Review: Adrian Tomine's 'Killing and Dying' packs tons of heart in 6 illustrated stories Special

Posted Nov 18, 2015 by Michael Thomas
It's no longer uncommon for the graphic-novel medium to portray emotional stories as beautifully as classic novels, but Adrian Tomine goes a step further by packing complex stories into shorter bursts.
The cover of  Killing and Dying
The cover of 'Killing and Dying'
Killing and Dying is Tomine's latest collection of his cartooning work, telling six stories including a woman who closely resembles a porn star; a military vet who "breaks into" his former house; how a couple almost breaks up; a teen's quest to be a stand-up comic and more. It was reportedly inspired by "shortcomings" in his work and took years of laboring to finish.
Writing a short story in graphic form can be decidedly tricky; the author has to maximize the real estate of panels and text bubbles to tell a dynamic story quickly. No story in Killing and Dying is longer than 35 pages or so, but tale could be the subject of its own novel. Tomine also takes vastly different approaches to panel structure and storytelling techniques to make each story even more unique.
Stylistically, Tomine's most bold story is "Translated, From the Japanese," which tells the aforementioned "almost-breakup" story entirely through pictures of ordinary objects, places, and people who aren't the "main characters." Narration tells the story, as there's no dialogue to be found. Instead, the reader follows an airport trip that denotes the claustrophobia of long-haul flights, the chaos of airports and the sadness inherent in dark-toned shots of a Denny's restaurant.
Then there's "Amber Sweet," the only other story that varies panel structure — it seemingly does so to reflect the main character's chaotic state of mind. It ends with a half-page panel that brings one of the collection's few happy-ish endings.
Tomine's largest strength, however, comes from the emotion of his storytelling. In an interview with the New Yorker, Tomine said he thinks his work has gotten more empathic, which might qualify for understatement of the year.
Even in the funny "Hortisculpture," a tale of one man's delusional attempt to be an artist, there's a strong sense of how his obsession with being recognized and successful is destroying his relationship with his wife and kids. "Killing and Dying" seems at first to just be about a 14-year-old's attempt to be a comic despite her parents' mixed views on her life path — but as time goes on in the story, Tomine tells a parallel story just by changing his characters' designs slightly. It's simply devastating.
Several of the stories seemingly end abruptly, but neatly tying up each complex story would be disingenuous. In some cases, the characters have learned something, but in a story like "Go Owls," the end comes so far out of left-field that it's just as satisfying as a full resolution.
Tomine told Vulture that he'd consider writing something autobiographical; if it's anything like the stories told in Killing and Dying, it will no doubt be just as powerful.