28 June 1999

Reviewing "Sleepwalk"

Pick up an issue of Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve comics and the first impression may seem of a bleak, pinched, even morose world. Yet you can't look away. The 23-year-old Tomine's panels are immaculate, and instantly recognizable as his own. "Sleepwalk" collects the sixteen stories from the first four issues of Optic Nerve published by Drawn and Quarterly between hardcovers. An earlier collection, "32 Stories" drew from Tomine's earlier work, dating back to 1991. He hadn't refined his style, his deft pen-and-ink figures, faces, haircuts and headgear. And his stories hadn't yet attained their lapidary, contemplative quality. Tomine works with the deft, terse strokes of a short story writer, examining a small idea or a simple notion to its logical, and usually poetic conclusion, yet he has a cinematic knack for finding the proper composition, the telling angle to capture these pensive instants. Yet his medium of choice surpasses the movies: no one would let you tell these modest, eloquent tales on celluloid. Your heart skips along with those of his characters. A chance meeting between ex-lovers on a man's birthday--no, she doesn't want to hear that he still loves her--is succeeded by a dumb, completely undramatic car crash: broken boy, broken car, abandoned under streetlight. A couple peeping into a neighbor's apartment suddenly discover a fear of the city, bringing them together: the story then reveals a cityscape of windows, some lit, some not, all unpeopled. An old woman makes her lunch, goes out to the street and eats her baggied sandwich in her 1950s car where she revisits her life as a younger woman in that car, but not alone. The friendship between a blind man and a supermarket clerk ends with a dazzling shift in perspective. This kind of fluent, restrained work surpasses most of the contemporary fiction I read. I know Optic Nerve only comes out quarterly, but I can't help but look in vain for a fresh issue whenever I'm near a comics rack. Between hardcovers, Tomine's work could discover a broader audience, outside of those racks and on better coffee tables and nightstands everywhere.

"Sleepwalk and Other Stories"
by Adrian Tomine
Drawn and Quarterly, $29.95
102 pages