Sunday, December 4, 2011

Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine

Shortcomings is a black and white graphic novel that follows the ever-frustrating Ben Tanaka and his dealings with race identity and relationships. Through the lens of a brittle and crumbling relationship with his girlfriend Miko and a literally crumbling movie theater, Tomine attempts to explore these themes in a succinct and creative manner.

1. Tomine's work and other "hip comics" such as the work of Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes focus on what could be considered "first world problems," or conflicts that only effect privileged individuals. What are your thoughts on this statement?

Indie comics most definitely seem to follow young privileged folks with much worse problems to worry about. Is this meant to be satirical? Are authors of these stories similar people? I'd imagine this might be the aspect that turns people away from such a subgenre.

2. How does Tomine construct likeable and unlikable characters? Is anyone likeable?

Ben Tanaka is in my opinion a well-constructed jerk. The reader has to cringe at some of his cruel and unnecessary retorts that have just the slightest bit of truth to them. I liked Alice but I believe that was her purpose, to be the likeable foil.

3. What is the significance of the flowers/stars on the cover?

The same symbols were in the background of the picture of Miko that Ben discovered. I'm having a tough time symbolizing them without digging too deep, perhaps they represent a pattern that Ben and Miko have fallen into and have become unhappy with.

4. The self-centered cinephile, the level-headed gay friend, the aloof Asian girlfriend. Some criticize Tomine for utilizing stereotypical characters and character arcs. What do you think?

I would say that these are likely tropes of the indie comic genre, but I haven't read enough of them to identify or grow tired of them. I thought they were well-constructed relatively believable characters.

5. What does Ben's Asian heritage mean to him? How does this affect his everyday actions? Same question for Miko.

Ben criticizes the Asian stereotypes and ignores his heritage. This is evident in his comment to Miko's lover and the arguments that stem from his pornography preferences.

6. What commentary is Tomine offering on Ben's sexual preferences and the idealized (white, blonde) woman?

As mentioned above, this provides commentary on Ben's relationship with his heritage and also gives the reader insight to the relationship problems he and Miko are having.

7. What did you think about the quality of the dialogue?

Tomine is often praised for his realistic dialogue in graphic novels, I would agree that the dialogue in Shortcomings flows well and believable. The only suspension of belief might be asking yourself if this many twenty somethings are so cynical and quick with witty retorts.

8. Why did Autumn refuse Ben's advances?

It was becoming evident that Ben was not over his relationship with Miko despite her distance and that he had less than commendable reasons for being interested in her.

9. Why does Ben carry himself in such an antagonistic manner? What are the snide comments and chilly exterior hiding?

The snide comments are hiding an insecure thirty year old with a go-nowhere job. Ben is perhaps bitter because his life has plateaued, he seems to need new motivation and new goals.

10. Alice is Ben's only friend. Why does she tolerate him? What do they have in common?

I'm not sure why Alice tolerates Ben, I asked myself this throughout the entire book. They seem to have fun having relatively misogynistic conversations about relationships.

11. What about Tomine's sparse art style lends itself to discussion on race relations?

It is sometimes difficult to ascertain the race of characters in Tomine's art, perhaps by design. I wasn't sure of Miko's lover's race, I'm still not completely sure. Tomine could be saying that the world is becoming a homogenized place or we could be reading into the art too far.

12. What is the significance of the first page and it being a scene from a film?

The first page portrays a cheesy film full of Asian stereotypes. Miko is emotionally moved by it while Ben criticizes it. This easily gives the reader an idea of each character's view on their racial identity.

13. Tomine, like his character Ben Tanaka, is more or less "pessimistic about the possibility of escaping the limitations of socially inscribed identities." Your thoughts?

I think this is universal across many second or third generation Americans with mixed ethnic identities. Despite being a multiracial individual, these folks are still seen as exclusively black, white, Asian, whatever. Tomine likely wrote Shortcomings as a commentary on this societal tendency.

14. Shortcomings ends ambiguously. What have we learned? What will Ben Tanaka do? What should he do?

We have seen the evidence, now it is our part to decide where Ben Tanaka goes next. The hope is that he has seen his own flaws through his relationships and trip out to see Miko, but his character is indeed stubborn.

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