.Geek Chic

Comic artist Adrian Tomine made himself a winner by appealing to the loser in all of us.

In the last week I discovered, bought, and read all seven Optic Nerves. Everything was going fine until I realized that #7 came out relatively recently, and that you’re actually still in the area … With every issue I read, it feels like my boring, lonely life is being exposed more and more. Please stay the fuck away!
— Anonymous, Berkeley, California

Optic Nerve, No. 8

On a tepid Friday morning a little before noon, Adrian Tomine begins his biweekly trek to the post office from a Berkeley apartment that he seldom leaves. He moves past the shops of his neighborhood with a slightly mechanical gait and hunched posture — the result, perhaps, of sitting at a drawing board all day and often late into the night.

Tomine is the creator of Optic Nerve, an alternative comic book filled with tales of alienation, lost opportunities, and longing in the lives of ordinary people who appear well-adjusted but who, beneath the surface, are lonely and desperate to connect with others. Illustrated in a stark, realistic style, his stories are built on elements opposite to those of action films. There is little plot, no glamour, and drama only of the highly emotional kind.

But while it might not go over in Tinseltown, Optic Nerve is among the best-selling titles in the insular world of alternative comics. Tomine (pronounced Toe-mee-neh) has drawn Optic Nerve for more than a decade, amassing a panoply of characters crippled by isolation: the outsiders, the loners, the heartbroken.

Reviewers of his work, including a who’s who of major publications, have hailed the 28-year-old artist as the voice of his generation, the aging Gen. X set. Tomine doesn’t find this title particularly flattering. “I feel weird about that, because I have very few friends my age,” he says. “My best friends are often older than me, and more often than not I feel at odds if I have to go see a band where I’m with people my same age. I’m alienated by the whole thing.”

His alienation is evident in his demeanor. As Tomine lopes down the street, he speaks without looking directly at his company. He wears large, black, plastic-frame glasses — the sort favored by Buddy Holly — which give him the appearance of a wise owl. His black hair is neatly styled, and he’s meticulously clad in his personal uniform: button-down shirt, khakis secured with a black belt, and Camper shoes. The young man is particular about most things and careless about nothing. He keeps his home clean and uncluttered, his books and CDs alphabetized.

Arriving at the post office, he finds the latest issue of Pulse! in his PO box. The glossy provided him with his first paying gig, he explains, discarding it without so much as a glance. There’s also an envelope containing a comic book, but no letter. “How can people expect a response if they can’t be bothered to write a note?” he says a minute later as he waits in line to mail a small package. He greets the clerk by name before heading out the door.

Sad stories about ordinary people wouldn’t seem likely to inspire much mail, but Tomine gets it from all over the spectrum, which makes for a lively letters page in each edition of his comic book. The artist receives strange offerings (a plastic slice of bread; a photo scrapbook from a stalker-fan containing pictures of all the places around town where she has spotted him), genuine praise, and missives from the crush-struck (“This is a picture of me with bangs. Do you think I’m pretty?” wrote one Chicago fan). He also gets hate mail — letters chastising him for abrupt endings that border on the clichéd, or insulting his drawing style, or assailing him for focusing on shallow, Gap-clad hipsters. “I’m embarrassed to admit this myself, but I, like everyone else, have unfortunately bought nothing more than Dawson’s Creek and Ally McBeal on paper,” wrote one reader from Birmingham, England, in a letter Tomine published in Optic Nerve #7. “There is such a thing as progression in art and comics, but you bang out strained messages and ideas continuously, and that’s a shame.”

The cartoonist shrugs. Better to receive mean mail than no mail. Perhaps he suffered from too much hype too early when he didn’t deserve it, Tomine offers: “You know how a great band like Beat Happening has a buzz? People might hear it and say, ‘Oh, this is horrible. … They have no talent.’ And it makes people dislike it or get angry.”

