It was an unlikely scenario. If it showed up in fiction, it would appear contrived. In the early 1990s, as grunge and ska and thrift store shopping distracted a generation, two people at the top of their chosen field (in this case, graphic fiction) became fast friends after a chance meeting and the discovery that they lived on the same street. This scenario happened in our own backyard.
It was 1992, and Daniel Clowes had just relocated to Oakland from Chicago. He had been receiving Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve mini-comics direct from the artist for a few years. One day, Clowes' wife Erika, then a student at UC Berkeley, pointed at a photograph of Tomine on the cover of one of his comics and said to her husband, "I think that guy's in my class." Assuming that Tomine was just a year or two his junior (Clowes was 30), he didn't think Erika could be right.
However, the next day, Erika introduced herself and confirmed that her classmate was indeed Tomine, then only 18. He and Clowes soon met for coffee and discovered something else: that they lived on the same street, just a block apart.
Now, nearly two decades after they met, Clowes and Tomine remain at the top of their game. Both are defining voices in independent comics. Best known for Ghost World, Clowes has added increasing complexity to his content, characterization, and style. Although misfits and misanthropes have often been his bread and butter, Clowes' latest work has been increasingly ambitious in scale. Tomine's critically acclaimed stories (which include the graphic novel Shortcomings) tend to be concentrated, powerful portraits of flawed characters experiencing a combination of inner turmoil and growth.
The past 12 months have been unusually productive for each. Clowes has released the paperback edition of Ice Haven, Mr. Wonderful, and -- as of Oct. 11 -- The Death Ray. In February, Tomine's Scenes from an Impending Marriage was warmly received, and last week issue #12 of his Optic Nerve comic hit shelves. At this weekend's annual Alternative Press Expo at the Concourse Exhibition Center, Clowes and Tomine (who now lives in New York) will reunite for a discussion of their work.
The Death Ray was originally published as Eightball #23, and it won Eisner, Harvey, and Ignatz awards. It tells the story of Andy, a troubled teenager who appears to gain superpowers he is ill-equipped to use appropriately.
Clowes says part of the inspiration for The Death Ray was "what I had hoped to get from superhero comics as a teenager. There's a certain quality suggested by the imagery in superhero comics that I never felt was quite delivered, that seemed really charged with emotion -- kind of big and dark and strong. But when you actually read them, they're just frivolous and formulaic. So I was trying to fulfill something that I had imagined could exist when I was 14 or 15 years old."
Tomine's Optic Nerve #12 contains two heartfelt, character-driven stories. Asked about the extent to which they draw from his own life, he says, "When I'm sitting at my desk trying to write a story, the only thing on my mind is figuring out a way to salvage what I've done so far. I kind of feel like I'm slowly drowning, grasping wildly at anything to pull my head above water. It's such a struggle that anything that solves a problem for me -- even if it's the most embarrassing memory from my life -- feels like some kind of gift and I'm happy to use it."
The first of the two new stories is titled "A Brief History of the Art Form Known as 'Hortisculpture.'" It concerns the travails of a middle-aged gardener who finds inspiration making art that combines plant life and sculptural elements. The gardener's work is not exactly well received. Tomine says, "When I was working on that story, I was really proud that I had consciously created a character and story that was very different from myself and my own experiences. I thought, 'I've finally done it!' And now, of course, everyone who knows me is reading that story and saying, 'Boy, you sure put a lot of yourself into that one!' Dan actually asked me when my next 'hortisculpture' would be coming out."
As their friendship developed through the 1990s and later, Clowes and Tomine influenced one another in ways that are palpable in their work. Clowes says Tomine inspired him early on by focusing on "telling the story in the best way possible... [He was] trying to hone his narrative skills as opposed to showing off with his drawing. He just wanted to affect people emotionally, and that was something to follow."
Tomine explains that "Dan has obviously been one of the biggest influences on my work, both directly and indirectly." He remembers those years in the East Bay fondly. "The guys I spent the most time with were Richard Sala and Dan," he recalls. "Just being around those guys, and talking about comics and movies and things like that, had a huge impact on me as a person and as an artist."
Sala, whose acclaimed graphic novels include The Chuckling Whatsit and the just-released The Hidden, says the trio still reconvenes whenever Tomine is in town. "Whenever Adrian visits, it's like he never left -- like picking up in the middle of a conversation we were having when we used to hang out every week," Sala recalled via e-mail. "We met every Wednesday so that after lunch we could drive over to the late, great Comic Relief and check out new comics and say 'Hi' to that store's late, great owner, Rory Root."
Part of Clowes' and Tomine's success stems from each of them having steadfastly produced his own anthology comic beginning in the late 1980s. But that format has become increasingly untenable in the current marketplace.
On choosing to publish his original graphic novel Wilson in book form last year, Clowes says, "It seemed like an act of defiance to do it as a comic. I didn't want it to be about the format or about the marketplace. I want the work to be what people are focusing on, so I wanted it to be in a format that felt the most natural to the readership. And I felt like that had shifted from periodical comics to graphic novels."
Asked whether there will be an Optic Nerve #13, Tomine says, "I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I'll be able to put out at least a few more issues, but it's really not up to me."