As a novelist of my acquaintance once observed, writers tend mostly to moan about their humiliations – the book signing for which no one turned up; the festival at which they could barely be heard over the sound of the audience cheering a more famous author in the bigger tent next door – to each other. Even as they flinch at the memory, they know in their hearts that there are worse things in life than mistaking the snaking line of bodies at an event for your own fans when in fact they’re Neil Gaiman’s, even if your new girlfriend was there to witness the pitifully brief flaring of your excitement. As their non-writer mothers/sisters/friends will inevitably remind them should they be tempted to complain that they overheard someone slagging off their book in a pizza joint (“pure writers’ workshop bullshit…”), sweetie, at least the guy read it.
But this doesn’t mean that these things aren’t, in the right hands, delicious to read about. In his latest book, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, Adrian Tomine turns himself into the everyman of writerly mortification, cataloguing all of the above indignities and many more besides in such brilliant and toe-curling detail that, post-pandemic, you can imagine publicists quietly placing it in the hotel bedrooms of touring authors, the better that they might find succour among its pages late at night. The readers who like to politely inform him (“I don’t mean this as a critique”) that his work is derivative; the writers who blithely refer to his “little” pictures; the “fans” who mistake him for his fellow cartoonist Daniel Clowes. Here they all are, though quite how cathartic drawing them has been remains a moot point. “Like all my work, this is an attempt to make my life not feel so useless,” he says, without too much conviction, when he speaks to me via Zoom from his home in New York.
Tomine is “slightly enjoying” the disruption caused by coronavirus to the promotion of his book. “Normally, I would be travelling and reliving a lot of the things I’ve documented in it. But not this time. When my tour was cancelled, I had maybe one day of disappointment before I realised how perfect it was that this had happened.” The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist speaks, he thinks, to the way the culture surrounding cartoons in particular, and books in general, has changed in recent years, a culture that still bemuses him: “Our parents’ generation read tons of comics, say, in the newspapers, without ever giving a thought to the people who were creating them, and I thought that was what I was getting into. Twenty years ago, this seemed like the one job where I would never have to get up on stage or speak in front of an audience; it seemed like the surest path to being a hermit. But while the idea of achieving fame as a cartoonist is still absurd, it’s also tantalisingly in reach now – and somehow, that sets you up for even greater indignities.”
Everything in the book happened, he says, even the bit where he has to lock himself in a bathroom for 30 minutes while his date waits outside (I’d better not expand on this here). Nevertheless, he was keen to add to the verisimilitude both by making his drawings much less controlled than in his last book (the bestselling short story collection, Killing and Dying) and by insisting that, once complete, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist would resemble a Moleskine notebook, complete with squared paper and pencil-scribbled author bio. “A comic book can be such a range of things now,” he says. “Some of those I enjoy most have a sketchbook quality, one that takes advantage of the fact that it’s a medium in which one crazy person just puts their brain on paper.” It’s helpful not to be too slick, he thinks. A big part of his process nowadays is a mind game in which he attempts to trick himself into feeling as he did when he was making comics as a boy in Sacramento, work he was sure that no one would ever see: “That creativity got inhibited as the years went by.”
Tomine, whose academic parents were born in Japanese-American internment camps during the second world war, began drawing his comic, Optic Nerve, as a teenager; by the time he was 21, and an English student at Berkeley, it was being published by Drawn & Quarterly (he’s now 46). Nevertheless, it still amazes him that he was able to turn his beloved hobby into a living. However wonderful it is to design New Yorker covers – “I’ve never been more grateful that I could say that I was a cover artist for the New Yorker than when I was starting to get to know my in-laws,” he tells me, with laugh – cartoons will always be his first love and he will always feel protective about them, if not proprietorial, exactly. “The expansion of the comics world has benefited me,” he says. “And I love the idea that I’m not the weird dad at my kids’ school, which I once might have been. But sometimes I have the feeling that recognition and money and movie adaptations don’t always improve the quality of the artform. It’s not about TV shows or finding fame on the internet. The best comics are always going to be made by eccentric outsiders – people who feel that their work is absolutely necessary to them.”
• The Loneliness of the Long Distance Cartoonist by Adrian Tomine is published by Faber & Faber (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15