That people write him in the first place is what baffles Tomine. He has no love for Britney Spears, he points out, but he doesn’t go out and buy her albums and then send her disparaging notes. Yet he claims the barb-laden diatribes don’t bother him: “I’ve never gotten a letter that hurt my feelings. There’s part of me that enjoys it, that somehow I got someone mad enough to write.”

But after reading his work in its entirety, it is hard to believe that Tomine never flinches, not even for a second, when people harshly criticize his characters. Most, after all, are modeled on some aspect of the artist himself. When Tomine first started drawing Optic Nerve as a shy, awkward high-school student, he placed himself at the center of his tales of misadventure — a skinny guy in striped shirts and giant glasses with no eyes behind them. And though he has evolved from straight autobiography to more fictionalized versions of people and events, he doesn’t pretend to draw for anyone but himself.

How is it that a self-proclaimed geek, a nerdy recluse who interacts minimally with others and essentially writes about himself, has prevailed as an astute observer of human interaction and has managed to make himself intriguing to legions of fans? His success may be as deceptively simple as this: The high-school loser has transformed himself into a winner by appealing to the loser in all of us.

When the ex-losers become successful, at least in the movies, they always show up at their high-school reunions. That is precisely what Adrian Tomine did last month. He actually hadn’t planned on going, but a friend prodded him into it. You’ve got to come, she said. You’re so hung up on high school. Cartoonists in general — the guys anyway — fixate on adolescence, those years of quietly drawing in their notebooks during class, indulging in revenge fantasies and hoping to somehow amaze the girls with their astounding, but unrecognized, genius. (As with many cartoonists, tension with women and sex figures prominently in Tomine’s work.)

The latest issue of Optic Nerve in fact takes place in a high school that looks exactly like Rio Americano in Sacramento, where Tomine suffered through his teenage years. Entitled “Bomb Scare,” the issue was recently included by author and McSweeney’s editor Dave Eggers in the new anthology The Best American Nonrequired Reading. It explores the intersection between the lives of Scotty, a quiet sixteen-year-old who favors the uncomplicated existence he had before high school, and Cammie, whose alcohol-fueled sexual encounters earn her a precarious spot in the popular crowd. Though these characters represent different notches in the school hierarchy, they work at the same diner in the evenings.

“A lot of the scenes were based on real events,” Tomine admits over a five-dollar lunch at an Elmwood Chinese restaurant. “Part of me was agonizing that everyone had read it and people would have a bone to pick with me.”

His reunion anxieties were unfounded. Not only had no one heard of his comic, but when he told people what he did for a living, he found they couldn’t care less. Tomine was again reminded of the great gap between himself and his classmates. “I have a friend, a cartoonist, who says even if I went up to the person who had inspired the character and showed it to them, ‘Here, this embarrassing incident is based on you,’ they would go, ‘But I have brown hair,'” he says. “There’s the kind of person who reads literature and sees connections to reality, and the kind of person who watches TV.”

Tomine, a fourth-generation Japanese American, comes from a family of the former, not a clan of couch potatoes. His father heads the civil engineering department at Cal State Sacramento and his mother is a psychologist. Both are also creative types who have encouraged their children in artistic endeavors — father Chris Tomine plays music, takes photographs, and designs furniture, while mother Satsuki Ina makes documentary films, including one about children of the WWII internment camps, where both parents spent part of their childhoods.

His parents divorced when he was two. As a result, Tomine spent his childhood living with his mom in Fresno; Sacramento; Corvallis, Oregon; Germany and Belgium; and spending summers with his dad in Sacramento. Dylan Tomine, eight years Adrian’s senior, remembers buying candy and Spider-Man comics for his kid brother, who spent his time dressing in superhero costumes, creating scenarios with his extensive collection of Star Wars action figures, and copying drawings.

Even as a child, Adrian had high standards. “I can remember being a little kid and feeling my artwork wasn’t quite right. I had an idea of what it should look like, and I was not attaining it,” he says. “I remember throwing a tantrum once because I drew some character and my mom didn’t know who it was. I forget who the character was, probably someone from Indiana Jones or Star Wars. I showed it to my mom and said, ‘Does it look like him?’ ‘Like who?’ ‘You don’t know?’ I felt completely defeated at that point.”

