Adrian Tomine, “Go Owls” in Optic Nerve 13

Spoilers galore ahead

You could say “Go Owls” is Mr. Tomine’s version of Breaking Bad or Weeds, but that would involve looking only at the most superficial element of the story. We have a portrait of a man, Barry, who slips from not taking all moral rhetoric seriously into becoming an abuser. Granted, it’s a pattern that he probably indulged before, but I hesitate to say “reveals himself an abuser,” because one thing Tomine’s stories always treat sensitively is the potential for change. One reader summed up his work thus: “I very much enjoyed your stuff about assholes falling in and out of love or whatever.” I think that’s apt when dealing with complicated characters. Oftentimes, their being assholes is the only thing we can relate to immediately.

Tomine dealt with a similar sort of situation in “Shortcomings.” There, acceptance of cliched Asian wisdom was supposed to be an embrace of an identity. The protagonist, nowhere near the abuser or scumbag Barry is, vehemently rejected this as idiotic – expressing himself in a number of crude, distasteful and terrible ways, of course – and was proved right in the most crucial sense. No amount of moral posturing really grapples with the problem of identity, despite the close correspondence between morality and identity. Further, if one adds “happiness” to the mix – does morality produce happiness? What about having the identity you want? – things fall apart fast.

I originally did not want to spoil the story, but I feel I have to talk about it in order to demonstrate what sets Tomine’s work apart. It was $6 for the issue and my mind was made up to buy it the second I was told it was in stock. Barry, our drug dealing and spousal abusing protagonist, is at an AA meeting when he spots a woman who leaves as the preachiness gets too much for her. Barry is more selective about what he wants to accept as advice and what he doesn’t. He’s open to her about getting the reinforcement he needs to take control and leaving the other ideas behind. The woman ends up living with Barry. Throughout the comic, we hear Barry preach: “you can’t drive forward if you’re always looking in the rear-view mirror;” “best thing to do in this country is stay off the grid;” “[recycling is] another fuckin’ liberal sham;” “just ’cause a ship’s sinking doesn’t mean you fuckin’ abandon it.” The woman seems intrigued by Barry as a combination of being funny and somewhat right (at least initially, he talks about shades of gray). He provides when she’s down on her luck, giving her a place to stay and money, and yeah, we can say that this is all a cynical attempt to take control of her.

I don’t doubt it’s an attempt to take control, but I think Tomine is setting us up to wonder about a few things. The deeper question is why anyone would choose to be an abuser, and Tomine has hit on some truths that should make all Americans uncomfortable. There’s something about our self-help rhetoric and our want of freedom that is dangerous in the extreme. It’s easy to say “you can’t pick and choose your morality,” especially when we’re talking about vulnerable, broken people. It’s a lot harder to recognize that we place enormous emphasis on survival and talk a heck of a lot about people finding what works for them. Some embrace of moral flexibility is a good thing, but how does one make sure one steers away from depravity? Barry provides what seems to be a superficial answer: he’s in complete denial of his past, only focusing on the future. So maybe we should make sure we’re aware of our sins and the awfulness we’re capable of? I jotted down some notes in my journal about how while grappling with what you’ve done wrong can make you better, it is possible to break yourself once again sitting and worrying and wallowing in guilt. “Betterment” might be a long-term solution, but the fun thing about fighting to survive is that you don’t get a lot of opportunity for that.

Barry’s got optimism, too much optimism, which lends itself to Tomine’s home run in this story. Watch what happens with the laughter of the woman he lives with; watch the expression on her face as the story progresses. The things we thought were complementary, the things we thought could give us happiness, aren’t enough. We need a clean slate. The story’s end shows dramatically at what cost that comes.

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