When completing Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying, only one word could describe my first reaction: distance. When reading Killing and Dying, you always feel like an outsider looking into the world of the people in the six stories. You never feel close to the characters, and the visual style has a sterile perfection to it that reinforces this sense of distance. Reality inspires the world of the graphic novel, but a genericness to the scenery makes every setting seem like a faceless suburb somewhere in California, giving way to a coldness in the delivery of each story.
However, this distance is not a bad thing, and it makes plenty of sense when you live here.
Yes, I’m late to this renowned graphic novel of last fall, but after living in California for a year, the atmosphere of the book makes more sense now than it would have in October 2015. This state has an abundance of beauty in it, and it still has an undercurrent of untamed energy that you can trace back to the wild west of the past, but California, despite the sun, mountains, trees, and ocean, has this palpable sadness to it. Maybe it comes from the lost hope from dreams that never came true or maybe from the interactions that never happen because so many spend a large percentage of time in their cars, making a sense of community feel far away, but regardless of the reason, this dourness lies just under the topsoil that sees the frequent sun. This gloom manifests itself in many ways, and one of them emerges in distance between people.
Adrian Tomine perfectly captures this sullen mood of life in California with his stories in Killing and Dying. Similar in its construction and tone to Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels, but with desperation and sadness stemming from a different place than the return of Hong Kong to China, each story has similar elements of compulsion and absurdity stemming from miscommunication or misinterpretation by people and their actions.
In “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture,’” Harold, a gardener, finds inspiration in the thoughts and work of Isamu Noguchi and begins a new creative enterprise, which he terms as “Hortisculpture.” Part formal sculpture, part horticulture, Harold’s art fuels a passion in him for his work, and this passion develops into obsession as his Hortisculptures fail to attract the attention and capital of his gardening clients, his colleagues, and his own family. The Hortisculpture fixation lasts six years, and it consumes his existence and tears up his family. In a state historically looked at as a beacon of opportunity, Harold’s story resembles that of every actor, actress, technologist, and inventor whose creations and work fail to gain the attention of people, making it an excellent opening story to set the tone of the book. He gives everything to his creativity, but it goes nowhere and takes him far too long to realize when his artistic dreams need to be placed on a hiatus.
In the title bearing story, the daughter in a family wants to test out comedy as a potential for a career. The mother offers unbounded support and gives the daughter the opportunity to try out this creative outlet, and the father, the pragmatist, offers his skeptical opinions. As we see the daughter’s development and failures in comedy, we also see how the mother’s illness shapes the father’s bitterness, the daughter’s fearlessness, and the mother’s optimism. The strongest of the six stories included in the graphic novel, “Killing and Dying,” condenses killing in a comedic sense, dying of embarrassment, dying of humiliation, and death into a quiet story constructed entirely from conversations and comedic performances, good and bad. The dream to become an entertainer makes “Killing and Dying” a California-centric story, and its disappointments coming from failures and life further place the story here.
Killing and Dying closes with “Intruders,” hearkening again to Wong Kar-wai, but this time, to the film Chungking Express. In between tours, a man returns to his home city. Unwelcome by his family and lacking a permanent home, he establishes a base camp in a hotel room, waiting to travel again. During this period, he gets the keys to his old apartment from a young woman who once house sat for him, and he begins to live in the apartment in the hours that the current tenant leaves it for work. Like “Killing and Dying,” “Intruders” toys with multiple interpretations of the term intruder, and it concisely sums up the book, for by the end, you also feel like you have intruded on the lives of all of the people in the stories, and as a result, you will most likely have one of two reactions. You may want to start narrowing this separation from others, or you may want to make it larger and only view people and places through your windshield.
Killing and Dying has received adulations from the literary and alternative comics world, and that praise is well deserved. Tomine understands the motivations, disappointment, and derailment of people, and he discusses them with minimalism and detachment that draws empathy without pathos, allowing you to see the underlying sadness of the setting, which exactly feels like modern day California.
California is a place where people can become larger than life. California is a place where people can fall far from grace. California is a place where finding your own identity and understanding yourself feels far harder than anywhere else because others always feel far away physically and emotionally, and Killing and Dying examines this distance and resulting melancholy with a sharp eye and efficient tongue, reminding all that not everything is golden on the edge of the Pacific.
Killing and Dying is written and illustrated by Adrian Tomine and is available via Drawn & Quarterly.