Indie-comix star Adrian Tomine's Summer Blonde first appeared in 2003, though he wrote most of the stories earlier for his comic, Optic Nerve, and they're clearly set in the mid-1990s ("Bomb Scare" takes place even earlier, during the first Gulf War). If they occurred now, technology would change certain key elements. Lonely, isolated young people, particularly those who obsess over others, have different ways and means in the twenty-first century.
Tomine's characters are beautifully-rendered though not beautiful. His protagonists try to connect with others in questionable ways, and with varying degrees of success. The plots rarely come to a clear resolution. Even the title story, by far the strongest and most complete, ends with an uncertain fade to black.
The alienated characters and clean lines recall Daniel Clowes. Tomine has acknowledged the influence of the Ghost World author/artist as well as Love and Rockets's Jaime Hernandez. Summer Blonde may betray these influences, but Tomine has his own stories to tell.
"Lust and revenge are great motivators when it comes to writing."
The first story concerns a nerdily hip young writer whose first book has brought him a measure of fame and independence. Unfortunately, he faces the classic dilemma of a lifetime to write the first book and a year to write the second. A chance event brings to mind a girl he longed for in high school, and he seeks her out. Instead, he finds her younger, still school-aged sister, and begins a relationship of sorts. While our young auteur finds inspiration in his actions, they have problematic consequences. Artists and writers often find inspiration in voyeurism, obsession, and fantasies, things which can be exceedingly dangerous. Thematically, "Alter Ego" sets the tone for the collection.
--I'm sure you really hate me.
--Yeah... but no more than anyone else.
The title story concerns Neil, a socially inept young man driven to frustration by Carlos, the shallow hipster next door who has remarkable success with casual hook-ups. Our pathetic protagonist is also stalking Vanessa, a twenty-year-old blonde woman who works at a nearby card store, and his rage increases when she becomes Carlos's latest sexual conquest.
Throughout, Tomine makes impressive use of art to carry the story. On the second page, Neil lingers on a girl in an advertisement. She resembles Vanessa, though we we have not yet met Vanessa to know this. On the subway, he reacts quietly to an affectionate couple. They remain unaware of his presence; we see his desire and anguish. He next purchases a card from Vanessa. Seven wordless panels follow, in which we see Neil's lonely existence in stark images and the space between them: a young man looking into a fridge, an erotic image appearing onscreen during a sandwich dinner, a hand reaching for a kleenex.
In other panels, Neil appears suddenly in the background as Vanessa goes about her day. The effect is disturbing. When he finally attempts to communicate with her, we understand her reaction. She has no idea who he is; in his mind, they already have a connection.
"Summer Blonde" features a stronger plot than the other stories, but the final confrontation and its consequences do not seem forced. They leave the reader to contemplate the nature of our own connections with others, and our motives in relationships.
"Summer Blonde" also makes me wonder why the U.S. bars twenty-year-olds from buying alcohol, but that's a minor matter.
--Uh, remember when I told you about my grandma? You wouldn't consider, uh, going with me, would you? To the funeral?
--What... Is this your idea of a second date?
The sole story with a female protagonist, it concerns yet another bitter loner who begins calling people as they pass the phone booth outside her apartment window.
"Hawaiian Getaway" has been presented in episodic fragments, in which Tomine jumbles the young woman's past and present. Hillary Chan may be his most complex character. Her personal history makes sense, and we understand her inability to communicate with others through normal means. Like Neil, she also experiences frustration at the apparently undeserved success others have in relationships. Her male roommate gets involved with a woman whose behavior would drive many people away.
Unlike Neil, however, she actually gets occasional dates, though her methods and follow-up may give one pause. The story does not lack hope, but Hillary's future remains uncertain. We're left at story's end waiting with her for a caller who may or may not arrive.
"God, I'm sick of that fucking slut-face."
The final story centers on a teenage geek and his slightly scary friend, and the relationship he gradually develops with his co-worker, a party girl who is wearing out her welcome with the In Crowd. The high school histrionics seem turned up a notch too high, but Tomine gives us uncomfortably believable characters. We see the dangerous side of Scotty's friend long before he does, and I can hear his overarticulated speech when I read it. The art once again conveys much through silent drawings and conversational banter. Many of us knew someone like the self-destructive Cammie at high school. We likely also encountered an asshole like Bryan, a self-aggrandizing bully incapable of self-reflection. The star, however, is geeky Scotty himself.
He can empathize and communicate, but he has genuine problems connecting. He rarely voices his feelings about his mother's dating situation. When he attends a party of fellow alternate music fans, he remains aloof. Even at the end, he does not truly understand what occurs between himself and Cammie. His problems result as much from his own nature as his social environment, and his difficulties may remain for the rest of his life.
Although I found this the least satisfying of the four stories, its compelling characters brought Tomine wider notice. The 2002 Best American Nonrequired Reading Anthology reprinted "Bomb Scare."
While the four stories collected here repeat themes and character types, they nevertheless provide an impressive introduction to Adrian Tomine, whose work I recommend to those interested in contemporary comics and current American fiction.