killinganddyingDoes it even need to be said? Adrien Tomine is one of the major reasons graphic novels hold the small but significant market share and critical acclaim that they do today—his storytelling prowess, his understated and precise illustration style, his attention to pacing and paneling. So any of his collected works, especially with a dramatic title like Killing and Dying, is bound to generate a bit of a buzz.

As it turns out, the killing and dying of the titular tale refer not to murder and mortality, but to the fine line between comedic success and failure. In the main story, an awkward teenage girl expresses interest in trying out stand-up comedy while her parents weigh the pros and cons of supporting her. Her father, especially, wants to protect her from the possibility of failure and further self-doubt. Though the situation is intensely specific, the conflicting emotions are universally recognizable.

And so it is with most of the stories in Killing and Dying—these restrained pieces of domestic drama, filled with the underlying mournfulness of dreams deferred or lives put on hold, feel like the gradually earned wisdom of Tomine’s own move towards domestic life, now that he is married with children (see Scenes From An Impending Marriage). In “Hortisculpture,” for instance, a struggling landscaper designs a new (and arguably ill-conceived) type of yard sculpture and tries to sell his clients on it with little success, while his wife provides him with emotional support he may not deserve and his daughter grows up simultaneously defending and doubting her father. Told in a cheery style reminiscent of Sunday newspaper comic strips, it again captures the ambivalence of trying to believe in yourself and succeed at something, even while you know that failure is a near certainty.

Though Tomine’s style is immediately recognizable, he does employ different paneling and tones throughout these stories to convey different narrative voices, producing an effect similar to something that would take much more wordy work in a prose short story. “Translated, From The Japanese” stands out as an entirely different beast from most of his copiously paneled tales of character interaction. It is essentially a series of snapshots of a trip from wintry Japan to sunny California, a mother bringing her son back to see his father after a period of separation in their marriage. Her carnet de voyage is full of tiny details, landscapes, the oddities of airplane travel, and the clean, lonely feeling of traveling through both time and space. Her internal monologue is perfectly sad and sweet, unadulterated by reaction shots or sharp words from her young son or his father. Tomine proves himself as good at staying in one person’s head as he is in showing how their actions and words affect other people.

Ultimately, Killing and Dying is not a dramatic or career-defining work, but it is clear and sober in tone and style, a reminder of the “stuckness” and sweetness of everyday life, the crushing banality and small kindnesses of a more-or-less responsible adulthood. This collection is one more marker of Tomine’s expertise at observing the world that he inhabits and translating it into universally moving tales. His work feels distinctly literary, not showy or hyperactive, neither easy nor inaccessible. By not overemphasizing that he’s using the visual format, he does some of the best work out there in that format. Tomine’s work continues to be paradoxical in that regard, one of the hardest working artists in comics making it look easy and intuitive, and that is a fantastic gift and lesson to fellow creators and readers alike.

Killing and Dying: Stories
by Adrien Tomine
ISBN: 9781770462090
Drawn and Quarterly, 2015

  • Emilia Packard

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support! Emilia has been reading graphic novels rabidly since her best friend handed her Craig Thompson’s Blankets over winter break during her sophomore year of college. From that day, her fate was sealed — at Grinnell College, she created, edited and drew strips for a student comics magazine called The Sequence. As an MLS Student at the University of Illinois, she spent way too much time filling up her backpack (and her roommate’s backpack) with the treasures of the Undergrad Library’s comics collection — never less than 40 books at a time. Just in the past few years, she’s worked at libraries and archives in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Indiana, and Austin, Texas and consumed their graphic novels collections with great gusto. She has been drawing her stick-figure avatar, Flippy-Do, since she was about 10 years old.

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