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Optic Nerve #9
By Adrian Tomine
Published by Drawn and Quarterly

An ambitious three-issue story arc begins here, as Tomine embarks on his longest single story yet -- a graphic novel about race and relationships that the text piece tells us will likely be called "White on Rice" when it's collected.

The story is an examination of the life and obsessions of Ben Tanaka, a 20-something Japanese-American who works in a movie theater ("I'm in the industry..."), has a beautiful Asian girlfriend who he takes for granted ("Maybe I'll come to bed in a little bit," he says, ignoring her obvious sexual entreaties in favour of watching DVDs by himself), and has a growing obsession with white American girls. "We can both make an effort not to let these things get out of control," he says, and we recognize that, of course, they won't.

Tomine's cartooning is as elegant and controlled as ever. He obviously spends a lot of time thinking about the design of his books and the elements of his pages and panels, and his gift for convincing detail allows me as a reader to fully immerse myself in the details of his stories and the complexities of his characters. Tomine has a gift for sketching convincing portraits of his characters with just a few key words and images, and with the narrative opened up to three issues, he has room to use this to great advantage. When we see Ben's girlfriend hopefully offering herself to an indifferent Ben, we know this isn't the first time this has happened. A relationship disintegrating from repeated slights and hurt feelings is revealed, but Tomine skillfully manages to still make Ben human, and even likable. How could you not like a guy who pretends to be his lesbian best pal's boyfriend for the sake of her convincing her parents she's straight?

I don't know how strictly autobiographical "White on Rice" is, but Tomine's setting of the story within the Asian-American community brings a welcome verisimilitude, as when he mistakenly believes his friend's parents, who are Korean-American, could be deceived into thinking he is as well ("My family would spot your Japanese ass a mile away"). Tomine and his lead character clearly share some character traits, and I find myself not really caring if the story is actually based on events from his life -- like Raymond Carver, Tomine uses moments that feel real to evoke real feelings in his readers. Like Carver, Tomine's narrative successes provoke resonance and delight.

Tomine's characters here are in their 20s and not entirely certain what they want out of life -- Tomine himself is also in his 20s, and so it's not entirely surprising that he might choose to create a story about such characters. Where he impresses me is in how masterfully he depicts the characters and their conflicts. Scenes such as the confrontation between Ben and his girlfriend over his preference for porn featuring white American chicks rings painfully true, a young man who doesn't realize how obvious his desires are, and how much they hurt those who don't live up to his apparent standards.

Ben is finding his way and exploring his options in the way that young men in their 20s often do, and as it often does, disaster seems possible but not necessarily imminent. "White on Rice" begins as a compelling character portrait backed up with interesting and unique supporting characters, and some of the strongest and most confident cartooning Tomine has yet delivered. We've waited two years for this issue of Optic Nerve, and it's been worth the wait -- Optic Nerve should be on every reader's shelf, and Tomine's confident writing and clean, compelling cartooning demand attention. This issue is highly recommended and I'm anxious to see the next chapter of Tomine's first longform story. Grade: 5/5

-- Alan David Doane



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