A few weeks ago, I was looking for a new graphic novel to read and someone suggested Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying (2015), a collection of six stories within one collection. These stories, specifically “Hortisculpture,” “Translated from Japanese,” “Killing and Dying,” and “Intruders” stuck out to me. Each of the stories in Killing and Dying address issues of modernity, isolation, loneliness, death, and a myriad of other topics. If I had more space, I would look at each of these stories; however, today I just want to look at some of the aspects that made the stories I mention above stand out.
Zadie Smith’s assertion that Tomine “has more ideas in twenty panels than novelists have in a lifetime” comes across initially as hyperbole, but once you begin to dig into Killing and Dying, you notice that her statement rings true. Tomine’s use of dialogue and visuals works in tandem, seamlessly, pulling at the thematic threads that each of the stories in the collection explores. Tomine achieves this so well that A.O. Scott, in his review of Killing and Dying, argues that the stories “certainly invite comparison to the work of words-only short-form masters like Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie and Mary Gaitskill, and for that matter O. Henry himself.”
“Hortisculpture,” the first story in Killing and Dying, focuses on a landscaper who wants to become something more, a horticultural sculpture. His work is not very good, and throughout the story his wife works to support him. As he begins to see that his dream will not come to fruition, his wife continues to support him, but he resents that support. The story is not necessarily about the man’s failed attempts at achieving his dream. It’s ultimately about the couple’s relationship and the sacrifices that exist within it.
What stood out to me about “Hortisculpture,” visually, is the way that Tomine presents the story. Essentially, it comes across as a five-week newspaper comic strip. Tomine does not explicitly state this fact, but the layout intones that this is the fact. For example, each week has six black and white four-panel strips followed by a full-page color twelve-panel strip. Each strip has the title, “Hortisculpture,” at the top, and the full-page strips have dialogue there too. Each of the strips can stand alone, serving as a daily dose of “Hortisculpture.”
The layout of “Hortisculpture” draws upon strips and panels such as Blondie, Family Circus, and more, strips that used the domestic space for the comedy. “Hortisculpture” plays with the legacy of these strips, but Tomine undercuts them by having biting, social commentary in the final-panel punchlines. One such example comes in a section where Harold complains to his wife that her parents don’t like him because he is white. Another comes near the end when Harold goes to the convenience store for some junk food because he can’t sleep.
Harold feels that people don’t understand his artistic vision, and as he drives to the convenience store, three panels show him in the truck as he thinks about the state of culture. He thinks to himself, “No one care about art anymore. No, that’s putting it too mildly. People are hostile towards art now, just like anything else they don’t understand.” Harold’s own self-loathing causes him to become blind to his own lack of understanding. The final panel shows him in the store, asking the clerk for is he has any “Home Run” Pies. The final speech bubble shows Harold asking the clerk, “You speak English?” The clerk stares at Harold from behind the counter and doesn’t reply.
Harold’s “You speak English?” would typically be the punchline, of course. Here, though, it serves as social commentary, not as humor. What stands out is that while Harold rails against people who act hostile towards art because they refuse to understand it, Harold does the same thing with the store clerk. He buys into stereotypes, perpetuating what he does not understand. He falls to the lowest common denominator, assuming the clerk does not speak English. Why does he assume this? It is not made clear. Yet, Harold’s question serves to undercut his pretentious rambling about society not understanding his artistic vision. Multiple strips work in this same manner throughout “Hortiscupture.”
For each story, Tomine has a unique style. “Translated, from the Japanese” tells the story of a mother and child coming back to the states from Japan to reunite with the woman’s husband and the child’s father. The marriage appears to be struggling, and this becomes clear when the mother and child land in the United States. We never see the mother, the child, or the father. We never see faces. We only see parts of bodies and unclear faces in certain panels, none of these are the speaker (the mother) or other main characters. For the most part, the panels feel like they are what the speaker sees. Scott notes that this “emphasiz[es] their detachment from one another, and their longing, by showing us glimpses of what they might see.”
The detachment from visual representations of the characters makes “Translated from the Japanese” somewhat ambiguous. We never really know what has caused the relationship to deteriorate or how the relationship started. Instead, we only see mundane images, images that mirror, in many ways, the speaker’s feelings. Throughout, the speaker talks to he child, in a letter from the beyond. One panel shows the outside of a Denny’s. The speaker tells the child that they stopped there because the child was hungry, and as they ate, the father constantly asked the child questions. He only tells the speaker, “Complete sentences,” looking at her “with that same blank face. That blankness runs throughout the story, a mere eight-page story. The final panel shows the skyline as the speaker asks the child:
I wonder how old you are now as you read this. How long have I been gone? Do you remember anything of our time over there [Japan], when we were starting a different, unknowable life? Can you believe that your parents once came so close to breaking?
These questions, set against the twilight skyline, drive home the feeling of “Translated, from the Japanese,” a feeling of uncertainty and uneasiness. The absence of physical representations of the speaker and other characters only adds to this feeling, creating feelings of uneasiness that ultimately allows us as readers to fill in the blanks in some ways, grafting our own stories onto the story of the speaker.
Stay tuned next post where I look at “Killing and Dying.” Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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