WILLIAMSTOWN -- Adrian Tomine is best known for two bodies of work -- his magazine illustration career, which includes regular work for The New Yorker, and his cartooning one, which began with a series of acclaimed, self-published mini comics.
Tomine will speak at the Williams College Museum of Art on Tuesday, April 23, at 4:30 p.m., in the second floor gallery space as part of the "Cultural Politics in Asian America" series.
Unlike many cartoonists who make it in larger field of art, Tomine never really transitioned from one into the other, but maintained both concurrently.
"They were more like parallel careers developing," Tomine said, "doing a lot of low-end amateur illustration work around the same time I was doing low-end amateur comics work.
"More and more it became useful for me to think of them as two separate jobs and two separate pursuits, in addition to the distinction between sequential and single image."
The different styles that define the work were accompanied by opposite methods of creating them.
In comics, Tomine has complete autonomy and is left to do whatever he wants.
"Illustration work, by definition, is a collaboration between myself and at least one other person, but often something of a committee, not only in terms of how I create the work physically, but mentally, in terms of how I approach it and what my priorities are become pretty different," he said.
Tomine says that drawing for The New Yorker is one of the few illustration jobs he actively pursued, and it's been a point of pride for him for the last 15 years.
"If you have a dream of being a magazine illustrator, that's definitely one of the top places that you want to get work at eventually," said Tomine.
That side of his career has finally begun to appear in his own publications.
"I don't think this book would exist if I had been a life-long New Yorker," he said. "I don't think it's the kind of book that I would have put together. I certainly wouldn't have used that title if I had grown up in New York."
Tomine grew up in mostly in California, and his comics, which have a significant autobiographical segment to them, mostly take place there, except his most recent "Scenes From An Impending Marriage," which glossed over the bi-coastal aspect of his life for simplicity.
Autobiography has always been a major part of his cartooning from the very beginning.
"Initially, it started out when I'd sit down to draw a comic, it was heavily autobiographical," said Tomine. "At that point in my life, it was very hard for me to just invent a fictional story. I didn't have a lot of life experience to draw on when I was 14, at least not that I could process as an artist yet."
"So to me, that was what kick started me as a person who wrote and drew comics, which is that I discovered you could take the most mundane experience from that day and translate it into comics form and it might be interesting. Not necessarily, but it could be interesting."
Tomine was influenced by other autobiographical writers and cartoonists who worked the field before him, like Harvey Pekar and Chester Brown. As he grew older and began working more professionally, he began to consider how much of his private life he really wanted to make public, and also whether the raw details really served his storytelling in the way he wanted it to.
"I started to become more interested in having an end result that was as good as I was capable of at that point," Tomine said, "whether that meant drawing heavily on real experience or inventing a lot of stuff or combining the two. I felt a little more in control of what I was doing at that point and less reliant on everyday experience."
One of the reasons for Tomine's success in the form was that, unlike his heroes who came before him, Tomine appeared less an eccentric outsider and more an everyman who young readers could identify with.
"A lot of the best autobiographical work is so compelling and fascinating, and in some ways hindered by more grotesque elements, or a stronger focus on sexuality," he said, "or sometimes just unintentionally the creator's personality is such that it's somewhat self-selecting in its readership. Those very qualities that I think have kept some of those people from being on Oprah's Book Club are generally the qualities that really fascinate me."
"It certainly wasn't by design. I didn't say I'm going to disguise my eccentric personality and create a fake everyman persona in the hopes of getting my comics in the New Yorker. I'm just not as interesting a guy as some of those other artists."
Tomine attempted to enter into cartooning through art school training, but quickly found the climate that was not encouraging of that form of creativity.
"I was met with great consternation and hostility in the fine art program at Berkeley," Tomine said. "At worst, my stuff was made fun of, and at best, there were a few charitable teachers who maybe thought I was trying to do a sort of Roy Lichtenstein commentary on junk culture or something like that. They were very disappointed when I just was like, ‘I'm into comic books and I want to be a cartoonist.' It was hard for them to process. I just didn't enjoy my first semester as an art major at all."
Tomine switched to being an English major, which served him well, not suspecting that he was there at the end of an era.
"I didn't know it and no one knew it at the time, but North American culture was right on this cusp of saying, ‘We are warming up to the idea of comics and illustration work as being a little more legitimate,'" he said. "We were just behind that turning point."
Tomine spent his time cartooning after going to school, creating his own mini comics and slowly building to the career he has enjoyed for over a decade.
He says his rise from self-made comics to art books and museum appearances is the art world version of a home recording musician having a hit or an amateur videographer becoming a hot filmmaker that has already become accepted in those mediums.
"I think it's not as outrageous as it once was" Tomine said, "but certainly if I can be objective enough and look back on my career, it is strange to me that when I sit down at my desk every day, I feel like I'm doing the exact same thing I was doing when I was 14 years old."
"I use a lot of the same equipment that I used, and not in some beautiful professional studio that I go to like my office. I'm still just working in my bedroom. So to me, it is funny that I'm working in the same way that I have most my life -- it's just some of the work ends up being seen by a lot more people."