Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week it’s Optic Nerve #14. Written and drawn by Adrian Tomine (The New Yorker), this issue tells two poignant stories about overcoming personal obstacles to advance into an uncertain future. (This review reveals major plot points.)
It’s always an occasion when a new issue of Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve hits stands, and after a two-year absence, the series returns with more of the insightful, grounded stories that have made Tomine one of the biggest names in alternative comics. The first of the two pieces in the book, “Killing And Dying,” explores family dynamics through one teenage girl’s foray into the world of stand-up comedy, focusing on how Jesse’s new hobby impacts the relationship between her father and mother, the latter of whom is dying of cancer. The second, “Intruders” (dedicated to the late manga pioneer Yoshihiro Tatsumi), is a tense tale about a military veteran that breaks into his old apartment, desperately trying to hold on to his past life and discovering that it’s just not possible anymore.
The narratives are considerably different in tone and visual style, but they are both ultimately about pushing through hardship. In the case of Jesse and her family, the primary hardship is her mother’s cancer, but Tomine doesn’t dwell on the illness, instead chronicling the mother’s deteriorating health and eventual death solely through visuals. The first indication of the sickness comes when Jesse’s parents come to see her first stand-up performance and her mother is using a cane and wearing a scarf over her bald head, which had hair in the previous scenes, and when the script jumps forward in time, the mother is no longer present. Tomine doesn’t give extra attention to the cancer because these visuals are effective enough, especially when combined with his nuanced character expressions.
A particularly heart-wrenching sequence comes after Jesse’s stand-up show when she gets in a fight with her father at The Cheesecake Factory and her mother consoles her outside. The silent series of five panels emphasizes just how important Jesse’s mother is as a force of comfort and compassion, so when the action jumps forward and Jesse’s mother is absent, the loss is all the more pronounced. This sequence is further highlighted by visual elements that distinguish it from the rest of the story: The main color is a dark gray that sticks out against the dominant beige of the panels surrounding it, and the thick lines of the door that Jesse’s father looks out of breaks the sequence down into even smaller moments by serving as panel gutters within the larger image. Those lines initially separate Jesse and her mother, but the two women eventually come together in a strong embrace, leaving the father alone and wondering what he’s going to do when his wife is gone.
Tomine’s script subtly details how the cancer has given Jesse’s parents very different perspectives of their daughter’s new creative endeavor: Her father is hung up on the cost/benefit analysis, likely because he’s dealing with the financial stress of his wife’s cancer treatments, but Jesse’s mother wants her daughter to believe that she can do anything if she puts her heart into it and never gives up. It’s a potentially sappy statement, and Jesse’s father points out that it belongs on a bumper sticker, but the context of this advice makes it a meaningful lesson from a mother who isn’t going to be in her daughter’s life for much longer. While Jesse’s father has trouble recognizing the value of Jesse’s $500 stand-up class, its benefit is immediately apparent when Jesse performs and her stutter disappears. And while it’s difficult for Jesse’s father to watch her bomb on stage when she tries original material, what matters is that his daughter is conquering her fears and moving forward thanks to her late mother’s guidance.
Both stories are tightly structured, with “Killing And Dying” sticking to a dense 20-panel grid while “Intruders” uses a 9-panel grid, giving Tomine room to include narration that delves into the inner thoughts of the main character. A 20-panel grid layout could be overwhelming in the wrong hands, but Tomine uses it to break down the individual beats of the action in a way that feels especially naturalistic. During the scenes of Jesse performing stand-up, Tomine dedicates individual panels to parentheticals describing audience reactions, which intensify feelings of triumph and awkwardness during Jesse’s two turns at the mic. But the most valuable thing about the layout is that it keeps things small, downplaying the major changes in Jesse’s life. The rhythm of the story doesn’t change when Jesse’s mother dies (a transition marked by a small blank space in the grid), and the layout accentuates how everyday life must continue after significant events.
“Killing And Dying” is fairly ambiguous when it comes to the inner lives of the characters, but “Intruders” spends a lot of time getting into the head of the veteran. The specifics of his military experience and break-up with his girlfriend are vague—the only indicators of his veteran status are his brief mention that he’s between his second and third tours, his buzzed hair, and military jacket—but the emotional impact of these events is very clear. His time in the military has made him very aggressive, and his break-up is the major driving force for his intrusion into a home that no longer belongs to him.
There’s no color in “Intruders,” which immediately makes it more stark and severe than the first story. There’s more attention to contrast, with Tomine altering the balance of light and dark elements on the page to create visual tension that informs the struggle within the character. When the veteran first appears, he’s covered in shadows that add an ominous quality to his character, and those heavy shadows return when he scopes out his old apartment from a café across the street and eventually makes his way inside. Those shadows fade as he becomes more comfortable in this semi-familiar location, and when he comes face-to-face with a teenage intruder sneaking in through the bathroom window, there’s almost no shading on the veteran at all. Instead, the darkness has been transferred to the teenager’s jacket, making him the sinister character invading the home that the veteran is now protecting.
Over the course of “Intruders,” the veteran encounters challenges that prevent him from returning to his old life, and his last visit to the apartment forces him to give up his current mission and accept that it’s time to move on. After throwing the apartment keys into a gutter, the veteran ventures into a street full of happy people in hopes that he can become one of them, but the reader already knows that he’s not going to achieve the blissful domesticity he wants. As mentioned in the very first panel, the veteran is between his second and third tours, which means that his journey will eventually take him back into the military. The story ends with the man trying to forge a new life, but the beginning has already told the reader that he’ll end up going back to a world that is familiar to him, although not quite as familiar as the apartment he shared with his ex-girlfriend.
Optic Nerve #14 opens with a ground plan of the apartment in “Intruders,” giving the reader a familiarity with the environment of that second story before jumping into “Killing And Dying.” When the veteran returns to his apartment, the reader is returning to it as well, even if the reader doesn’t explicitly make that connection. It’s a small detail, but those small details are what make Tomine such a captivating voice in comics and draw the audience deeper into his stories. Tomine’s work is immersive, and it’s easy to make strong emotional connections to his characters because he makes their circumstances so real. His work can be taxing to read because it so thoroughly explores heavy material, but it’s consistently a sterling example of how to use graphic storytelling to delve into the finer points of the human condition.