Unaware that he is being watched, a Hasidic Jew massages his temples with his gnarled hands, alone and frustrated. Nearby, a food cart touting “Gyro over rice and Philly Cheese Steaks” overcrowds two women eating sandwiches by themselves, while a third woman angrily stares at two men blocking her exit off of the bus. In the corner, a hairdresser combs through her customer’s straight black hair as she grimaces at the task at hand in a room adorned with wall-mounted guitars and cluttered cabinets. They are all arranged just far enough away from each other that if they each took a moment to stop their habitual solitude, they could pick up their heads and wave to each other. Immersed in their daily stresses and routines, the characters are blindly unaware of the bearded, bespectacled man watching and drawing them from only a few feet away: Adrian Tomine. These people have no idea that their moments of concentration and grief have been captured, with all of their apparent anguish and charm, and arranged to compose the lining of Tomine’s latest collection of work, New York Drawings.
An illustrator and frequent cover artist for the New Yorker, Adrian Tomine works like a human camera – one flick of his wrist and the subject is frozen for the world to see, for better or for worse. Tomine’s roots are far out west, where he spent his early professional years as a comic book writer and illustrator in California. His comic book series, Optic Nerve, began in 1991 and garnered a following that fervently supported his transition to graphic novels like Shortcomings, Scenes from an Impending Marriage and Summer Blonde. As described in many of his cover bios, Tomine moved to New York in 2004 and spent most of his time documenting his environment in a sketchbook. These sketches gave way to gold as his first published New Yorker piece served as its cover that very year. New York Drawings is a compilation of over a decade’s worth of Tomine’s illustrations from various publications, ranging from dusty sketchbook scans to immaculate reprints of his New Yorker covers. The pages celebrate New York and create such a diverse spectrum that the collection seems to be one large comic book of characters that weave in and out of the city. The beautiful reprints and covers are peppered with a few comic strips that ground the reader in Tomine’s personal perspective of the city. The gritty charm, however, does not take away from the elegance of Tomine’s work. An artist with both precision and flexibility, Tomine manages to still the chaos just perfectly so that the characters remain real and impressional to the audience.
Preceding the sketchbook wallpapering of the inner lining, a reprint of one of Tomine’s New Yorker covers binds the immaculately designed front of New York Drawings. In this illustration, a young woman with stringy blonde hair reads a brand new hardcover on a subway train window seat. Her hair tries to stay in a small bun at the back of her head, and her mauve lipstick is a professional, yet creative, distinction from red or pink. Her outfit – a sharp cerulean coat and olive pencil skirt – contrasts her bland off-white subway setting. She looks into the passing train’s window and locks eyes with a young man who is reading the same book. Tomine’s illustration of this distant couple is captivating, closing in around the viewer and making it possible not only to see the stares and styling of the strangers, but also to smell the cologne of the grey-haired businessman behind the subway woman and to hear the thunder of the train as the characters pass each other in a moment only documented by Tomine’s ink. As romantic as the moment may have been, there is still a scent of fragility that lingers over the couple’s happiness. In this Tomine love story, the moment will be everything they have waited for, but it will remain absolutely fleeting. In the blink of an eye, Tomine captures both the weariness of daily repetition and the momentary magic between two strangers in New York City.
Like the subway couple, Tomine’s characters are almost always of a literary or musical set. Most of his early work features solely Caucasian leads, but as the New York Drawings compendium and the artist progress, diversity becomes a shining light that guides us through the city. In “Read-Handed,” Tomine’s New Yorker cover from the weeks of June 9th and 16th 2008, a young Asian woman in a casual white blouse and jeans receives an Amazon.com package from a deliveryman. In the adjacent brownstone, a bookstore owner opening his shop for the day watches her accept the blasphemous online book order. The tongue-in-cheek nod to a paperless age is a fixture in the collection and Tomine’s dark humor is as witty as it is honest. As an illustrator who has seen both the hard work of self-publishing comics and the glories of a wide commercial audience, Tomine’s work has remained grounded in its realism while expanding its perspective for the absolute better. With covers like “International Incident” (New Yorker, December 26, 2005 and January 2, 2006), in which an airport sitting area glows with the LCD-screen of delayed departures and various multi-cultural strangers pass the time by reading as they all wait to go home for the holidays, Tomine’s New York is brighter with the accurate depiction of metropolitan denizens who are as unique in appearance as they are similar in heart, intention and love for the city.
The success of Tomine’s New York Drawings lies in its glory as a tangible representation of an artist’s progression as a professional illustrator and a person. The humor and cynicism in the early pages of the book are reminiscent of Tomine’s earlier Optic Nerve comics, such as the opening comic strip in which Tomine wanders a New Yorker Christmas party searching for a space where he can be alone with his notebook. In spite of working his whole life and moving across the country to experience a moment like this, Tomine’s comic strip self wants nothing more than to escape it. Although the audience may laugh at an experience so strange, it is the core of Tomine’s humility. In his subsequent illustrations, Tomine gracefully accepts his role as a trusted tour guide and the rest of the book exalts that maturation. For an artist so shy, Tomine leaks much of his heart into his pages. In pieces like “Be Kind” where a casual young man stands between closing subway doors, deciding whether to board the train for which he had been waiting or help a woman carry her baby’s stroller up a flight of stairs, Tomine cuts to the core of what is means to be alone in a city full of choices. He highlights opportunities to be someone greater than one’s cynical, lonely self.
The repeated element of choice radiates in each square of Tomine’s illustrations, inspiring the audience to reach into their own ideas of who or what makes up a city. Works like “A Soldier’s Legacy,” in which an American soldier stands in a desolate town that is entirely black and white save for the rainbow LGBT awareness pin on his helmet and “Be Loyal,” wherein a brave Yankees fan sits peacefully while eating a bag of popcorn amongst a ravenous red crowd of Red Sox fans, bring attention to facets of metropolitan identity that non-New Yorkers may not have experienced in New York, but have felt in their own hometowns. The aspects of unity and individualism cut through the off-putting stereotypes of disconnection among American states. Quietly provocative, Tomine dreams up circumstances with his pen that pay graceful homage to his city while masterfully creating a scene that is heartwarming and inclusive to readers of other backgrounds. New York Drawings closes with the same detailed wallpaper of sketches from the inside cover, serving as a farewell nod to what initially brought us into Tomine’s eloquent mind. The sketches are not the standard repeat of the first liner. Rather, they are an entirely new group of drawings that is a loving reminder to look for the magic of these people–all people–in our own cities.
Adrian Tomine is an elegantly genuine artist, and New York Drawings reflects his transition from a grungy, angst-ridden comic book artist into a refined, poignant observer of the world through the lens of New York City. He has emerged from his ornately decorated shell, and the world of illustration is much better because of it. His luminous career is inspiring for hardworking, young zine artists because he has managed to aggregate success in both his professional and personal life. Tomine’s work has significantly expanded his fan base as it has grown to include a wider array of people, personalities and places. In his transition into adulthood, a new city and becoming a well-established illustrator, Adrian Tomine has thoughtfully ushered in a new perspective on what it means to be an outsider.
Tomine, Adrian. New York Drawings. Montréal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2012. Print.