Shortcomings

By Adrian Tomine

Drawn & Quarterly. 104 pp. $19.95


Reviewed by Dan DeLuca


Ben Tanaka, the hero of Adrian Tomine's graphic novel

Shortcomings

, is a sarcastic jerk.

The 30-year-old manager of a movie theater in Berkeley, Calif., he's got a beautiful girlfriend named Miko, who works as an assistant director of the Asian American Digifest, a film festival of movies shot on digital video.

Shortcomings

begins with panels depicting big-screen scenes from one such make-believe movie, a prize-winning feel-good yarn about a Chinese woman's heartwarming relationship with her fortune-cookie-factory-owning grandfather.

Our man Ben - who, like Miko, is Japanese American - has nothing but contempt for the endeavors of his beloved. He denigrates the entries into the film fest as "digital videos made by Asian Americans who happen to live around here . . . don't they also have to be left-handed or something?"

Miko, for her part, suggests her beau "is ashamed to be Asian," and later accuses him of having a thing for blond white girls, using the

Sapphic Sorority

DVD she finds in his drawer as evidence of his obsession with "the typical Western media beauty ideal."

That

Shortcomings

begins in a theater and revolves around a cast of movie buffs is particularly apt. Tomine's understated, minimalistically drawn comic style is as cinematic in its uses of telling silences and shifting visual perspectives as it is literary in its believably human depiction of day-to-day issues of race and romance.

Tomine, 33, a Berkeley graduate who lives in Brooklyn, has long been one of the rising stars of alt-comics. He draws the series

Optic Nerve

- in which

Shortcomings

was serially published - and has done graphic work on CD covers and posters for the Eels and Weezer, among other rock acts, as well as racked up illustration work for the New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly.

Shortcomings

is his most ambitious, sustained work so far. It does a compelling job of making you care about characters that usually are not nice, but often are funny. And inevitably likable, like Ben's best buddy Alice Kim, a Korean grad student whose stated goal is "to make out with a hundred girls before I get my Ph.D.," but who has to pretend that Ben is her boyfriend so her parents don't figure out she's a lesbian.

As for Ben, he gets the freedom he thinks he wants when Miko moves to New York after she gets a coveted internship. Then he has to decide whether his idea of fun is romancing a performance artist whose latest project photographically documents her daily urinations. "It'll be a huge installation someday," she says, while Ben works hard not to roll his eyes. She is, after all, a blonde.

Tomine's elegantly simple drawings recall those of

Eightball

and

Ghost World

creator Daniel Clowes. In

Shortcomings

, though, he's even more restrained, eschewing thought balloons and often moving the narrative forward with wordless panels that convey longing and loss with, say, a view out an airplane window or an image of a torn picture on the sidewalk.

Shortcomings

' tale of romantic comeuppance along the road to painful but not redemptive self-realization has the feel of a wrenching short story. Tomine tells his story with pictures, as well as words, but knows that even with his precise drawing style at his command, his tale will be all the more compelling if he doesn't tell us - or show us - too much.

Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at http://go.philly.com/inthemix.