Illustrator Adrian Tomine talks about his latest book, New York Drawings, and working with Drawn and Quarterly
Adrian Tomine has a dream job – he draws cartoons for a living. The illustrator and regular contributor to the New Yorker will be in Montreal this Sunday to discuss his latest book, New York Drawings, which chronicles more than a decade of his comics and cover illustrations for prestigious magazines as well as an insider’s view of his original sketches and observations. Nightlife.ca spoke with him about his love affair with New York, why readers love his cartoons and illustrations, and his coup de coeur for Montreal publisher, Drawn and Quarterly.
NIGHTLIFE.CA: Your cartoons aren’t necessarily funny or make sense at first glance. They’re often observations of day-to-day life in New York that connect to readers in some way. Is it frustrating that readers might not get your cartoon immediately and forget about it?
Tomine: As a reader, I’ve always enjoyed that feeling of curiosity. You look at the image first, and if you don’t quite get it, you flip to the contents page and the title will elucidate the image in some way.
Your New Yorker cover comics, starting with Missed Connection in 2004 (above image) where a young man and a young woman reading the same book see each other through the windows of subway cars headed in opposite directions, doomed to never meet, have been romantic, cynical and ‘young and hip’. Was that always your style or did you adopt it when you started working with the New Yorker in 1999 after moving from Berkeley, California?
That’s probably not my style anymore since I’m neither of those things personally – young or hip, I mean. I’m probably still cynical and romantic. I can’t help but let some element of my own personality seep into my work. So I think some of those affectations that might have shown up in my work when I was younger were just a reflection of who I either was or was trying to be at that point. Like in my early twenties when I was single and going out to bars and concerts, and just being more concerned with that kind of nightlife and youth culture that you don’t have time for when you’re a dad.
With your last publication before New York Drawings being Scenes from an Impending Marriage (written as a gift for your wedding guests), will your next comics tend toward themes such as married life and babysitting?
I’m sure the 20-year-old version of me would be disgusted with the 38-year-old version. But I don’t think I’m creative or inventive enough to fabricate stories or images out of nothing. When I was proposing the new book I’m working on to Drawn and Quarterly, I could sense an expectation that I would do a big graphic novel to pick up where my previous book, Shortcomings, left off, but I decided to do a collection of short stories. I originally had no concept of what the overarching theme would be and there’s no name for the book yet, but now that I’m about halfway through making it, it’s starting to emerge to me that this is reflecting my present day thoughts.
Does your editor at the New Yorker ever say, “Can you keep it a little younger?” Or is the readership of the magazine ageing with you?
I think the demographic of the New Yorker is actually getting broader. There are plenty of people who’ve been reading it since they were young, and there are younger people discovering it and finding that the quality of writing or the articles appeal to them. The New Yorker isn’t generally thought of as being a hipster kind of cutting edge magazine, but in this day and age they stand out in terms of a magazine that’s wiling to pay money for artwork – not just a cover illustration, but quite a few interior illustrations too.
There’s one sketch in New York Drawings of two police officers and you have a note on it saying you felt they might suspect you were doing something suspicious if they saw you sketching them. But how do you get that feeling across to the viewer without the note? Do you feel limited by your New Yorker cartoons?
That sketch was done in the lobby of a big skyscraper in midtown Manhattan and this was close to the 9/11 attacks, so the feeling to being in these buildings was like being in an airport – you better not do anything to arouse suspicion. But living in NY there are so many creative and bizarre people around you at any given moment that if you were in a restaurant or a café sketching in a notebook it wouldn’t draw any attention.
I don’t feel limited. I think if my only job was to draw illustrations for magazines then I would feel certain limitations, but most days I’m working on my comics for Drawn and Quarterly, which are completely unfiltered and unedited and if anything I have too much freedom. So I actually appreciate the restrictions and limitations and even the sense of collaboration I feel when I work for the New Yorker.
New York Drawings, Adrian Tomine, 2012 (Via Drawn and Quarterly)
If you hadn’t started doing cartoons for the New Yorker, what would you have done?
I was already pretty far down a path of being a lifelong cartoonist already, just doing my work for Drawn and Quarterly – that’s the publisher I’ve worked with my whole career. I actually go to Montreal a lot. Usually I get together with my friends from Drawn and Quarterly but just before my daughter was born my wife and I stayed in a hotel in the Old Port and just walked along the water and ate poutine. We enjoy the high and low ends of food, like in New York. We went to some restaurant one night by our hotel and ended up sitting next to ACDC, and I went home and looked on my computer and they were performing in Montreal that night.
Could every major city benefit from an illustrator like you to turn day-to-day life into cartoon-based love letters to the city?
I think it’s useful, and I think that can be done in any city. It reminds people about what they love about living there. There’s something about your surroundings, no matter how grim or how bland they might be, translated into artwork that’s gratifying in some way.
Adrian Tomine in conversation with fellow cartoonists Charles Burns and Chris Ware, in honour of the 5th anniversary of the Drawn and Quarterly bookstore
Sunday, November 11 at 7 PM
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