As Adrian moved into his skateboarding phase (his dad built a half-pipe in the backyard), he left comics behind for a few years, thinking he’d outgrown them. Then, at thirteen, he ran across a copy of the comic book Love & Rockets, by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, which told realistic, complex stories of Mexican-American punk rockers in Los Angeles. Riveted, Adrian realized he hadn’t outgrown comics at all, just the superhero genre.

Just prior to moving to Sacramento, where he would start high school, Tomine spent a year traveling in Europe with his mom and brother. The trip, he notes, came at a critical time for his social development. “In seventh grade I was at the precipice of being an introverted nerd or being more social,” he says. “That year abroad gave me a swift kick towards being the loner type.”

Rio Americano was an upper-crust public school populated by rich white suburbanites. In 32 Stories, a collection of Tomine’s early work, he writes, “The book you hold in your hands would not exist had high school been a pleasant experience for me.” Lacking a full social life, he secretly drew. Between his sophomore and junior years, Tomine began producing a scrappy little comic book consisting of three two-sided sheets of drawings folded in half. He called it Optic Nerve for no particular reason. It just sounded good.

Adrian sold his DIY mini-comic through a Sacramento store, Beyond the Pale, where Marc Weidenbaum, an editor at Tower Records’ Pulse! magazine, discovered it. He offered the young cartoonist a monthly strip, which Tomine drew for two and a half years.

In 1992, Tomine moved to Berkeley to attend the university. He went to class by day and worked on the strip and his own comic by night. With the help of some good reviews in the underground press, he soon gained a ragtag following. Through it all, he received next to nothing in the way of formal art training. He had set out to be an art major at Cal, but was quickly disillusioned. “It and I were not a good match,” he says. “It tended to lean towards modern fine art. Very conceptual. I would bring in something comic-book-related to class and the teacher would ask me to explain myself. They expected me to make some ironic use of comics and comment on pop culture. Then this guy with a ponytail would bring in a box, like a diorama with a feather glued to it, and it had a time piece and a sepia-tone photo, and he said it was inspired by a Sting song. And the teacher said it was great. That enraged me.” Tomine switched his major to English literature.

Claudine Ko, who befriended Tomine during their freshman year in the dorms, remembers being impressed with the Elvis Costello-looking guy in mod white jeans and Doc Martens who owned a kick-ass music collection and made hilarious comments. Though he keeps his sense of humor in check during interviews, it is, by various accounts, “caustic,” “mean-spirited,” and “very politically incorrect.”

“Adrian introduced me to a lot of cool things that helped formulate who I am today,” says Ko, now a writer for Jane magazine living in New York City.

Not that he wasn’t a good student, but usual college fare like studying and partying mattered less to Adrian than his art, Ko recalls. He didn’t even attend graduation. “I remember one of the things he said is, ‘I have a three-track mind: art, music, and girls.’

“When he didn’t have a girlfriend he was just a fucking pain in the ass,” she continues. “He was so miserable. He’s very antisocial. It’s a chore for him to go to a party. He’s the type of person who needs one close person to fulfill his social engagements. Honestly, I think he had more important things to do. He wanted to work on his comic book rather than sit around talking about stupid things with dumb people in the dorm.”

Here’s what else you need to know about Tomine, Ko says: He cherishes constancy, and he’s fastidious. “Adrian is particular about where he shits,” she says, laughing. She was preparing for an upcoming Tomine visit by recaulking her bathtub and thoroughly scrubbing her apartment. Seriously.

