Alan Sillitoe’s short-story (and film) “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” spoke to a generation of ruffians and social outcasts, “angry young men” who often felt helpless struggling against and within a system they felt designed to keep them in their place. Similarly, Adrian Tomine’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, aping from Sillitoe’s title, reimagines the cartoonist as society’s modern social outcast, swapping out grand theft auto and murder with acidic commentary and self-immolation.
It’s hardly Rebel Without a Cause, though a better adjective than “long-distance” might have been “self-loathing”. Tales of artists illustrating their experiences while promoting comics or graphic novels have become so commonplace recently they’ve become their own genre, one that feels exhausted by the tedium of repetition of unchallenged narcissism, executed with all the charm and clinical precision of shampoo instructions.
Cartoonists no more uniquely experience life’s downs and outs than anyone else; they just happen to be better equipped than most to illustrate them. Actuating these insecurities in print form often gives them more weight and importance than they deserve, and it’s a shame so many mediocre efforts have been allowed to subsume other, more interesting subjects.
So at first glance it was a little disappointing to see Tomine point his pen inward, illustrating a series of vignettes chronicling specific moments from 1982 – 2018 as he reflects on his life as a cartoonist in school, on promotion tours, and navigating middle-age. He casts himself in the perpetual shadow of his more recognizable peers, particularly Daniel Clowes (Ghost World, Wilson) and Neil Gaiman (The Sandman, American Gods), existing in the same frame yet always outside of the main story.
In this way Tomine’s latest serves as an inverse of 2015’s The End of the Tour, with Tomine acting as both journalist and his own subject, self-analyzing and self-critiquing himself harder then even his hardest detractors ever could. Where Tomine’s account differs, however, is that he’s been able to use his considerable skills to work through his psychological issues, to persevere where others, like David Foster Wallace, did not. Unchecked genius can be a dangerous thing.
We get our first look at this as Tomine heads into his San Diego Comic-Con as a cartooning phenom (“San Diego, 1995”), feeling invincible after scoring both a publishing deal with Drawn & Quarterly and sweet blurb from his hero Dan Clowes calling him the “Boy Wonder of mini-comics”. This enthusiasm quickly fades after reading a nasty review in The Comics Journal that may have been the first real criticism he’d ever received in his (then) young career. “But…but…” Tomine cries on the floor, “I’m the Boy Wonder of mini-comics…”
While mingling later at the show he faces even more criticism for his “copying” of Clowes’ style and, worse, his disloyalty to the artist for choosing to sign with D&Q. Whatever protection he assumed would come from the Dan Clowes connection turns out to be a millstone around his neck. This story is a telling look at toxic fandom within an incestuous little gaggle of small time players imagining themselves bigger than they actually are. Never believe your own hype. Most of these stories follow this trend of misidentification or failures of recognition, variations on the same themes reworked over the intervening years.
A book signing in Japan (“Tokyo, 2003”) has a young female fan mistaking him for her “favorite artist” who is (once again) Clowes, asking him to sign her copy of Ghost World. Embarrassed once learning the truth, she slowly backs away, bowing while chanting “Very sorry, very sorry.” Or a signing so disastrous (“Albany, 1997”) the promoter has to pay people to pretend they’re fans while buying signed copies to save the artists from embarrassment. Or, conversely, when he assumes a restaurant patron is a fan (“Cambridge, 2016”), only to dismiss him before realizing the fellow just wants his leftover fries and onion rings.
At a New York book tour (“New York, 2003”) he’s thrilled to see the 300-person strong line of fans waiting outside the bookstore for a signing, only to be disappointed to learn they’re actually there for Neil Gaiman. Tomine had hoped the turnout would impress the girl he’d just met the day before, Sarah, who does her best to lighten the mood and cheer him up. “I was wondering why your fans looked so goth.”
Later, while dining out at a Japanese restaurant in NYC (“Brooklyn, 2006”) Tomine and Sarah overhear the couple seated next to them, inexplicably, discussing his book “Summer Blonde”, much to his embarrassment. They seem to disagree over it, and when the man’s criticism turns especially nasty (“Pure writers’ workshop bullshit!”) Tomine has to restrain Sarah from giving the amateur critic a piece of her mind, and they decide to forgo sushi and get pizza instead. Another silver lining, he thinks. “I’m gonna ask her to marry me.”
It’s not until the final story (“Brooklyn, 2018”) where Tomine is finally recognized as “the comics guy” by an attendant nurse while facing a potentially fatal condition at a local hospital. When he asks her if she’d like copies of his books for her help she declines, telling him she’s more a manga fan. It’s also the collection’s longest, most confessional, and the most recent, one leading directly into the physical book’s skeuomorphic concept of a Moleskin leather notebook (confirmed by the final panel).
How many of these recollections are faithful to what actually happened and how many have been heightened through his neurosis, sweetened by time and artistic discretion? Ultimately, it’s not so much Tomine’s loneliness in these situations but his insecurities, as both a cartoonist and as a human being, and because of this The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist serves as both memoir and confessional of an artist who doesn’t need to prove anything, yet still feels like he must – at least to himself. It’s also a reminder that perhaps the reason more cartoonists aren’t famous is because they’re not psychologically equipped to handle what “fame” is and what it entails. Maybe that’s for the best.