at night, and his predilection for catastrophizing, established by the lighter early parts of the book, takes over and his fears for his death. While his health problems are minor, it gives him a chance to reflect on his priorities. He decides he doesn’t need comics, they’ve mostly caused him anxiety.
But then he goes on to make this comic. The comics grid is the driving force of any graphic novel, and of Adrian’s life. The real Tomine can’t escape comics, nor can he let the constructed version of himself in the book. He can define the important things in his life without comics, but they’re still where his momentum has always come from.
The grid in Killing and Dying has a more sinister dimension, pressing forward towards, and past, doom. The small panels crush the characters into their situation, inescapable no matter what they try. The story follows a teen girl, Jesse, who takes a stand-up comedy class, her father who wants to save her the embarrassment, and her sick mother who encourages her. Like in Loneliness, Tomine leaves out a lot of the “big” events, instead focusing on the minutiae of their lives, the tired, quiet moments in between the big.
It’s an extrapolation of how comics always work, information is conveyed through the gaps between the panels, Tomine leaves the mother’s deterioration and death in the gutters. Jesse doesn’t want to think about her mother’s illness, she wants to dive into a fun, expressive pursuit, where she can be in control. The sickness is too big to talk about directly. Distract yourself so you don’t have to deal with the hardness.
I remember the first time I read this story, sat on the toilet in my university halls, I broke down in tears. When I was a teenager my Mum had cancer, and my reaction was similarly avoidant. As a sixteen year old, I lacked the emotional maturity to know how to respond to a sick parent. I never really confronted the emotional impact it had on me, just kept acting normal, got on with schoolwork, built things in Minecraft, watched Buffy. It took until years after she got the all clear that I was willing to let my guard down to myself and admit the effect that it had on me. When I read Killing and Dying, it pushed me into being able to feel what I had been scared to feel.
And it did this indirectly, by being quiet and avoidant, not saying the big thing. Because the big thing’s too hard to say. That doesn’t mean it’s not there, you can feel its presence in the gaps, in Killing and Dying, it lingers unsaid, sucking the air out of the panels. This is the key difference between this and Tomine’s new work -- in Loneliness, it’s all said. The thoughts are laid bare, often as anxiety-driven bubbles coming directly from Adrian’s head. When he is waiting in the hospital, worrying that he is dying, a whole page is taken up with a note to his daughters expressing his love and gratitude for them.
It’s a shift in approach that lays bare the arc that Adrian undergoes in Loneliness, he becomes more comfortable in being explicit about his own feelings, it’s why it’s time for him to write a memoir. Reading Killing and Dying helped me to confront feelings that I had avoided for years, and was a key part in my learning to be more open with myself about my emotions. The writing I’m doing here is part of a similar exercise in openness as Tomine’s Loneliness, it’s filtering an expression of the personal through the forms that we create in (comics and criticism, respectively). When you grow up bottling things up, leaving your feelings in the gutter, it’s hard to start showing them, having an outlet to mediate that through gives you a route to that vital, personal expression.
Edward Haynes is a writer, critic, and editor living in Liverpool. As well as editing this site, they edited fiction at Across & Through, and their writing has been featured in Multiversity, Bido Lito!, PanelxPanel & more. They created the comic Drift with Martyn Lorbiecki. They tweet a load of nonsense @teddyhaynes