In 1994, Tomine received $5,000 from the Xeric Foundation, which gives grants to self-publishing cartoonists to help them produce single issues of their work. Issue seven of Tomine’s mini-comic featured a full-color cover, a print-run of six thousand, and a noticeably cleaner and polished drawing style. Just before its release, he got a phone call from Chris Oliveros, head honcho of Drawn & Quarterly, a respected Canadian publisher of alternative comics. Tomine, who admired many Drawn & Quarterly artists, had been sending Oliveros his mini-comics over the years. “He’d be talented if he was 23 and doing this work. But when I found out he was seventeen or eighteen, I was flabbergasted,” the publisher recalls. “I thought I should really be giving this guy a call now.”

At age 21, with Drawn & Quarterly backing him, Tomine became a professional comic-book artist. Optic Nerve No. 1 hit the stores in April 1995 with an initial print run of seven thousand copies. Its opening story, “Sleepwalk,” is a painful tale of breakup and disconnect rendered in panels of contrasting light and dark. Mark, its protagonist narrator, is taken out by his ex-girlfriend for a birthday dinner. At the end of the night he tries to kiss her, only to be pushed away. “Why are we living these lonely separate lives?” he asks, anguished.

The issue has since been reprinted twice. “In Adrian’s case, what’s very unusual — and this hardly ever happens, not just for us, but for any comic — he just took off from the beginning,” Oliveros says. “From day one he became our best seller right overnight. He just flew by other cartoonists who were already published and well-known and selling well.”

Perched atop a stool at Cody’s Books on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue, Adrian Tomine is recounting his high-school days for an audience. “Oh yeah, we had keg parties,” he deadpans. “Chicks loved me. It was awesome.”

The room chuckles reverently. Roughly fifty Tomine fans have showed up for a Saturday afternoon signing of his latest release, Summer Blonde, a hardcover collection of the last four issues of Optic Nerve. Many of the audience members look very much like the stylish-but-dorky inhabitants of his comic books. The geeks have come to see their hero.

To his left is Shoshana Berger, editor of ReadyMade magazine (itself a hip publication for geeky-cool DIY types) who smiles broadly and titters as she interviews Tomine for the audience’s benefit. Through his responses, the artist depicts cartooning as a path only for anal-retentive and antisocial types who could enjoy sitting alone in a room all day. “I always feel a notch away from being Jack Nicholson in The Shining,” he tells his fans. “There’s something about drawing over and over again in little boxes that’s damaging. Never trust a socially adept cartoonist. Their work probably isn’t good.”

Although Tomine plays up his geekiness, he’s really not quite as shy and socially stunted as he suggests. While far from gregarious, the cartoonist is personable and talkative. His brother Dylan, who now lives in Seattle, recalls that Adrian did have a group of friends and a girlfriend during high school. Passionate about music, he even played guitar in a rock band — in front of audiences. “I think for some people, they might say they felt left out of things, and so they turned to drawing,” Dylan says, “and I think Adrian was the opposite. I think he turned down a lot of social opportunities because he had this drive to perfect his art.”

Claudine Ko can attest to that. In college, she says, Adrian often bailed on plans to hang out: “I said, ‘Adrian, you can’t expect to keep your friends if you keep rejecting us.’ He’s not an easy person to be friends with.”

After fielding questions from the audience, Tomine sits at a table in front of the children’s section to sign books. At least half of those in the line are women, an anomaly in the world of comics, which are usually written for, and by, men. Tomine is one of a few cartoonists responsible for attracting new readers, says Eric Reynolds, an editor at Fantagraphics, a Seattle-based publisher of alternative comics. Tomine often writes from a female perspective, he notes. Plus, he has managed to make comics — formerly reserved for legions of collector-nerds — kind of hip. “He tends to write about angsty young hipsters, and that appeals to angsty young hipsters who are at the age where they are more intellectually curious and trying to find interesting music, art, and literature,” Reynolds says. “And for the same reason that nineteen-year-olds invariably discover Sonic Youth or the Velvet Underground, they find Optic Nerve. It’s one of those things in that canon, almost.”

