Indie comic book creators don't get much more revered than Adrian Tomine, whose comic, Optic Nerve, has been a staple of the hipster literati for over a decade. Now, three especially emo issues of Optic Nerve have been collected in Shortcomings, a beautifully designed graphic novel about (surprise!) shortcomings.
Tomine's protagonist is Ben Tanaka, a directionless, oblivious 29-year-old Japanese American. Living an underwhelming life in Berkeley, Ben halfheartedly manages a movie theater, whines to his best friend Alice, and is a flippant, indifferent dick to his well-meaning girlfriend, Miko.
Ben is almost entirely unlikable, but—if only because we're stuck with him for 108 pages—a strange bit of sympathy develops. (The jagoff's most notable character trait is unhappiness, which on a sheer pity level, is bound to stretch the heartstrings a little.) It's not that Ben is unaware of his failings, it's that he sees no reason to fix them: When Alice asks if he's ever felt discriminated against, he answers, "Of course! But not because I was Asian. It was because I was a nerd with a bad personality and no social skills!"
When Miko predictably leaves Ben to move to New York, he's sent into a vague sort of crisis: Cut loose, he attempts to break out of his self-made mold by going to parties with Alice, hitting on one of his annoyingly artsy, too-young coworkers, and also pursuing a maybe-lesbian grad student. (It's worth noting that both of Ben's crushes—unlike Miko—are white and blonde.) It's in the awkward details of Ben's selfish little life that Tomine succeeds the most: It's strangely involving to watch Ben, out of his element at a party, struggle with whether a beer cap is a twist-off, or to see one of his conquests decline his kiss with a shameless lie ("Um... I'm just not really into kissing. You know... germs"). Eventually trekking to New York to discover why Miko won't return his calls, Ben is grudgingly forced to confront not only Miko, but himself.
Throughout the sometimes cruel, sometimes funny Shortcomings, Tomine forces us to identify with Ben—and, if only by association, forgive or at least tolerate his faults. Along the way, through his graceful art and insightful writing, he also makes us admit to our own.