For many, generosity, kindheartedness, and consideration are a hassle to maintain consistently; comparatively speaking, being a total asshole is easy. Ben Tanaka thoroughly embodies the self-centeredness endemic to the straight American male, and in Shortcomings, writer/illustrator Adrian Tomine brings him to whining, repulsive life: the perpetually furrowed brow, the nervous, guilty eyes, the arms spreading in exasperation, and the resulting hunch of shoulders, the short fuse easily lit, the instant, babyish defensiveness. He's that guy who can always be counted on to say the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time, who can't accept that things and people change, who's about to have the rug yanked out from under him.
Ben and girlfriend Miko Hayashi live a comfortable thirtysomething life in San Francisco; he manages a movie theater between lunches with slutty lesbian gal pal/grad student Alice Kim, Miko's a mild-mannered trustafarian who's an organizer for an Asian-American film festival. But there's trouble brewing in their paradise: Ben's got a heretofore unslaked taste for the white tail, brushing off Miko's sexual advances so he can jerk off to Girls Gone Wild variant DVDs. He scoffs at the indie fare Miko nourishes and harbors a weird, internalized loathing when it comes to his racial heritage; at one point, while attending a Korean family event with Alice as her beard, he stage-whisper exclaims, "Man . . . look at all these Asians!" It isn't long before a frustrated, fed-up Miko chases a prize internship to New York, Alice-sick of the grad-school grind and the one-night stands she's hooked on-follows her lead, and Ben starts panting over the kinds of blondes Miko accused him of hungrily once-overing.
When Tomine first made the comics scene in the late 1990s with Optic Nerve, his concise narrative and artistic style drew unavoidable comparisons to Daniel Clowes, whose pop-cultural hijinks had to have been an influence. But while Tomine once shared Clowes' propensity to overvalue irony, quirk, and improbability, he's graduated over the years to a novelistic and visual realism that makes it impossible to not take him seriously. The glaze of winky cartoonishness that seeped into his early drawing is long gone, and Shortcomings' conversations, flirtations, and dustups never feel anything less than probable. Though he isn't stingy with superb dialogue that keeps the plot moving forward-Ben and Alice's exchanges make you pine for bygone undergrad bonhomie-Tomine cinematically lowers emotional booms in a purely pictorial language. His silent panels and pages are among this graphic novel's most powerful: a scattered parade of pained reaction shots; a symbolic, passionless kiss; two pairs of feet glimpsed fleetingly in a bed; and a pair of airport scenes that lay bare Ben's much-deserved solitude. ★