Tomine’s work also shares many traits with modern short fiction: He has an ear for dialogue, and employs a subtle storytelling style that leaves much to the reader’s imagination. Critics often liken him to Raymond Carver: Rather than begin and end, his stories fade in and out of a character’s life, following an emotional moment.

Richard Sala, an artist friend who draws a dark and quirky comic book called Evil Eye, believes Tomine’s background as an English major shows in his work. “The funny thing to remember is that in comics, superheroes are considered the mainstream,” says Sala, 48. “But if you look at it from the way of a bookstore, Adrian’s work would be in the fiction section. That would make him more mainstream. I think that’s great, because it changes the way people look at cartoonists and comics in general.”

Tomine signs books for an hour, taking time to draw self-portraits and pose for pictures with fans. He brought some original artwork with him, but none of it sells. “It’s two hours of awkwardness,” he later gripes about the signings.

For him, doing book tours and lengthy interviews are the hard part of his profession. The day of the Cody’s signing, two reporters and two photographers trailed him. A Canadian TV crew had also recently flown into town, sending him into a frenzy of self-consciousness. They’ll probably want to film me drawing, he thought. I should trim my nails. Though Tomine politely and thoughtfully answers all questions during interviews, he gives the impression that he’d rather be left alone to listen to records and draw. “It’s like being famous for being the most private person in the world,” he complains of all the attention.

The irony is that alternative cartoonists, Tomine included, are forever complaining that they don’t get the respect they’re due. It’s bad enough that the public thinks of comics as being filled with guys in tights battling space monsters, but the artists of mature books must suffer the indignity of selling their work at conventions and stores dominated by Trekkies. In Europe, they say, people regard cartoonists as the talented artists they are.

Underground comics first exploded onto the scene during the 1960s, and much like everything else during that era, they were about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. They waned in the ’70s as authorities closed down the head shops — the prime distribution market for underground comics. The next wave of alternative comics didn’t kick-start until the 1980s, when a new generation of mature-story tellers hit their stride. There was Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, who put together RAW; R. Crumb, already a big name from past decades, started Weirdo; the Hernandez brothers came out with Love & Rockets; then Dan Clowes comes along, and later, Chris Ware. Today’s best-selling alternative comic, Dan Clowes’ Eightball, has a print run of thirty thousand, but most alternatives sell fewer than five thousand copies. Ten thousand is considered very successful. The last issue of Optic Nerve had a print run of sixteen thousand.

Tomine was so deeply influenced by comics of the 1980s generation that he seems, indeed feels, like a man born a decade too late. He doesn’t fit in well with his contemporaries. “Craft is important to Adrian, the way he breaks down a story,” Reynolds says. “The feeling these days is a lot more spontaneous, a lot more loose. A lot of what I see among people his age and younger cartoonists is a return to experimentation. They wear their influences on their sleeves a lot less clearly.”

For Tomine, one of those influences is Clowes, whose graphic novel Ghost World became a successful art-house movie under the direction of Terry Zwigoff, who also directed a fascinating 1994 documentary profile of R. Crumb. Clowes, who lives in Oakland, met Tomine when the younger cartoonist still studied at Berkeley. Tomine had sent Clowes his mini-comics and Clowes’ girlfriend Erika (now his wife) realized that she shared an English class with the bespectacled artist and invited him out for coffee.

“He was such an enthusiastic cartoonist, and so talented,” Clowes recalls. “Any time a comics event came up, I’d invite him. Boy, I wish I had someone to invite me when I was eighteen or nineteen. I got to relive my youth through him.” What started as mentoring developed into a strong friendship. “Now we’ve become friends and I don’t think of him as younger, I think of him as older,” Clowes says. “I really have to think about it very carefully to realize how much younger he is than me.”

It turns out that Clowes, Tomine, and Richard Sala all lived within a couple blocks of each other. The three became tight friends, and still meet weekly for breakfast, comic-book browsing, and general shit-talking.

