A few weeks ago, I picked up Adrian Tomine’s latest book, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist. I read Killing and Dying last year, and Tomine’s new book immediately caught my attention, not necessarily for the illustrations or content. No, what grabbed me was the book design itself. It’s a physically gorgeous book because it is, for all intents and purposes, a grid sketchbook. Apart from the title, the cover illustration of Tomine drawing, and the backmatter blurbs, the book is a Moleskine classic notebook, and that connection immediately grabbed me because while I am not an illustrator, I use those types of notebooks (unlined for me) constantly. Today, I want to look at the ways that The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist serves as a metanarrative of itself and how the physical design, not just the illustrations and text between the covers, works within this process.
Graphic memoirs are naturally self-reflexive, more so I would say than prose memoirs because of the act of drawing and representing the action through illustrations. In this manner, the artist depicts him or herself not just through the text but also through the image of themselves. Writing about Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Jennifer Daniels Krug points out that ways that graphic texts serve as “renditions” of the historical past, where, as Bechdel puts it, the “outside and inside touch.” Sequential art knows it is a “rendition,” and this knowledge adds another layer to the work on top of the narrative and visual aspects that we encounter.
The physical design of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist tells us, from the outset, that it is a product, one that is deeply personal and one that, I would argue, is in constant flux. We use notebooks and sketchbooks to jot down information and ideas, but we ultimately use them as a place to put our inner thoughts, putting them down on paper so we can return to them later and incorporate them, possibly, into our work. This fact primes us, as readers, to think about Tomine’s book as deeply personal, without even telling us. It also gives us, through the use of the strap that closes the book and the bookmark, a feeling that we are entering into a personal space, a space that Tomine allows us to enter. Even the stamp on the first page which reads “If found, please return to” and has a line for a reward amount, points to this inner, private nature of the work.
Along with this, the design also points to the ways that the text remains in flux. We continually add to notebooks and sketchbooks, until the pages fill and overflow with work. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist is aware that it is a created text, a text that wraps back upon itself in a cyclical nature, bringing us back again and again to the start. While the book ostensibly begins in Fresno in 1982 with Tomine entering a new school in Fresno, it ends after he goes to the hospital and returns home, reflecting on his life. After he ruminates to his wife as he sits on the bed, he turns to her and asks, “Hey, are you awake?”
When we turn the page, we see a blank page, only the graph lines visible (as they are throughout). On the opposite page, we find the copyright information and information about quotes used throughout the book, standard fare. However, the book is not done. Turning the page again, we see six more panels depicting Tomine, unable to sleep, getting up, opening up the notebook, and the final panel shows him hunched over the drawing board with the words “Fresno 1982” above his head. Five of the last six pages (all but the acknowledgements page) are blank graph pages.
This ending points to the reflexivity of the work. The panel where Tomine opens the notebook places us above the desk, looking down at his hands and the opened notebook. We take in the moment from his point of view, becoming part of the creative process. The book we hold in our hands is essentially the same book depicted in the panel, and this realization brings us to the culmination of the project and brings us into its creation. As such, the narrative ends by pointing us back to the start, calling us to return to the beginning and to think about the formulation of the work we hold within our hands.
Along with this, the ending points to the work being in a constant state of revision and flux. When we reread the text, we see new things. It changes for us. As Tomine moves forward, the past changes as well, and the renditions change. While they do not change physically in the finished product, they change reflexively. The five blank pages at the end point to this too because they provide a space for the narrative to continue beyond the moment of its initial creation. Tomine is not done, and he has pages to fill in with what comes after this moment.
All of this adds to the enjoyment of reading Tomine’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist. If I were to read this book on a tablet or my phone, I would not have the tangible connection to it that the book fosters. I would not move the bookmark to a specific page or place the strap over the cover, binding the book shut. All I would see would be either a six-panel page at a time or one panel at time. I would see the graph lines, but I would not feel the texture of the page. The personal connection would get lost, the feeling of intimacy would fade away (if it would ever exist in a similar way).
Through the use of the notebook, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist provides a unique reading experience that does more than just ask us to think about the text and images that Tomine crafts. It calls upon us to think about the ways that the book’s structure serves as part of the narrative of a work, causing us to reexamine the way we interact with works in general. For me, this is part of what makes The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist a great book to read.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.