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Adrian Tomine on the creative process and why he won’t do follow-ups

You know Adrian Tomine's work, even if you don't know his name. One of the most well-respected graphic novelists working today, the 41-year-old's wry and understated illustrations can be found on comic-store shelves and New Yorker magazine covers, each image a perfect short story in itself. The California-born artist began his career with the self-published series Optic Nerve and has just released Killing and Dying, an alternatingly heartbreaking and hilarious collection of graphic-novel short stories. The Globe and Mail spoke with Tomine from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Killing and Dying.

Killing and Dying mixes a number of artistic styles. Here, you’re playing with impressionistic, illustrative and even Sunday comic strip-style.

That was one of the few things I did have in mind before I started the whole book. It was a reaction to the last official book of new material I did, Shortcomings, that was the closest I had come to doing an actual full-length graphic novel, with an extended story over hundreds of pages. By the end of that, I set myself up for drudgery in a way that I started the book with a very precise, detailed, photo-realistic style. After maintaining that, I had to rethink my process.

Adrian Tomine artwork.

The one story that sticks with me from this collection is A Brief History of the Art Form Known as Hortisculpture. Is Harold’s artistic struggle there familiar to your own creative process?

All the stories, you know, are in some kind of mysterious way based on my own personality or my own experiences. I’m hesitant to decode the stories too much and say this came from my life. I don’t want to sound like I’m dodging your question, but it does come up a lot, and I feel like I’m trying to remove myself as a person from the work.

To make it more universal?

Yeah, and my relationship with readers now is there’s some degree of interest in how much things are based on my own experiences. But to be perfectly honest, if it was up to me, I would be invisible as an artist. We’ve had a huge interest in behind-the-scenes stories of making movies or writing novels [rather] than the actual stories they’re telling now.

Adrian Tomine artwork.

Rarely is there a DVD that doesn’t come with a making-of documentary.

You’re outraged if it’s just a movie! If it’s just this masterpiece of a film someone made [laughs]. It’s tough, you know: There’s so much competition in terms of media now to get a book or film out into the world. One thing that comes to mind is I was reading a biography of Charles Schulz, and he said that people assumed he was Charlie Brown, and he tried to explain that all the Peanuts characters were aspects of his personality. And I relate to that with this book. There are some that beg more obvious comparisons, like the fathers or struggling artists, but truthfully I do feel a lot of myself in all the characters.

Speaking of characters, a lot of these stories cry out for follow-ups. Have you ever considered revisiting narratives?

It’s been proposed to me, that’s for sure, and I find it very flattering. To me, though, it’s hard to think of any of these characters or stories as anything other than what I sweated over my drawing board for a few months. I don’t have the same feeling some readers do for these characters to go beyond anything in the story. It takes so long to make comics, and I’m not getting any younger. I’d prefer new material.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Adrian Tomine appears at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto on Oct. 24 (

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