Clowes’ mentoring is evident in Tomine’s realistic drawings to the point where some critics accuse the younger artist of ripping off Clowes’ style. “It’s the bane of my existence and sort of my ‘just desert,'” says Tomine. “I don’t feel it’s unreasonable. It is deserved, but it does drive me crazy. I hope to reach some point in my life where there’d be an article about me in which his name is not mentioned once.”

Returning to his apartment one day after running errands, the cartoonist finds a message on his answering machine. He immediately vanishes into another room to return the call.

Tomine’s home base is filled with collectibles. In the living room, toys from Ghost World and other comics sit atop a bookshelf. A revolving wire rack, the sort you might find holding paperbacks in the library, stands tall in one corner displaying Peanuts comic books. Framed and matted original artwork by other cartoonists, including Julie Doucet (Dirty Plotte) and Joe Matt (Peepshow), grace the walls.

His studio is completely lined with shelves and desks, one of which bears a giant scanner and monitor — Tomine uses the computer to add color to his black and white drawings. On the wall over his drawing board hang two strings, like clotheslines, to which are clipped four pages from his next comic book. They represent a month’s work; it takes Tomine a week to complete a single page, and that’s if he’s not interrupted. Factor in the length of his book, 32 pages, and it’s easy to see why it takes him a year to draw a single issue.

After several minutes, the artist reappears, explaining apologetically that if you pass up The New Yorker too many times, they might stop calling. If Tomine didn’t reside in one of the most expensive parts of the country, he’d be able to live off his comic book. As it is, about half of his income comes from illustrating magazines and advertisements. Already in progress on his desk is an illustration for NikeGoddess, a magalogue filled with photographs, splashy design, Nike products, and scant text. Tomine had drawn a large boom box and women engrossed in some sort of dancing — hip-hop aerobics, he explains wearily.

Ever ambitious, Tomine plans to make the next three or four issues of Optic Nerve one continuous story so that, when collected into a book, they’ll comprise his first graphic novel. For the first time, he is writing a story about Asian-American identity. Though he often draws Asian characters, they are, as one man at the book signing put it, subtly Asian — that is, their Asian-ness has nothing to do with the story and less-observant readers might mistake them for dark-haired Caucasians. Tomine has been criticized by some Asian Americans for not exploring his heritage and for often drawing himself as a white character.

So what, his friend Claudine Ko shoots back. Adrian doesn’t shy away from his background, she says, “But putting your ethnicity up front first before your art? He thought that was ridiculous.”

Artistically, Tomine aims to have more zip to his brush stroke and not obsess so much about making every line perfect and every panel slick. In the past, he says, he didn’t know when to stop and would fill in the background in every panel. “This one’s already crowded,” he says, pointing to a scene of people at a party. Since he established the background early on, he left it out in this panel.

Like many a good writer, Tomine finds the task painful. “Writing is a necessary evil to create a comic book,” he says, “Drawing is fun. Writing is hard.” He’ll spend months agonizing over an idea, and when the plot coalesces he writes it out like a script. Then he sketches the scenes in pencil, trying to get them all to fit. If Hollywood ever made one of his stories into a movie, it wouldn’t need to storyboard the film. It’s all there in the comic book: the scenes and setting, the closeness of the shots, the dialogue. Following the success of Ghost World, in fact, Tomine has received several calls from would-be producers of the first Optic Nerve flick, but the cartoonist actually talked the callers out of it.

From the pages hanging on Tomine’s makeshift clothesline, one panel jumps out. In it is a restaurant called Crepe Expectations that looks suspiciously like Crepevine in Rockridge. Indeed, Tomine’s illustrated world borrows heavily from the real one. Specificity in storytelling is important, Tomine explains, but also, he says, he’s just not all that creative. Why fashion a building from scratch when you can copy a real one from down the block? His own apartment provides the setting for one of his stories, “Six-Day Cold.” That’s his futon in the living room, his large kitchen with the 1950s-style stove — all that’s missing is Tomine’s Pez dispenser collection and the Astroboy postcards.

