God knows even the most simple and straightforward romantic relationships are complicated and can be difficult, oftentimes trying to navigate, offering fertile ground for drama—fictional or otherwise.
But when you add racial sensitivities and identity politics into the mix, the metaphorical minefield of a relationship becomes an even trickier, more dangerous place.
Adrian Tomine’s new graphic novel explores one such relationship, although to what degree race is even an issue in its conflicts is something the characters themselves seem to disagree on and, in one case, even constantly deny.
It’s called Shortcomings (Drawn and Quarterly), and though the ruler graphic on the edge of the beautifully designed cover draws attention to a literal meaning, protagonist Ben Tanaka’s inability to please the woman in his life—and himself—likely has much less to do with the size of his penis than the kind of person he is.
Tanaka manages a university-area movie theater in Berkeley and lives with his girlfriend, Miko. Their relationship seems to be full of more sniping and accusations than support and affection.
Miko suspects Ben fetishizes white girls, a suspicion supported by the all-white porn stash she discovers, and that he’s secretly ashamed of being Japanese-American, like her. When she takes an internship with the Asian-American Film Institute in New York City, they find themselves in a four-month break-taking phase, which, after a few long-distance phone fights, he exploits to try and bed a white girl.
Lucky for him, a flirty, exhibitionist performance artist has just started working for him at the theater.
Ben’s what you might call a piece of work, but, at the same time, he’s pretty much a normal person—he’s you, and everybody you know. And that’s what makes Tomine’s downplayed drama so biting. On its surface, Shortcomings is merely a book about a single relationship ending, although the hang-ups of the characters involved open it up to a more charged reading about identity.
It’s hardly a polemic, though, or anything other than a straight realistic detailing of a relationship; if it addresses race or gender issues, it’s because the people in the book are dealing with them, not because Tomine wants to make them deal with them.
It’s that subtle hand that separates Tomine’s work from the pack, even in today’s increasingly crowded graphic-novel market.
Well, that subtlety and Tomine’s amazing artwork.
His figures and settings are all so realistic that they seem to exist in the space between reality and drawings of reality. Staring at a Tomine panel, it’s impossible to tell where a pencil or pen touched the paper, and where Tomine moved it next. But at the same time his clean, crisp, black-and-white art doesn’t look quite photo-realistic either, eschewing lighting effects and the static staging that usually accompanies highly representational work.
The combined effect is a story that doesn’t seem told as much as captured, with settings you can walk right into and people you meet rather than read about. There are still a few months to go, but thus far Shortcomings is a strong contender for the best graphic novel of the year.