Optic Nerve #11
Drawn & Quarterly
Adrian Tomine has a way of taking his already lonely characters and ripping them even further away from society, even as they attempt in socially weird ways to reach out. With the exact same motion, he sets up a psychological wind tunnel that pulls unsuspecting readers into the minds of those isolated characters. Though I wouldn’t call this a formula of his, this is usually the thing about Tomine’s work that gets me.
In Optic Nerve #11, his conclusion to his trilogy about Ben Tanaka and his long drawn-out break-up with his girlfriend, Tomine does not take the story quite that far. Instead of a story about a person cut off from society and indulging in their obsessions in extreme ways, this particular arc is almost too mundane and common. After all, it’s about a guy with a few annoying peccadillos getting the brush off from his girlfriend who is sick of his self-absorption. Typical relationship stuff, if you ask me.
This latest edition starts off with Ben lugging himself to New York to try to patch things up with his estranged Asian girlfriend, but only after two disappointing attempts at rebounding with a couple of mal-adjusted white girls, parodies of Tomine’s usual characters. In the context of Tomine’s world, Miko is weirdly normal and well-adjusted, though slightly spoiled by her trust fund in the eyes of at least one of the characters. Ben on the other hand is a cynical theater manager who’s only friend is Alice, his lesbian partner in crime.
Another layer to this arc, of course, is the fact that this is probably the first time Tomine directly addresses so-called Asian American issues. In the first installment of this arc, Ben is noticeably put off by Miko’s newfound interest in hokey Asian American cultural awareness. Throughout the trilogy, you may catch a panel showing someone cooking with a wok or a sequence in which Ben pretends to be his lesbian friend’s boyfriend for the benefit of her Korean family. In another scene, Ben makes a big deal about his first time sleeping with a white girl.
In the latest installment, Ben gets schooled by Alice’s new hapa girlfriend and one scene takes place at the Asian American Film Institute. But what really gets the prize is Ben’s involvement with the king of all Asian American male tropes—the idea that Asian American males are insecure about white men taking their women. Only, in this instance, Ben seems to be using it to avoid thinking about his own failings. Though intelligent, Ben Tanaka is also bumbling, whiny, and unaware.
This arc also seems like a departure in terms of material and even storytelling for Tomine. While Ben is the main character, his perspective does not really dominate and take over the plot the way Tomine’s characters do in his other stories. It almost seems like there are much more interesting stories happening around Ben—Alice takes off for New York and hooks up with new girl that’s liable to change her life, Miko is having some kind of self-discovery saga of her own that we’re not quite privy to, and the two white girls that Ben sleeps with could fill up another issue of Optic Nerve.
Quippy dialogue like Alice remarking, “Doesn’t it make you feel like you’re in some nostalgic movie about being Jewish or something?” in reference to the New York subway keeps the story entertaining, and a few twists and turns keeps the plot engrossing. Tomine manages to be observant about the Asian American stuff, using Ben’s flailing grasp of the issues to present a somewhat unique take among an otherwise “corny” field of Asian American literature.