Born in Sacramento in 1974, Adrian Tomine has gone from “the boy wonder of mini-comics” (per Daniel Clowes) to master of the form, and for the past 20 years his books have moved from strength to strength. His seductively clean line makes for instantly romantic images — think of his iconic New Yorker cover depicting two cuties sitting in passing subway cars who spot each other clutching the same book.
But the key to Tomine’s fiction is the rage and fragility beneath the pristine compositions. In his 2007 graphic novel “Shortcomings,” race becomes a live wire, as its antihero, a Gen-X Japanese-American slacker in Berkeley, utterly loses his cool in a stew of interracial dating and infidelities. The book begins with the skewering of an Asian-American film festival, and the bad vibes only get worse (and funnier) from there. It’s a controlled mess of a classic, from the title’s micropenis innuendo to its final silent panels: a crystalline snapshot of Asian-American identity in the aughts. Perversely, the six impeccable, at times brutal stories in his next major fiction, “Killing and Dying” (2015), avoid such charged cross-cultural material — indeed, the one inarguably Asian character (who narrates the enigmatic “Translated, From the Japanese”) is never seen.
THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG-DISTANCE CARTOONIST (Drawn + Quarterly, 168 pp., $29.95) finds Tomine in the gentler autobiographical mode of 2011’s “Scenes From an Impending Marriage,” in which he transforms into an unexpected Groomzilla. Constructed in a loose, appealingly humble style on a Moleskine-like grid, the 26 vignettes here trace a lifetime of neuroses and humiliations, from Fresno, 1982, to Brooklyn, 2018, blurring the line between character trait and occupational hazard. In “The Sbarro Incident,” he goes from being the star of a popular book event to a friendless schlub sitting alone at a pizzeria, as attendees gawk through the window at him. At the Javits Center for Book Expo in 2015, he’s heartened “ that in this day and age, this many people still care about books and authors!” — only to have his Q&A session interrupted by Khloé Kardashian fans cheering for her tome “Strong Looks Better Naked.”
Alongside these promotional tour mishaps and professional mortifications runs a steady stream of racial insults, rendered comical by time but still with the power to sting. Visiting the home of his friend, neighbor and hero, Clowes (“Ghost World”), in 1996, Tomine is speechless when an older fellow cartoonist who doesn’t know him mistakes him for the I.T. guy. At a desolate book signing in Albany, he sits in agony under a poster for “That Yellow Bastard” — an installment of the “Sin City” comic by Frank Miller, who unwittingly insulted him years ago at an awards show by not even trying to pronounce his name. Though Tomine’s fictional characters aren’t always recognizably Asian, when playing himself, he can’t escape the prejudices of those who see him as the Other. At a New Yorker party in his mid-30s, he works up the courage to say hello to an esteemed writer he’s long admired; in turn, the author says, “I love jujitsu.” Tomine just stands, stubbled and stunned, mouth open in amazement at the limits of his success.
In contrast to such artful minimalism, Joe Sacco believes that more is more; his large-scale panels teem with detail, visual and verbal. The Malta-born, Portland-based creator of such frame-breaking works of comics journalism as “Palestine: In the Gaza Strip” (1996) and “Safe Area Gorazde” (2000) stays on this continent for PAYING THE LAND (Metropolitan/Holt, 272 pp., $29.99). With his intrepid guide, Shauna, he travels to Canada’s Northwest Territories — a region as big as France and Spain, but with a population under 45,000 — for an immersion into the Indigenous Dene culture. What begins as an exploration of the effects of fracking on Native lands sprawls into a haunted history of an entire civilization.
Sacco takes pains to convey texture — I’m tempted to say the way he draws trees is worth the price of admission alone. The first chapter is a tour de force that begins with a baby birthed during a long-ago tribal migration. These are the precious memories of a current community leader named Paul Andrew, which conjure the rhythm of his nomadic childhood out in “the bush” when the tribe’s movements were dictated by nature. Eschewing panels in favor of a more organic flow of images from top to bottom, Sacco captures the essence of life lived as part of the land. Narrative time melts away as we witness the complex construction of a boat, from the men chopping trees to the women making sinew to a young boy and an elder’s hunt for spruce gum as a sealant. In four or five days, “they would have this thing from nothing,” Andrew recalls with awe — a gift from the world.
You might periodically return to these luminous pages over the course of “Paying the Land,” as Sacco’s wide-angle reporting takes in the tragedy and challenges the Dene have faced since the Canadian government made appalling one-sided treaties with them in the 19th century. Decades of struggle have given some Dene a political say, but the culture still suffers from colonialism’s aftereffects: troublingly high rates of suicide and addiction, and an alarming legacy of incest and abuse. The country’s 1920 policy of separating Native children from their parents and sending them hundreds of miles away to Christian-run “residential schools” is the buried secret that Sacco unearths midway — a wrenching, dehumanizing practice that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission would later brand an act of “cultural genocide.”
As in earlier books centered on the Middle East and the Balkans, Sacco gives voice to the marginalized, letting his subjects tell their stories without overly interpreting them — a sign of respect, and a way to show that the Dene aren’t monolithic. Near the book’s end, Sacco and Shauna visit an abandoned industrial gold mine, where 237,000 tons of toxic dust (a poisonous byproduct of mining) have been shoved back into the mine itself. It’s here, touring the vast, lethal underground site, that Sacco levels a withering critique, sounding like a fragment from an ancient poem: “What is the worldview of a people who mumble no thanks or prayers, who take what they want from the land, and pay it back with arsenic?”