The Distance of California in Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying

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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.

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The Cover for Killing and Dying with a composite of California and a Denny’s from Pasadena

 

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. 

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The 1970s Workplace Comedy in Graphic Novel Form: Mimi Pond’s Over Easy

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When Generoso wrote about Peter Yates’s Mother, Jugs, and Speed, he discussed the concept of the “Workplace Comedy.” This sub-genre of comedy generally includes a group of characters who would unlikely cross paths beyond their workplace but naturally do because they all need to pay bills, and as a result, a day in the office, car wash, ambulance, or any other agency of employment, contains more entertainment and perception than you would expect from “a day in the life” comedy.

While the Workplace Comedy certainly has manufactured laughs and shenanigans, it also has an odd ability to capture the essence of the time and place through its characters, their interactions, and the circumstances they find themselves in because, after all, you learn the most about the people and their generation by their behaviors at home and their behaviors at work. Through this caricature approach, Workplace Comedies boil down and present the social dynamics of an era, making them a fascinating snowglobe of a moment in the past. Sure, larger, more philosophical themes may exist in them, but they are hardly ruminated upon, and as a result, plenty of ideas and comments on the times are packed into fast sketches, conversations, and moments into a fluid journey that may not lead to a climax or denouement but will give you a sharp insight into the characters’ times and a history of American culture.

Though in graphic novel, semi-fictional memoir form, Mimi Pond’s Over Easy falls into this Workplace Comedy bin. Paced almost like 1976’s Car Wash in its looseness with its characters, Over Easy captures the spirit of Oakland, California and America in the late 70s through the employees and clientele of the Imperial Cafe. Richard Hell called the 70s the Blank Generation, and Mimi Pond’s characterization of herself and her colleagues in Oakland in in 1978 would agree.

The Teal Preciousness of the Cover of Over Easy

Given that the fluidity of an experiential yet condensed (a term which our dear friend Mitch uses to describe the aesthetic of the 70s) film such as Car Wash relies on the time-based nature of the film form, Pond’s graphic novel interpretation of the form depends on her narration of her young adult self to guide you smoothly through the big and small moments in the Imperial Cafe, which minimizes the frenetic energy that devours you in Car Wash but prevents the novel from feeling too chaptered in its depictions of different events in the diner. As a result, Over Easy could be interpreted as an alternative bildungsroman for a budding female cartoonist who works in order to pay for her last year of art school and accordingly must learn how to live in the real world outside of the protective, pillowy walls of art school; however, the cast and crew of the Imperial steal the spotlight in Over Easy, making Mimi, or Madge (Pond’s Imperial Cafe moniker given to her by Lazlo, the manager), more of an omniscient narrator to the Workplace Comedy of a diner with hip waitresses in vintage dresses, surly cooks, and eccentric management who all serve premium Americana food to unusually good-looking hippies, freaks, and punks.

Beyond all of the relationship and sexual do-si-does between the various staff members of the cafe to tingle your prurient interests and also remind you of how incestuous contained groups of men and women can be (call in flashback to different social groups you were a part of or observed in high school, college, or life), Over Easy also brushes upon the precarious state of confidence and utter confusion of the late 70s. Through the clients and the employees of the diner, we see the rejection of hippie culture, disco, and political revolution and the embrace of the sexual revolution, punk, and a general distrust but passiveness toward the U.S. government. In turn, the crew of Over Easy have an overall ennui toward their own futures but indulge in their senses in the now. They are hedonistic; they are vulgar; they are self-obsessed; they are over educated in a field that probably adds no practical knowledge to the work force; they are prime for an awakening or a complete submission to the middle, the average.

Beyond only recounting the cultural shifts of the late 70s in the vacuum of the Imperial Cafe, Over Easy manages to document the roots of the modern day hipster. Consequently, I must admit that I cringed a bit when I saw various characters attempting to live a blue-collar life even though they served gourmand diner classics to everyone but factory and construction workers and anyone of color (with the exception of three belligerent, drunk black women, and I’ll leave the interpretation of that scene to you and how it relates to the surge of the squeaky clean 1980s), but these moments remind us of the contradictory nature of the time and how it has come to influence today. By including herself in the narrative during her integration into the Imperial Cafe climate, Pond captures the outsider’s fascination of the exterior of this pseudo-bohemian world and the less glamorous insider’s perspective into its hollow and confused middle, making Over Easy less of a rosy eyed work of nostalgia and more of a relevant observation of the chaotic life in Oakland and America at large in the late 70s.

Over Easy’s teal-sepia watercolors and past reflection premise will certainly pull in the modern day intellectual, but remember, even though the characters, including Pond herself, all discuss how they hate disco, Over Easy is not too far off from the disco-encoated Car Wash. Just look at the parallels between Babette and Lindy, and in this comparison, you’ll realize that Car Wash is a more accomplished film than you would ever expect and that Over Easy, while engaging, does not quite attain the same level of achievement. Then again, this outcome could completely stem from my own inability to relate to Madge and Co. because as I complete this review, I am living less than 5 miles from where Car Wash was filmed and am listening to the disco as I live in a generation that feels more vacuous and disastrous than that of the Imperial Diner…

Over Easy is written and illustrated by Mimi Pond. It is available via Drawn & Quarterly.