Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Books: Summer Blonde


Summer Blonde
By Adrian Tomine


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The first time I read this I was still a little wet-behind-the-ears in terms of my comics geekdom: a bit of a greenhorn I guess... I mean - I was up on all my Alan Moore and all those other heavy-weights (Ellis, Ennis, Morrison etc): but all that stuff was mainly about being as sensational and wild as possible which I think left me a little unprepared for stuff that was a little more - quieter. It's as if I'd spent my life watching every big Hollywood blockbuster - but had never seen an art-house film.

So when I first picked up Summer Blonde I didn't have that much to compare it to which meant that it managed to get past all my cynical defences and gut-punch me a way that I just wasn't prepared for. Which meant that when it came to writing up what I thought about it I got very sincere and serious [1]. Coming back to it and reading it for the second time I was a lot more experienced and a lot more: ok - you've impressed me once: now do it again. As if it was someone who gave good first date and it was now all about seeing if they could live up to the exalted image I'd built up of them in my head.

The first thing I noticed was the opening dust jacket flap which has a little mini-essay from some guy Dan Raeburn (the Editor and Publisher of something called The Imp). I guess the first time I must have passed over this (no doubt worried about spoilers): but this time I read it and I was a little like - whoa. I'm tempted to quote the whole thing, but I guess trying my best to sum it up: it puts the book is on the defensive right from the start: there's all this talk about "vociferous" critics and detractors and stuff that - for someone like me who doesn't really know what sort of thing he's referring to (wow - I guess I'm not as hot on all the world's comic book writing as I thought I was) it makes it sound more like some rap-dude (rap-dude?) lashing out at their haters rather than - well - rather than a comic about a bunch of middle-class white people. And then there's this bit at the end that goes: ""Ten years from now, when respectable Gotham magazines are publishing Tomine's comics as short stories in their own right, you will have this book to prove that you were here first, and all the bidding wars on eBay will not tempt you to think about even once about parting with this valuable art you now hold." - which just seems like setting expectations a little too high. I mean - I have a bit of an aversion to people describing stuff as "art" especially when - well - it's just a comic book. And it kinda leads you to expect something that's going cure the common cold, cook you dinner and then sing you to sleep as opposed to - well - a bunch of stories about white middle-class people with a bunch of white middle-class problems (and pretty girls being mean and bitchy and unfeeling while the unattractive guys feel bad that they don't get to sleep with them - you know: like in proper literature and stuff).

But - anyway (let's get on with it): what's the actual comic itself like?

My first thought was that - besides all the cutting remarks that are (at points) are just a little bit too quote-worthy for their own good ("Lust and revenge are great motivators when it comes to writing.") and the narration that if given a choice to spell something out or leave it unsaid will mostly go for spelling it out (the first story again: Martin staring out the window of his car underneath the words: "Now he wondered what course his life might have taken if things had gone differently with Samantha... If he'd even be a writer at all") - apart from that was that it was all just (if we're gonna be honest / harsh) a bit Daniel Clowesy with all the bile and violence removed: like someone sedated him - made him put on a nice suit - and then took him over to their parents. Obviously the question of influence is a tricky one and everyone when they're starting out struggle to find their own voice (something which I guess Tomine himself is well aware of: "No, it's good... It just reminded me of other books.").

Credit where it's due: yeah guy knows how to draw: there's definitely a tendency with comics that deal with "normal" people doing "normal" things (you know: like you and me and all that) to settle with a drawing style that looks like it took about 3 seconds to toss off (like Clumsy say or I Never Liked You) but Tomine is obviously - yeah - an accomplished draftsman - yadda yadda. But - mostly - I couldn't escape the feeling that there was nothing inherently comic-booky about it: I mean I realise that this isn't some sort of hard and fast rule about what's "good" and what's "not good": but it always makes me a little bit - uneasy? cheated? - if things don't take advantage of their  chosen medium. Like nearly all of Summer Blonde could just be storyboards for some low-budget indie film - and if that's the case - then why I am bothered to read it [2]?  And I found it cool how it slowly comes out from itself: although I know nothing about Mr Adrian Tomine (hell - for all I know maybe he's some big steroid-addicted jock type who only does the comic book stuff when he's not running triathlons - but somehow - well - I doubt it) the first two stories seem very rooted in his own experiences and points of view (I mean - come on - the first story is about a writer for godsakes! [3]) things open up when we get to Hawaiian Getaway [4] and we get to see the inside of a girl's head instead of all the boys (although I found it telling that one of the male character's makes a remark towards the end about how Hillary is just the sort of girl he's been looking for - which made me think that she's just a well-rounded projection of the type of girl Tomine wants to get with ("Oh god - and then - yeah - she'd make all these prank calls and stuff")... But maybe I'm reading too much into it?). And despite myself almost I did find myself being won over by the way that character's mini-epiphanies would come in a place just before you'd think they would: and although I shudder reading that first draft post underneath - that whole loneliness thing is pretty spot on: a lot of the wrenching moments come from watching someone trying to reach out and make some sort of physical connection (mini-spoiler alert): it's telling and somehow right that the second to last image of the book is someone content with the intimacy that comes from a hug - while the last panel is: well...

But - well - yeah: there's obviously a big difference between just finding something that you know nothing about and experiencing it fresh and then coming back to it a while later with a whole bunch of high expectations. So - hell - I dunno - maybe the third of fourth time round I'll get a better sense of what the book is - removed from my preconceptions.

We'll see I guess.

[1] If you're curious - this was my first draft attempt (be warned - it's a little worthy): "Loneliness. If you're looking for what the four short stories collected in this book have in common then it's loneliness. What it's like, how it makes us act and the various coping mechanisms we've built up to deal with it. Yeah - it's kinda bleak - but each story is written with laser-precision: bringing you so close to the lives contained within that you can almost hear their heartbeats. Never showy or outrageous: Adrian Tomine is an expert storyteller with an adroit handling of picture and narrative. The art always knows the perfect place to take your eye and the plots are hackneyed or never predictable: unfolding in the same strange fashion as real life tends to - but with enough of a sense of the overall picture to make things feel complete. Ok yeah - some of you may find him slow moving or boring - but stick with it and allow each on of his characters to worm their way into your head and you're in for some rich and refined emotional treats: this is a good comic and well worth your attention."

[2] Yeah yeah: obviously it costs loads of money and etc to make a film - so maybe I should give the kid a break and obviously (sad sigh) not everything can be Scott Pilgrim. It's just it seems a bit of a waste - there's a panel towards the end of the title story where there's this big slab of black and unseen people walking through the rain: and the effect that has sent a small little spark running down my back: it's using the page and colours and framing to create an effect that you couldn't get if it was filmed, or written down or sung: it's unique to the form. Which - for me - is a big good.

[3] Although maybe I'm being a little harsh - especially as it's pretty much the obvious go-to from everyone from Woody Allen to Stephen King to Philip Roth (wait? Writer's are a little self-obsessed? Shocking).

[4] Altho - minus points for her Mickey Rooney style mum: "I want you to go visit Granma... She not doing ver well. She ass about you." "Your father and I struggled ver hard to move from Taiwan so you and Grace have best life possibo." I mean - ok - I guess it's phonetically correct but it still made me feel a little uncomfortable (but then maybe that's my fault? I dunno: no answers here).

Links: Time Review.

Further reading: Shortcomings, David Boring, Fun Home, Black Hole, Lost at Sea, Jar of Fools, Clumsy, I Never Liked YouJimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth.

All comments welcome.

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