Optic Nerve #7 (2000)
by Adrian Tomine

Good choices don't make for interesting stories, unless you're a regular viewer of the Oxygen Network. Adrian Tomine is a master of depicting characters doing the best they can with their secretly miserable lives, so Optic Nerve is hardly a work of spiritual uplift. Rather, it shines a flashlight into corners of life that most of us would simply rather not admit are there.

And he does it so beautifully. You may object to what his characters do, but you can't help but resonate with how they are, because chances are you're the same way, or have been.

"Summer Girl" is the story for Optic Nerve #7, one of Tomine's most heartbreaking and challenging productions yet. This one traces Neil, a creepy introvert obsessed with Vanessa, the almost attainable hottie he admires from afar. Neil has a desk drawer jam-packed with greeting cards he's bought at the shop where Vanessa works – he doesn't need them, of course, but it's the only feasible means of connection he can come up with.

Of course, Vanessa does not even notice Neil's existence, instead pursuing questionable men in what she misunderstands as a path of empowered living. She hooks up with Neil's neighbor, the loathesome hipster lothario Carlo, whom we all know in one guise or another. He's the extroverted prick who loves 'em and leaves 'em, self-absorbed beyond redemption, the type of guy who gets underage chicks drunk and/or high and blatantly attempts to architect threesomes with them. And succeeds.

Neil observes this all from his private prison, incapable of real action, frustrated that his imagined connection with Vanessa is, objectively, a construct of his overly analytical mind. And he's not swayed from his obsession upon realizing that Vanessa is not only down with the shallow Carlo, but also a lamoid "grad student."

We've all known her too, and like Neil, imagined we could save her, show her the light, if only she would get to know us. But Tomine gives us no such redemption or happy ending, instead allowing his characters to behave like real people do: making bad choices, making no choices at all, and ultimately just moving on without really resolving it.

Seems like a good therapist could help in all this. But what fun would that be? No one wants to read about someone, like, finding someone who fulfills them, or, forfend, finding fulfillment inside him/herself!

Hence, Optic Nerve is never going to be an Oprah Book Club pick. But its truths, and the grace with which it reveals them, are as perfect as the grayest, most open-ended Zen koan you might be posed.

In this story, Neil actually does have a therapist, but as in real life, being in therapy does not necessarily equate to receiving therapy. And so it goes, with each of these tragically real characters simply doing what they know.

"Summer Blonde" is intense and perfect, a real achievement in the comics world in that its view of humanity is so not black and white. It makes me ache to read it, shaking my head, hoping that if I re-read it, maybe this time the characters will choose right. But it never happens. The sadness is preserved in amber, like, um, extremely sad prehistoric spiders. (?)

And it's woven with sad spider silk, delicate and hard to get your fingers on. This story is Tomine at his best, the comics equivelent of Satie at his most evocative and despairingly gorgeous. It's simultaneously made me want to give up all art entirely, since I could never do it as well, and inspired me to try. Optic Nerve rips my heart out, but replaces it with a better one.

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Review by Cokehead