Let’s face it: some guys are jerks. Ben Tanaka, the lead in writer-illustrator Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel Shortcomings, is one of them. Cynical, selfish, bitter and indulgent, he’s the kind of fool who covers his sexual insecurities with a façade of righteous self-confidence and a porno collection. By any measure—and that wrap around English/metric ruler under the dust jacket suggests that’s just what we’re to do—he deserves to be miserable. There’s one consolation: guys like Ben get what’s coming to them.
Ben is one of the most realistically drawn characters—pun intended–we’ve encountered in recent fiction. In him, we recognize our buddies, and frighteningly, ourselves; guys who take themselves way too seriously and just don’t get it when it comes to love and respect. Ben’s position is particularly complicated. He’s a Japanese-American, want-to-be intellectual living in San Francisco with a pretty and considerate girlfriend. He also carries a lust for Anglo girls. Most of his frustration is sexual, and self-inflicted. His powerless, relatively low position in life—he manages a movie theater—makes him a case right out of Susan Faludi’s classic study of male frustration Stiffed. All this contributes mightily to his misery. Ben’s the kind of guy who harasses the waitress about the type of oil the diner uses to fry his food. He takes three panels to list his food allergies, another to say he’s not allergic to olives. Still, he occasionally shows bursts of honesty. He recounts his belief that he was discriminated against in his Oregon high school not because he was the only Asian, but because he was “a nerd with a bad personality and no social skills.”
Tomine is a proven master at portraying post-adolescent alienation and self delusion. His previous collection, Summer Blonde, explores the personal and sexual conflicts of teens and young adults with the same ethical questions regarding honesty and compassion that pop up in Shortcomings. But Shortcomings has added complications. It’s characters struggle with their racial, geographic and generational identities as well as sexual ambiguity.
Then there’s the book’s ironic answer to the old Tower of Power question, “What Is Hip?” Ben claims to know. When we first meet him, he’s attending the “Asian-American Digi-Fest” with his girlfriend Miko, who helped organized the festival. Ben can’t help but snicker at the winning film, a document that capsulizes many of Shortcomings themes. When Miko asks him who he is to criticize the low-budget production, Ben blurts, “I know a lot about movies…I’m in the industry.” He’s not so critical when attending one of his conquest’s performances, a multi-media mess entitled “Fallujah” that’s a crescendo of angry guitar feedback, posed nudes and militant gymnastics watched (or not) by indifferent hipsters standing around slurping Red Bull or, maybe, PBR. “That was…amazing,” he tells Autumn, the young artist who has come to work for him at the movie theater. By the look on his face, you can’t help but feel his unease at the lie.
The supporting cast is equally well-drawn. Autumn, eight years Ben’s junior, is fresh-faced and disarmingly innocent. Miko is svelte and alluring. It’s hard to understand how Ben can turn down her invitation to come to bed as she leans provocatively against the wall. Ben’s second conquest is visually cute and confident, traits that don’t necessarily work in Ben’s favor. The most predictable character is the most outrageous, Ben’s confidant Alice Kim, a graduate school student who declares that she wants to “make out with a hundred girls by the time I get my Ph.D.” Alice serves as Ben’s sounding board, drawing him into the new York-San Francisco rivalries while attempting to keep him honest. In an attempt to cover her sexual inclination, Alice takes Ben as her date to a relative’s wedding. But her Korean parents are still unhappy because Ben is obviously Japanese.
Tomine’s storytelling skills are matched by his illustrations. Few graphic artists weave the two together so seamlessly. Drawn with an eye for expressive realism, his subjects appear in uncluttered frames that speak directly to the plot. Arguments and dark moods are shaded in black, facial close-ups reveal emotion and conflict. Six beautiful and touching portraits of Miko delve deeply into her feelings. Turn the page and the portraits become a plot turning device, one that leads to Ben’s downfall. Tomine’s ability to carry the narrative in wordless panels is unsurpassed. His layered and conflicted characters burrow into our brains and give us pause about our own lives. The six silent panels that end the story as Ben flies back to New York make for a meaningful though ambiguous climax. Has he learned anything? Will he overcome his shortcomings? Do men who are big jerks like Ben ever grow up?
Shortcomings, by Adrian Tomine; Drawn & Quarterly, hardback, 108 pages, $19.95