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July 26, 2002

Tomine's Summer Blonde no romp on the beach

Upon acquisition of Adrian Tomine's most recent collection of Optic Nerve Comics, Summer Blonde, I was fairly peeing in my pants with excitement. Those who are familiar with Tomine's work will probably tell you that Optic Nerve does not necessarily warrant spontaneous urination—the slow, quiet movement of each story would more likely induce a deep, full sigh from your average fan—but there I was, crossing my legs.

Tomine has been publishing his comic since the age of sixteen, when it was just a lowly, xeroxed zine. Now he is 27, and Optic Nerve has long been part of the Drawn and Quarterly (a respectable Canadian independent publisher) catalogue. Sleepwalk, released in 1999, collected the first four issues of Optic Nerve with D&Q. Now issues #5 through #8 of the austere comic find themselves in a classy cloth bound book which takes its title from issue #7, Summer Blonde.

And so we arrive at my encounter with the book (or "graphic novel" as I probably should call it). A recent trip to Quimby's had me shakin' in my skivvies at the sight of it. I think the packaging bears much of the responsibility—a tasteful sleeve of solid sea green is interrupted by a porthole through which an attractive blonde peers over her shoulder. Underneath, the words "Summer Blonde" are scrawled in a chalk-like font below which, in lower case, is written (between oh-so-necessary parenthesis) "stories". The author's name, also in lower case, appears in a white circle in the upper left-hand corner. The cover is aesthetically unassuming and ever-so-painfully hip. And it's a HARDBACK. Are you beginning to understand?

But the old judging books and covers proverb snapped its jaws at me as soon as I began to read the first story. I didn't dislike it, not in the least, but I started to feel slight trickles of disappointment seep into my brain as I turned the pages. Readers of Optic Nerve will be familiar with my conundrum. Tomine writes some damn good stories, but it's as though he has his formula down to a science. There's nothing fresh or unexpected between the pages of Summer Blonde—it's filled with what has come to be normal Optic Nerve fare. Jaded hipsters walk the streets of San Francisco and Berkley, mooning over failed relationships and residual trauma from high school. Everyone is mildly "fucked up" and thus melancholy. After getting halfway through the book, I couldn't help but feel that Adrian and I were both being somewhat self-indulgent. Because let's face it: everyone who's "hip" in their twenties was a pizza-faced loser nerd in adolescence, and underneath the thrift store clothing and black-framed glasses, everyone's still a trembling bowl of Jell-O. Optic Nerve is group therapy for the cool and pseudo-cool.

Yet, the timbre of Summer Blonde is slightly different from Sleepwalk. The stories are longer and more involved—Sleepwalk includes sixteen stories, some of which are only two pages long, whereas each one of the four stories in Summer Blonde were the length of an entire issue of Optic Nerve. They're also a bit "darker" and slightly unsettling. Though Tomine has never been one for a happy ending, the characters in these four stories definitely leave a sour taste in the proverbial mouth. The first story, "Alter Ego," follows the continuing obsession a dorky twenty-something writer harbors for his high school crush, leading eventually to the destruction of his fragile happiness. The titular tale, "Summer Blonde," unfolds as an accidental stalker unwittingly instigates jealous violence between a dude, a dudette, and a schmo. "Hawaiian Getaway," (as I opine, the best in the book) tracks the many disappointments a freshly-unemployed Asian girl suffers during the course of a few weeks. And "Bomb Scare," the last story, is the first early-nineties period piece I've ever heard of—it's the story of an outcast boy and a newly dethroned popular girl feeling tension during a group project while Desert Storm newscasts blare in the background.

Tomine's art is even more precise than before; each line is drawn carefully and deliberately. He is said to take up to a week finishing one page for his comics. Each panel is reminiscent of Hopperesque realism, austere and quiet. Many of his panels do not even contain speech bubbles; his skill allows his pictures to convey emotion and depth without aid. The progression from panel to panel is quite cinematic—the reader's view is constantly shifting angles, panning out, zooming in, and cutting from scene to scene. Tomine's art style perfectly complements the bleakness of his stories.

Each story stands well on its own, nuanced and poignant, deftly exploring the minor tragedies of every-day life. It is impossible not to relate in some way or other to Tomine's characters; he writes in such a way that you feel part of the "us" that forever posits itself against the specter of "them," the mainstream, the golf-shirt sporting everymen. Even if in real life you don't feel an inkling of this sentiment, reading Summer Blonde, you will feel every inch the indie kid, the one who used to wear fluorescent jammers in middle school and now has twenty pairs of colored tights. The stupidity of the general populace will begin to anger and then depress you. And that's precisely the problem. Though Adrian Tomine's content is pertinent and effective, it has undeniably become a formula. He never strays from his age group, and not usually from his social scene ("Summer Blonde" is a rare exception). Even "Bomb Scare," which takes place in early high school, can easily be interpreted as a story about future disgruntled hipsters. There is none of the youthful experimentation from Sleepwalk in Summer Blonde; no short, potent stories such as "Lunch Break." Though his stories are good, he borders on tediousness. And it's a sad day when your reaction to a bastion of counter-culture can only be, "Same old, same old."