Adrian Tomine on fame, obscurity, craft, and drawing for 'The New Yorker'
Back in 2004, The New Yorker’s art director Françoise Mouly approached Adrian Tomine, who had been contributing illustrations to the inside of the magazine for a few years, with the possibility of working on a cover for the annual Books Issue in 2004. Her directions were simple: the image should be, she said, “a picture that can be read.”
The result was Missed Connection, a self-contained bit of poetry in motion: a man and a woman reading the same book wistfully glance at each as their trains pass on parallel tracks. Acutely felt and finely detailed, that cover led to several more: Tomine has now contributed a total of 10 New Yorker covers, with his latest image, Undeterred, another thousand-word-snapshot, this one about voting post-Sandy, fronting the Nov. 12 issue.
And now Missed Connection is on still another cover: that of New York Drawings, the recently released collection of Tomine’s commercial work, much of which first appeared in The New Yorker.
“I've always liked books that collect people's work from The New Yorker,” Tomine wrote in a recent email exchange. “And that includes cartoonists, illustrators, photographers, and writers. At some point I realized that I was in a position to put together a book like that, and my publisher [Drawn & Quarterly] graciously accepted my proposal.”
That deceptively simple origin story leaves out what it might mean to have your work from The New Yorker collected in a hardcover book of some 170 pages. Aside from those 10 covers, Tomine has been contributing various illustrations, many for book and film reviews, since 1999. New York Drawings solidifies Tomine's identification with The New Yorker by isolating his aesthetic contribution to the magazine: mordantly observant, a little sad, poignantly attuned to life’s small pleasures, indignities, and absurdities, and ever so slightly neurotic.
Of course that influence goes both ways: working with the magazine, it's clear from Tomine’s notes on the images collected in New York Drawings, has been a kind of master class in the art of provoking emotional reactions with images. In particular, Tomine repeatedly returns to the influence of Mouly, whose storytelling instincts have shaped his own sensibilities: he still, Tomine said in his email, follows her edict to create “pictures that can be read” when designing New Yorker covers.
The new book might also be seen as a kind of ratification of Tomine’s status as an official New Yorker, an inside observer of the peculiar rituals of city life. Tomine grew up in Sacramento, the son of two California State University Scramento professors. He spent much of his career before The New Yorker, beginning with the 1991 release of the first issue of his serial Optic Nerve, a self-pubished three-sheet edition with a print run of just 25 copies, on the other side of the country. He only moved to Brooklyn in 2004, where he now lives with his wife Sarah Brennan and their daughter Nora. (Tomine and Brennan’s wedding preparations were chronicled in Tomine’s Scenes from an Impending Marriage, published by Drawn & Quarterly last year, a “mini-memoir” that began life as a wedding favor.)
But Tomine’s long-developing strengths as a comics artist—the ability to capture the emotional resonances of an isolated moment, the tendency to imbue vignettes with autobiographical reverberations, the distinct pride in a sense of apartness—were well suited to drawing the rhythms of New York living.
Now 38, Tomine finds himself critically recognized and commercially successful, increasingly asked to offer retrospective assessments on his career and his influences. He can be a bit tentative regarding such requests.
When I inquired, for example, if he had a favorite New Yorker illustrator, a contributor who had most significantly influenced his own work, Tomine offered a list of people he admired instead of singling anyone out.
“I was a fan of people like Peter Arno and Charles Addams long before I was working for the magazine," he wrote to me in an email. "In terms of artists working now, I'm always knocked out by whatever fellow cartoonists like Dan Clowes, Richard McGuire, and Chris Ware do for The New Yorker. And there's plenty of other artists, like Barry Blitt or Andy Friedman, who probably don't influence my work directly in any discernible way, but whose drawings always impress me.”
He also noted the magazine’s long history and suggested that its tradition of including visuals was a crucial shaping factor in his own sensibilities:
“I think in general the magazine just has such high standards that most of the stuff they publish, whether it's to my specific tastes or not, is interesting and well-done.” He added, “I may not read every article, but I unfailingly look at every single illustration week after week.”
Tomine described his work with The New Yorker in glowing terms, and talked about how working working there felt like a bridge over the otherwise wide gulf between commercial illustration and cartooning: “I generally think of cartooning and illustration as two very separate jobs, but my work for The New Yorker kind of blurs that line.”
"It still feels like work that I'm personally invested in. Which is more than I can say about some of the other illustration projects I've gotten involved in!” he said. “There are times, especially when I'm working in advertising, when I have to just resign myself to being the ‘picture-making machine’ for someone, and I just politely shut off my brain and do as I'm told.”
So how does a piece like the Hurricane Sandy-Election Day cover get made?
“I usually start out by overloading the image with detail, and then work backwards, eliminating unnecessary clutter,” Tomine explained. “There's no concrete formula to this process, but I suppose like all artists, I'm trying to make something look ‘right’ to me.”
In his introduction to New York Drawings, Tomine draws himself at his first New Yorker holiday party circa 2004, an image of incredulity at this turn of events. “I thought I’d always be an obscure, ‘alternative’ comic book artist,” cartoon-Tomine thinks.
So what, I asked, were the advantages and disadvantages of popular success, now that he’s had a bit more time to process it?
“In terms of this particular level of ‘commercial success’ that I've attained, I can't really think of any disadvantages. The main advantage is that I have the unbelievably luxurious ability to make a living doing something I enjoy, from a small room in my home,” Tomine said.
But he also wanted to set the record straight:
“I should clarify that these are all relative terms. In the scope of things, I'm still fairly obscure.”