I loved Tomine's early collections, "32 Stories" and "Sleepwalk," but his last one (The Summer Blonde) was a bit of a disappointment, feeling like a rehash of earlier material. This latest book collects issues 9-11 of Optic Nerve into a single narrative arc following a single protagonist. Despite this move from short story to novella-length, Tomine largely fails to take advantage of the space afforded to move into new thematic territory.
His work has always focused on loneliness, and yet again the main character is a socially awkward semi-hipster who tends to alienate people. Ben Tanaka is a 30-year-old manager of an art house cinema in Berkeley (presumably the UC Theater, which like the one Ben manages, was forced to close to due seismic retrofitting regulations), living with his beautiful Japanese-American girlfriend Miko. The story follows Ben's dying relationship with Miko and subsequent rebound attempts with various cute Anglo girls. But Ben is so plagued by insecurity and bitter snobbishness, and is so grumpy and cynical that it becomes increasingly hard as the book progresses to understand what any woman would see in him.
The one new theme Tomine introduces to his work is the struggle to define identity and identity politics among Asian-Americans. Ben, Miko, and even Ben's moxie-laden Korean-American lesbian pal Alice (who tend to steal any scene she's in), all grapple with various stereotypes and self-imposed expectations. However, none of this seems particularly inventive or fresh, and some scenes, such as Alice taking Ben to a family wedding as her beard feel particularly recycled. Then again, I'm not Asian-American, so maybe it has more resonance for that audience.
As usual, Tomine's art is amazing -- his attention to framing, line, and composition are second to none. That said, sometimes his faces tend to drift into similarity -- in a story where race is so central, it's not a good thing when an Anglo guy key to the story looks Asian. As with his other work, those familiar with the East Bay will recognize a lot of the backgrounds (Rockridge, the Durant food court, Cody's, etc.).
On the whole, the book is a disappointment -- it's just way too similar in tone and subject matter to his previous work. Tomine clearly is comfortable in the Berkeley-to-Brooklyn world of 20-30something hipster creative singletons and their friendships and relationships. But that's a pretty insular world, and I'd love to see him break out of it and turn his sharp observational gaze elsewhere. He got married last year, so maybe that'll lead to new directions in his storytelling.