Geek Chic 

Comic artist Adrian Tomine made himself a winner by appealing to the loser in all of us.

In the last week I discovered, bought, and read all seven Optic Nerves. Everything was going fine until I realized that #7 came out relatively recently, and that you're actually still in the area ... With every issue I read, it feels like my boring, lonely life is being exposed more and more. Please stay the fuck away!
-- Anonymous, Berkeley, California

Optic Nerve, No. 8


On a tepid Friday morning a little before noon, Adrian Tomine begins his biweekly trek to the post office from a Berkeley apartment that he seldom leaves. He moves past the shops of his neighborhood with a slightly mechanical gait and hunched posture -- the result, perhaps, of sitting at a drawing board all day and often late into the night.

Tomine is the creator of Optic Nerve, an alternative comic book filled with tales of alienation, lost opportunities, and longing in the lives of ordinary people who appear well-adjusted but who, beneath the surface, are lonely and desperate to connect with others. Illustrated in a stark, realistic style, his stories are built on elements opposite to those of action films. There is little plot, no glamour, and drama only of the highly emotional kind.

But while it might not go over in Tinseltown, Optic Nerve is among the best-selling titles in the insular world of alternative comics. Tomine (pronounced Toe-mee-neh) has drawn Optic Nerve for more than a decade, amassing a panoply of characters crippled by isolation: the outsiders, the loners, the heartbroken.

Reviewers of his work, including a who's who of major publications, have hailed the 28-year-old artist as the voice of his generation, the aging Gen. X set. Tomine doesn't find this title particularly flattering. "I feel weird about that, because I have very few friends my age," he says. "My best friends are often older than me, and more often than not I feel at odds if I have to go see a band where I'm with people my same age. I'm alienated by the whole thing."

His alienation is evident in his demeanor. As Tomine lopes down the street, he speaks without looking directly at his company. He wears large, black, plastic-frame glasses -- the sort favored by Buddy Holly -- which give him the appearance of a wise owl. His black hair is neatly styled, and he's meticulously clad in his personal uniform: button-down shirt, khakis secured with a black belt, and Camper shoes. The young man is particular about most things and careless about nothing. He keeps his home clean and uncluttered, his books and CDs alphabetized.

Arriving at the post office, he finds the latest issue of Pulse! in his PO box. The glossy provided him with his first paying gig, he explains, discarding it without so much as a glance. There's also an envelope containing a comic book, but no letter. "How can people expect a response if they can't be bothered to write a note?" he says a minute later as he waits in line to mail a small package. He greets the clerk by name before heading out the door.

Sad stories about ordinary people wouldn't seem likely to inspire much mail, but Tomine gets it from all over the spectrum, which makes for a lively letters page in each edition of his comic book. The artist receives strange offerings (a plastic slice of bread; a photo scrapbook from a stalker-fan containing pictures of all the places around town where she has spotted him), genuine praise, and missives from the crush-struck ("This is a picture of me with bangs. Do you think I'm pretty?" wrote one Chicago fan). He also gets hate mail -- letters chastising him for abrupt endings that border on the clichéd, or insulting his drawing style, or assailing him for focusing on shallow, Gap-clad hipsters. "I'm embarrassed to admit this myself, but I, like everyone else, have unfortunately bought nothing more than Dawson's Creek and Ally McBeal on paper," wrote one reader from Birmingham, England, in a letter Tomine published in Optic Nerve #7. "There is such a thing as progression in art and comics, but you bang out strained messages and ideas continuously, and that's a shame."

The cartoonist shrugs. Better to receive mean mail than no mail. Perhaps he suffered from too much hype too early when he didn't deserve it, Tomine offers: "You know how a great band like Beat Happening has a buzz? People might hear it and say, 'Oh, this is horrible. ... They have no talent.' And it makes people dislike it or get angry."

That people write him in the first place is what baffles Tomine. He has no love for Britney Spears, he points out, but he doesn't go out and buy her albums and then send her disparaging notes. Yet he claims the barb-laden diatribes don't bother him: "I've never gotten a letter that hurt my feelings. There's part of me that enjoys it, that somehow I got someone mad enough to write."

But after reading his work in its entirety, it is hard to believe that Tomine never flinches, not even for a second, when people harshly criticize his characters. Most, after all, are modeled on some aspect of the artist himself. When Tomine first started drawing Optic Nerve as a shy, awkward high-school student, he placed himself at the center of his tales of misadventure -- a skinny guy in striped shirts and giant glasses with no eyes behind them. And though he has evolved from straight autobiography to more fictionalized versions of people and events, he doesn't pretend to draw for anyone but himself.

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