If you remove the dustjacket of Adrian Tomine's new graphic novel Shortcomings, you'll find the hardbound book has a ruler printed on it--a stroke of genius on Tomine's part (he designed the book himself). While the jacket simply depicts protagonist Ben Tanaka and his girlfriend Miko, that ruler tells the deeper story. It represents Ben's insecurities, his fear that he doesn't measure up. Ben lives every day with that ruler wrapped around him, and it explains why he can be such an infuriating asshole. Shortcomings chronicles a rough patch in Ben's life, when his relationship with Miko runs aground and he struggles to decipher his erotic feelings toward white women. He's both comforted and goaded by his lesbian friend Alice Kim, who derides the "fence sitter" to whom Ben is strongly attracted. If racial and sexual politics sound like challenging material for a graphic novel, never fear: Tomine is up to the task. An accomplished illustrator, Tomine's style is spare, elegant and representational. His illustrations appear regularly and to great effect in The New Yorker. Here, small details--like the contours of a table lamp, or two small barrettes in a young woman's hair--effortlessly convey worlds of information. In some panels Tomine gets quiet, allowing us to imagine what's happening beyond the frames. But most of the time his characters are so funny and familiar, we're eager to hear what they have to say. Chatty and complicated, they don't disappoint.
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