Before I even picked it up and started reading, Adrian Tomine’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist grabbed my attention, specifically because of it tangible, tactile features which mirror a sketch book. Of course when I started reading, various things stood out. One such instance occurs when Tomine starts to have chest pains and is carrying his daughter up the stairs. During this sequence, the borders disappear from each panel, indicating a split in temporal time. Tomine falls backwards down the stairs, lying unconscious on the floor as his daughters yell at him to wake up. The seven-panel sequence ends, and we return to Tomine holding his daughter as she asks if everything he feels ok.
Along with this moment, I also became struck by a moment when Tomine speak’s with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. During the interview, Gross asks him about his style, specifically about why he always depicts himself without eyes, only presenting himself with glasses that do not indicate an eye shape or color. In the interview section, Tomine depicts an extension of himself floating above his physical body, and that extension says, “Now she’s asking if the way you draw your glasses is an attempt to avoid ethnic identity!”
Tomine’s style, depicting himself without any physical features for his eyes, reminds me of Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics where he talks about the abstract nature of words in relation to the varying level of abstraction in pictures. To prove his point, he removes his glasses to reveal that he has no eyes. Like Tomine, McCloud depicts his face with glasses and no physical features for his eyes. When he removes them, nothing appears in their place. He states, “Others [faces], like yours truly, are quite a bit more abstract and, in fact, are very much unlike any human face you’ve ever seen.” On the surface, this is true, but as he also points out, cartooning relies on images and features that we know. We fill in the blanks and flesh out the image.
The only other book from Tomine that I have read is Killing and Dying, and I as read that book, I never once thought about Tomine’s ethnicity. In fact, I did not even consider it until I got to the interview with Terry Gross and her question. At that point, I Googled Tomine and discovered he is fourth-generation Japanese-American, and as I read more of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, I noticed how, at various points, he addresses his ethnic identity without explicitly addressing it.
This occurs, most notably, in the various moments where individuals mispronounce his name. For me, people mispronounce my last name all of the time, so I didn’t think about it much. Our last name is probably pronounced like Deutsch, but over the centuries, it has become Americanized, and we pronounce it “Touch.” At the Literary Arts Festival in Toronto, the moderator mispronounces Tomine’s name twice. At the start, he welcomes everyone as lists off the three speakers, ending with “Adrian Toe-Meen.” The host looks at his card quizzically, struggling with how to pronounce Tomine’s last name. When Tomine goes up to the stage, he tells the crowd, “And now, please welcome Adrian Toe-Mih-Nay.” Here, he pronounces Tomine’s name differently from the first time, highlighting his lack of even trying to learn how to pronounce Tomine’s name correctly.
As a teacher, I make sure that I learn how to pronounce my students’ names and the names of authors and characters that I teach. I am not good with names and pronunciation, but if I do not learn, I am basically saying, “Your name, and thus you, do not matter.” I do not want my students to think that they, or the authors that we study, do not matter. This semester, while teaching Tahereh Mafi’s A Very Large Expanse of Sea, I had to Google how to pronounce Tahereh’s name. She posted a video on Instagram pronouncing her name for readers. She did not have to do that, and no one should require her to do it. However, I know that if she did not, I would mispronounce her name.
While individuals mispronouncing Tomine’s last name appear throughout the text, the moment at the New Yorker party highlights the spaces in between the hyphen that I’ve discussed before. At the party, Tomine sees one of his idols, and he makes his way over to the man. Tomine never depicts the man, we just get the man’s words from off the panel. This move highlights that the man can be anyone, anywhere, at any time. When they start to talk, Tomine tells the man he has done a few covers and illustrations for the magazine, then the man asks, “Are you Japanese.” Tomine touches his glasses, perhaps a call back to Gross’ question, and replies, “Uh . . . Japanese American actually. I mean I was born in California, but . . . yeah.” Tomine continues by trying to tell the man something, and the man merely says, “I love Jujitsu.” The final panel depicts Tomine, glass in hand, flabbergasted at the response.
In this exchange, Tomine, an American citizen with Japanese ancestry, falls back on his Japanese identity when the man asks him, “Are you Japanese.” Tomine’s reply starts by focusing on California, but instead of arguing, he falls back to Japanese. Even though Tomine’s family has been in the United States for generations, the man refers to him as Japanese, symbolically denying Tomine citizenship. My last name indicates I’m of German ancestry. Even though I am not sure about exact dates, I think my ancestors arrived in the United States in the 1800s, so my family has been in the states for generations, yet no one asks me, “Are you German?” The fact that no one asks me this highlights the way that whiteness and citizenship work, people viewing me as an American citizen while viewing Tomine as an immigrant.
In the Fresh Air interview with Gross, Tomine responds to her inquiry by pointing out that he was “just working in a pretty old cartooning tradition of when someone puts on glasses, they just almost are opaque and that goes through a lot of the comics I was reading at the time; but also back to things like, probably my earliest inspiration, which was “Peanuts,” by Charles Schulz.” At the start of his answer, though, he tells Gross, that people hold that “up as Exhibit A” that he’s trying to avoid depicting his ethnic identity.
While it is not the focus on Tomine’s latest, Gross’ question presents us with a lens to look at the ways and moments that Tomine places in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist which foucs on identity. Again, this is not the focus of the book, but Tomine expertly highlights the ways that these discussions have influenced him and his work, even if the moments pass by quickly. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.