Even some of the characters exist in flesh and bone, though Tomine is loath to admit it. Dan Raeburn, a friend who publishes The Imp, a zine of well-researched and detailed comics criticism, recalls seeing the real-life inspiration for the character Carlo, a narcissistic womanizer in Summer Blonde. “Adrian was driving and right as we pulled up in front of his apartment, this guy on a cell phone holding a soccer ball was saying, ‘Hey yeah, man. We’re going out with these chicks tonight.’ I said, ‘That looks like Carlo!’ Adrian ducked down and said, ‘Shut up. Hold your voice down.’ The guy took a left turn and I looked at the apartment building. It was that apartment building from Summer Blonde!”

So when you’re friends with Adrian Tomine, are you fodder for a story? Wendy Jung, his girlfriend of three years, says she never sees herself replicated exactly in his stories, though she sometimes spies dialogue that seems familiar or characters wearing her outfits. It flatters her.

Jung is the kind of person who can get away with wearing bright-pink eye shadow; it somehow suits her. Warm and energetic, optimistic and outgoing, she complements the cynical, restrained, and introverted Tomine. “He’s the type, if we’re crossing the street and the sign says Don’t Walk, he doesn’t walk, and I would have been run over,” she says. “I need him to keep me on the ground, and he needs me to put him in the clouds once in a while.”

The way Jung and Tomine met was like something right out of Optic Nerve. She first became an admirer of Tomine’s artwork for indie rock bands; he’s drawn covers and posters for the Softies, Eels, and Weezer, among others. About the same time she became intrigued by this mysterious local artist, she developed a crush on a regular at Original Mel’s Diner in Berkeley, where she worked as a hostess.

Tomine would come in once a week with Sala and Clowes. “I thought they were computer geeks or people who worked at the university,” she recalls. “He was the youngest one. I’m a sucker for a nerd with glasses — nerd-chic.”

One night, Jung ran into Tomine at an indie-rock show at SF’s Bottom of the Hill, and when Tomine came into the diner the following day they finally had something to talk about. “He introduced himself as Adrian and I said, ‘Are you the Adrian?'” The two guys she had crushes on, she suddenly realized, were one and the same.

Jung, a voice-over actress, read all the Optic Nerve issues she could find before their first date in an attempt to figure him out. She wasn’t successful, but she has since learned that the serious man who draws dark and sensitive comics also has a hidden silly side. Adrian Tomine does not dance. Yet, recently, she and some of her friends nudged him into participating in Dance Dance Revolution, an interactive video game that requires, well, dancing. They also went on a camping trip, something he would never have done on his own. While Jung and friends frolicked in bathing suits, Tomine stood by in his usual button-down shirt and khakis and cheered them on.

Still, Tomine rarely strays from his daily routine. “If he hasn’t blocked out fun time and scheduled it, he starts to feel ‘I’ve got to work.’ Although he works for himself, he can’t play all day. He’s very disciplined,” Jung says.

In fact, he seldom leaves the house except to run errands, eat dinner with Jung, check his post office box, or meet up with his cartoonist pals for breakfast and perhaps pay a visit to the comic-book store.

He did the latter on a recent Wednesday, dropping by Comic Relief on Berkeley’s University Avenue, and grumbling as he attempted to park his boxy Volvo in the crowded commercial district. It was lunch hour and all manner of awkward-looking males were standing quietly around the store, hardly looking up from their reading to see who was passing. Tomine headed straight to the back where the new releases are shelved. He browsed through a couple items, but quickly put them back where he found them, unimpressed. “It’s pretty rare that I actually buy comics now,” he says. Alternative cartoonists are a lot like music snobs that way. To be a high-caliber geek means maintaining high standards and discriminating tastes, and Tomine is of the highest caliber. He chatted briefly with the owner and then left the store empty-handed.

His chores finished for the time being, Tomine set off again for home, where, in the absence of pesky reporters, burdensome strangers, and eager fans, he could retreat into the shell of his studio and finally get some serious work done.


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