The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist

Adrian Tomine returns with evolved art, humour like a razor and an eclectic mix of narcissism and self-loathing

The Moleskine diary is one of those weird, sacred must-have accessories for writers and creatives. Personally, I no longer use the books, preferring to use cheaper and more customisable Muji B5 notebooks — yes, yes, we do love our rituals — but I did have a phase in my ‘career’ as a writer where I carted a Moleskine everywhere, jotting down notes in book launch talks and noting down inspirations on the bus (none of it has ever earned me a dollar directly). I’ll get to Tomine’s book — which has been published, like some curio, in the form of a square-grid lined Moleskine journal — in a minute, but first: a brief re-telling of how the a throwaway observation by travel writer Bruce Chatwin in his book The Songlines inspired a stationery mega-revival.

“Le vrai moleskine n’est plus”

Whenever Chatwin found himself in Paris, he would pick up a few fresh moleskine notebooks from his favourite stationery shop. However, on one trip, Chatwin found that the maker of the notebooks had gone out of business. In The Songlines, a book about “Australian aboriginal metaphysics and the origins of culture”, Chatwin suddenly goes on a tangent about the the difficulty of sourcing the smooth black hardcover oilcloth-bound notebook called a moleskine. He laments:

“The pages were squared and the end-papers held in places with an elastic band. I wrote my name and address on the front page, offering a reward to the finder. To lose a passport was the least of one’s worries; to lose a notebook was a catastrophe.”

James Harkin recounts the episode in Newsweek:

The moleskine journals were becoming scarce. “I’d like to order a hundred,” Chatwin says to the seller. “A hundred will last me a lifetime.” The bookseller tells Chatwin that the manufacturer had died and his heirs sold the business. “She removed her spectacles and, almost with an air of mourning, said, ‘Le vrai moleskine n’est plus.’”

This bit of The Songlines jumped out of the book at a woman named Maria Sebregondi. Poking around, she discovered that Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, André Breton — all used moleskines as sketchbooks and journals. An idea struck her:

“So why not bring it back to life?”

Sebregondi pitched her idea to Modo & Modo, a stationery company based in the fashion capital of Milan. The brand was trademarked and a Chinese manufacturer found who was capable of stitching together and assembling the books to their design specifications. In 1997, the first consignment of Moleskines arrived from China and were hand-finished. 5,000 were sold to Italian distributors.

The next year, the number was 30,000.

Then, sales exploded. Modo & Modo, was gobbled up by an investment fund in 2006 for €60 million. Today, the notebooks are available almost everywhere and the brand has diversified to produce diaries, guides, pens, pencil, luggage, productivity apps and has tie-up with brands like Star Wars and The Simpsons (conflict of interest declaration: I own these).

You could say that it was the French who appreciated the genius of Leonardo Da Vinci before anyone else, but it was the Italians who really got the importance of the Moleskine journal.

One of my older Moleskines. The sticker is my own embellishment.

Revenge is a dish best served as a cartoon

Tomine’s book perhaps takes its name from the short story “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” by Alan Stiltoe or the film adaptation of the story. The story is about a person in jail, who defies his jailers and denies them a PR boost by refusing to win a race, and giving up attendant privileges despite being a prodigiously talented runner. Is Tomine suggesting that cartoonists are prisoners in small studios forced to perform their talents for the PR purposes of their benefactors?

Tomine has pared down his style in this book to an almost John Porcellino King Kat style. It works, again reminding us that is the idea and joke in a cartoon that matters, much more than embellishment and rendering.

My favourite thing in this book is the bitch-slaps handed out to Neil Gaiman (for being bigger than the industry) and Frank Miller (for being a racist). The other running joke is the style influence of Daniel Clowes. I had actually privately pieced this together for myself, so in comic-boy guy fashion am quite dashed that this is now public knowledge.

This is the odd terrain that the book inhabits. On one hand, Tomine remembers small slights and embarrassments. Revenge, it seems, is best served cold as a cartoon. On the other, he is painfully embarrassed to be himself, with several strips ending in panels “Please let a giant meteor crash through this window right now” or “Please let me evaporate from existence”.

All the same, the book, as confessional memoir (this style of graphic story-telling pioneered by the Canadian trifecta of Seth, Joe Matt and Chester Brown) is weirdly narcissistic and navel-gazing. To be honest, I didn’t even bother reading the long letter he wrote to his daughters while waiting in the emergency room, thinking he was having a heart-attack. TL;DR.

However, I had missed the page that comes after the final credits (this continues my odd relationship with Tomine books, the first one I ordered second-hand off Amazon, Shortcomings, came with chunks of the pages ripped out). Tomine stirs up strong emotions in some people, painting a target on his back.

The missed last page overcomes the self-obsessive tone I has assumed was the ending of the novel, and does in the end give us what Tomine promised by the title: a kind of explanation for why someone would put themselves through something as excruciatingly painful, both physically and socially, to be a cartoonist.

Tomine never fails to disappoint, though I feel this book is a minor effort compared to Shortcomings and Killing and Dying.

I hope he doesn’t read and remember this review.

Indian Gekiga.

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