Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine: B

From the front flap:
Ben Tanaka has problems. In addition to being rampantly critical, sarcastic, and insensitive, his long-term relationship is awash in turmoil. His girlfriend, Miko Hayashi, suspects that Ben has a wandering eye, and more to the point, it’s wandering in the direction of white women. This accusation (and its various implications) becomes the subject of heated, spiralling debate, setting in motion a story that pits California against New York, devotion against desire, and truth against truth.

Shortcomings is the story of Ben Tanaka, a guy with no career ambitions beyond managing a movie theater, who nonetheless thinks he knows everything, is always right, and that any kind of contrary opinion is a personal attack. He is relentlessly negative (a phrase I’d been thinking even before his girlfriend used it), insincere, shallow, judgmental, and so incredibly irritating that if I met him in real life I would leave tracks trying to get away from him. So, while I respect the vividness with which Tomine was able to evoke this character, I still pretty much hate him.

Ben’s girlfriend Miko has been putting up with his crap for a couple of years, but she’s not a blameless victim, either. She instigates arguments and goads him into anger, sometimes exaggerating things just to provoke a reaction. She’s often not wrong with what she says—he does have a thing for white women, for example—but the way she says it is guaranteed to lead to a fight. They are very, very bad for each other and their arguments are painful to read because it’s easy to imagine a real couple saying the same things.

The front flap promises a “brutal, funny, and insightful reflection of human shortcomings.” The brutal territory is covered pretty well. Ben is downright mean on occasions, but can’t take it when it’s dished back at him. One of the most memorable scenes is when, after his new white girlfriend has gotten to know him better, she breaks up with him. First, she tries to give an excuse about the return of an old flame, but then admits that he’s the problem. “I could be totally, brutally honest about why I’m doing this, but I’m not sure you’d ever recover.” I actually wish she would have elaborated and that he would’ve had a moment where he realized he was all those things, but it would’ve been unrealistic for him to ever be convinced he was wrong.

I suppose there’s some insight, too, even though Ben doesn’t experience a personality transplant. He does get what he deserves, though, and ends up alone and left behind. Will he learn? I sincerely doubt it. He’ll just go on blaming others for what they did to his life, never realizing all the crap he did to them in return.

What’s utterly missing is the promised funny. Looking back, I can’t remember a single thing that even made me smile, much less laugh. Depressing and cringe-inducing? Yes. Funny? No.

The art is pretty interesting. It’s nothing flashy, but there are some good subtle moments when Ben’s disgust or derision is well portrayed. It adheres rigidly to a rectangular panel shape throughout, and if I were writing this for English class, I’d postulate that this is a metaphor for Ben’s inflexible worldview. Some of the parts I like best use repeated panels to indicate the passage of time, such as the view of the parking lot while Ben is seeing Miko off on a trip to New York, or the last page, where he mulls over all that has happened while gazing out of an airplane window.

While I certainly didn’t like the characters or situations they put themselves in, I still must give Shortcomings kudos for invoking such a reaction. I’d be interested to read more from Tomine, but hopefully something with a slightly more sympathetic protagonist next time.

The material collected in Shortcomings was originally published as issues 9-11 of a comic series called Optic Nerve (Drawn & Quarterly). Issues 1-4 and 5-8 can be found in the collections Sleepwalk and Other Stories and Summer Blonde, respectively.

More reviews of Shortcomings can be found at Triple Take.

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