Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Eye on the Eisners: Optic Nerve #12

Posted by Don MacPherson on May 1st, 2012

The nominees for the 2012 Eisner Awards were announced about a month ago, and as I did for a couple of Eisner-nominated books last year, I decided I’d offer some reviews of some 2012 nominees as well. There’s no way I could review all of the nominees; I just don’t have the time or resources for such an endeavor. However, I thought it would be interesting to spotlight comics selected by the Eisner judges as being the cream of the crop of the past year. By the way, the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards 2012 will be presented July 13 at Comic-Con International in San Diego.

First up for the 2012 “Eye on the Eisners” is Optic Nerve #12, which contains “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as Hortisculpture,” a piece nominated in the Best Short Story category.

Optic Nerve #12
“A Brief History of the Art Form Known as Hortisculpture”
“Amber Sweet”
Writer/Artist: Adrian Tomine
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Price: $5.95 US/CAN

As someone who loves the medium of comics and reads about them regularly, I’m obviously aware of Adrian Tomine and Optic Nerve. Tomine’s work has been heralded consistently, but I have to confess I’d never gotten around to reading his work. Honestly, I had no idea what his storytelling was about, what Optic Nerve was about. I didn’t even know it was an anthology series of various short stories. When I spotted a couple of recent issues on sale at my local comics shop, I realized it was my chance to be introduced to Tomine’s work, and I’m thrilled I finally availed myself of the opportunity. The three stories in this comic book — the two listed above, and a two-pager at the end detailing Tomine’s thoughts and experiences in comics craft and publishing — are all firmly grounded in everyday human experiences, but they also demonstrate his versatility as a storyteller. Each story employs different methods, both visually and in the writing, that set them apart, but each one is also masterfully crafted.

A middle-aged gardener discovers a passion for art when he merges clay sculpture with greenery, and he’s so taken with the result he believes his breakthrough will bring him wealth and fame. His determination begins to affect his relationships, his business and his health. Elsewhere, a young college student finds a blight has descended on her life because she happens to physically resemble an online porn star. Hounded by people’s belief she’s is her doppelganger, she takes steps to completely change her life. And finally, Adrian Tomine laments the alternative comics industry’s shift to collections and graphic novels. He’s saddened by his favored periodical format’s dismissal by his colleagues and his audience.

Tomine boasts a simple but effective cartooning style, but again, I’m most impressed with how adaptable his work is. The style he employs in the first story is quite different from that in the second, and the same holds true when comparing them to the third. For “Hortisculpture,” Tomine adopts a standard newspaper strip approach, offering a series of four-panel sequences (arranged in two tiers of two instead of a strip of four panels), with occasional longer bits in color, mirroring Sunday funnies installments. The faces he crafts for the characters are reminiscent of Charles Schulz’s style; they’re also easily comparable to Scott (Two Generals) Chantler’s work as well. While the characters’ faces are cartoony, there’s a believable and refreshingly imperfect approach to how he crafts the characters’ frames.

The panel layouts for “Amber Sweet” are much more varied. He plays around with height and wide shots, offers more varied points of view. The story is also in full color, unlike most of “Hortisculpture.” The panel layouts put me in mind of Scott McCloud’s avant garde approach to the medium, while the figures and faces seem almost like what one might find in a Love and Rockets comic. The last story is made up of two 16-panel grids, and the style is more like the Peanuts-influenced work from the first story. Tomine forces himself to be much tighter with the dense grids, so things look a little rougher and less detailed, but it works for the quick glimpse of a creative period in the artist’s life.

“Hortisculpture” is a fascinating character study that explores the frustrations of being an artist. Tomine’s message is clear: one can’t force others to accept one’s artistic vision. The artist can’t seek validation in others’ acceptance or any kind of financial or popular success. The gardener’s/artist’s obsession isn’t entirely relatable, but other aspects of his life are. The tension in his marriage, his concerns over his health and his indulgences in times of despair certainly ring true. Tomine never allows the reader to wallow along with the subject, though. There’s a constant undertone of humor throughout the story that’s in keeping with the comic-strip look and method. The funny side contrasts nicely with Harold’s pitiable nature, making for a good balance. Of course, throughout it all, the reader can’t help but envy his passion and dedication, even if it’s ill-advised, given the extent to which he pursues them.

The story is definitely worthy of the Eisner nomination, but honestly, I found “Amber Sweet” to be an even more interesting piece. Not only are the panel layouts more inventive, but the subject matter is engrossing. One can’t help but empathize with the young woman whose life is derailed through no fault of her own. I like how Tomine presents her as a lovely if meek creature, never amping things up to present her as sexy. Even in scenes in which she’s being sexual, she really doesn’t exude sexuality. Her powerlessness is unfortunately what seems to define her, but Tomine’s script and the circumstances really don’t suggest a solution of which the main character can avail herself — not until much later, anyway. I also appreciated the narrative method, as we learn the entire story is a revelation the woman is making to a man, presumably a new suitor. Of course, that revelation at the end of the story shows us things have shifted. Once the woman learns why people are talking about her behind her back, she tries to hide from the secret and hide it from new people in her life. By the end, we discover she’s revealing the secret so as to rob it of its power — or perhaps to assess the newcomer in her life. It’s a tremendous but quietly engaging story that demonstrates the intelligence, sensitivity and storytelling skills of the creator. 10/10

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2 Responses to “Eye on the Eisners: Optic Nerve #12”

  1. Kit Says:

    “Amber Sweet” was first published in 2008 (in Kramers Ergot #7), so wouldn’t be eligible for a 2012 Eisner.

  2. Don MacPherson Says:

    Kit wrote:
    “Amber Sweet” was first published in 2008 (in Kramers Ergot #7), so wouldn’t be eligible for a 2012 Eisner.

    Yes, there’s a note about its previous publication, but it elaborates to say its previous publication was in a significantly different form. Not that I’m arguing it should’ve been eligible, but the note makes it seem like this incarnation of Tomine’s work is much different than the previous one.