Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine

On discovering the “Alice Munro” of comics

A few days ago, after impulse purchasing a comic book/graphic novel/whatever on a whim, I rose from a narrative experience called Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine.

My own work these days involves 1930s animation-style cartooning, and I was looking for something contemporary and fresh, with clean drawings and great buildings and machines in it. I selected the book because of the style of illustration, typography, and colour palette. The same image, of a strip-mall dinner, appeared on the front and back cover but was coloured to indicate the passage of day into night. I can close my eyes and see the hue of salmon near the horizon on the front cover and how it is contrasted by dark grey and yellow in the windows of the night-time back of the book.

Like I am convinced that the Earth is round, the law of gravity accelerates things at 9.8 metres per square second, and that the moral trajectory of law must bend towards justice, I believe that graphic novels/comics/whatever, each being too different from the other to be called a genre, and more akin to a medium (as Neil Gaiman puts it), is often capable of achieving more within the covers of a book than literature.

It gnaws: this is for children… this is for the involuntarily celibate…I should know better! Get your act together: read War and Peace! Jonathan Franzen!

Perhaps what Tomine has cleared up for me the most is that the medium is capable of delivering so much more than people in lycra seeking gems or some shit. The story that haunts me, long after I’ve read it, is “Go Owls”: a story set in the backdrop of alcoholism, drug-dealing, and sexual abuse. Tomine specialises in telling deft stories about flawed characters who do some really fucked up things. I have never really read New York in graphic form like this, but Tomine is an illustrator for The New Yorker, and probably is the chronicler of the city par excellence.

As Chris Ware put it in his review for the Guardian:

As a serious cartoonist, one secretly hopes to create “That Book”: a book that can be passed to a literary-minded person who doesn’t normally read comics; one that doesn’t require any explanation or apology in advance and is developed enough in its attitude, humanity and complexity that it speaks maturely for itself.

An excerpt from “Go Owls”

Looking over the art work he has available for sale on Tomine’s website (, I was fascinated to see what this reveals about his process. He still draws, inks, and letters his pages by hand (my guess judging by the line quality is that he prefers a brush, rather than a pen), but then touches up the images and colours using digital methods.

Boy, those fancy people in New York: even if their stories are full of mad people, the artists sure know what they’re doing.

I write about culture, books, and graphic design. Life goals include a graphic novel, and a hand stand.

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