Life is a series of wins and losses. Wait, I take my opening statement back. Life is a series of losses. I might as well admit that the losses dominate from even an early age. Really, they do. We lose all kinds of things. We misplace our trivial trinkets and we never find that extra cash we know that was just in our pockets. We lose bets. We lose arguments. We lose bigger things, too—our minds, our friends, and eventually our lives. Loss is real, but losing isn’t all that bad. It happens, and we move on, waiting on whatever we might encounter next. Cartoonist Adrian Tomine’s brilliant (BRILLIANT, BRILLIANT) collection of extended comics Killing and Dying shows us that loss really is fine. Maybe even more than that: loss can be good.
“A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture’,” the lead story in Tomine’s collection, opens as a man working in lawn maintenance spends a little too much time pruning a shrub. His customer notices him with his clippers and yells out of her window, “Quit wasting so much time on those shrubs and cut the grass!” Like a good employee, he obliges to the woman’s wish, and he finishes quickly. He goes home and takes a bath, and inside the warm water is where his idea strikes: he is going to work doing something he loves. He’s going to create shrubbery-focused lawn art—hortisculpture. He shares the news with his wife, and he even goes so far as to call his new creation his “life’s calling.” So, he does the inevitable. He quits his job and focuses on making his dream become a reality.
The final product is as hideous as you might imagine, a collection of human-shaped home gutters, exploding with green leaves and barren branches. What’s brilliant in Tomine’s story is how the man, the one with one of the worst ideas in human history, believes in himself, and it’s not just the man’s confidence. His family also supports him, especially his wife and child.
It’s no surprise—and I mean really not a surprise—that the product doesn’t become the next iPhone, but Tomine handles the story so well that the inevitable failure is perfectly fine. We leave the man knowing that he was able to create something even if other people didn’t want it or even respect it very much. “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as “Hortisculpture’” feels kind-hearted and even comforting. We are left with the fleeting thought that maybe a loss can also produce a win. Maybe?
The title story, “Killing and Dying,” which Tomine mostly constructs in 20-panel grids, is another piece that explores the duality of losing. In the story, a father and mother argue over their anxiety-ridden, stuttering teenager wanting to take classes to become a stand-up comedian. The father isn’t quick to give his daughter the money, saying only “we’ll talk about it.” Of course, the father’s lack of interest upsets his daughter and he begins to lose dad-points, and he loses them quickly.
With pressure mounting from his daughter and his wife, the father caves, and he provides the money for the class. To everyone’s surprise, the daughter does wonderfully at her first performance. Then, like in “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture’,” reality hits. Her jokes weren’t her jokes. Instead, she stole them. It’s then the father who has to be the bad guy, telling his daughter, “Just so you know: when it comes to theft, intellectual property is protected by the law just as much as tangible goods.”
Reality is tough on the characters in “Killing and Dying.” It’s so tough, in fact, the father decides to abandon it all together near the story’s end. He, like his daughter, becomes unwilling to accept truth. The conclusion provides readers with disappointment in the father’s decision, but we find comfort in knowing that the daughter and father can at least have a relationship—even if it is under false pretenses.
The other four stories in Tomine’s collection are just as powerful. “Amber Sweet” explores how technology causes a dangerous disconnect from reality. “Go Owls” looks at how painful life can be when we give up and decide to settle. “Translated, from the Japanese,” shows a lost family being reconnected in still images. “Intruders” is a dark dive into false identity.
While Tomine’s collection is largely bound by theme, each story provides the artist with a different form in which he can create. Some stories have heavily-lined illustrations, while others remain more light. Coloring is sporadic, with the hues varying so perfectly from page-to-page.
Tomine’s work is beautiful to look at, but it’s not just about the images. The dialogue he implores seems authentic. These characters—these scenes and interactions—are people from our world. The way Tomine creates feelings is remarkable. He moves from humor to emotional depth in a way that seems effortless.
Killing and Dying is a standout in 2015’s impressive list of exemplary fiction.