Click photo to enlarge
from "Shortcomings" by Adrian Tomine, courtesy of publisher Drawn & Quarterly
FOR BAY AREA residents, one of the immense pleasures of reading Adrian Tomine's observant graphic novel "Shortcomings" is spotting the local landmarks.

Berkeley's venerable California Theater, Oakland's hip dive bar the Alley and the greasy but lip-smacking burger joint the Smokehouse on Telegraph Avenue make guest appearances. Even a Hegenberger highway sign serves as a turning point in this critically lauded book, which had its second printing.

Just don't expect to see the names matching the locales. In keeping with the bulk of Tomine's work, the creator of the series "Optic Nerve" tinkers with reality, rarely deciding to call things as we Bay Area folks see them.

"The whole book is like that, clearly linked

to real life but with a lot of fictionalizing," he said.

The characters also seem Bay Area born and bred. Ben Tanaka, the sarcastic and blunt protagonist, lives in Berkeley and manages a movie theater. His best friend Alice, a lesbian, is a Mills College grad student. They meet up for coffee at Mama's Royal Cafe in Oakland, where they discuss Ben's doomed romance and his latest crush.

Of all the Bay Area locales, the one that saddens the 33-year-old Tomine is the late Cody's on Telegraph.

Tomine said the closing of that Cody's, which he visited often during the 12 years he lived in Berkeley, shaped his tour's itinerary.

"It was one of the first bookstores in the area to have a really good graphic novels section," the Sacramento native said.

To pay tribute to it, Tomine chose to appear in mostly independent stores instead of large chains.

"I think when Cody's shut down, I had this real shock to my system and realized how immediate and dire the situation is for these bookstores."

Ironically, as the small bookstores withered, comics gained in popularity.

Attitudes changed, Hollywood took notice of comics, and now graphic novelists go out on book tours. Tomine, who illustrates for the New Yorker, seems stunned by the attention he's receiving. Last Sunday the New York Times offered "Shortcomings" its seal of approval, while author Junot Diaz ("The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao") raved about it in another review.

Tomine worries the comics renaissance could lead to publishers snatching up inferior graphic

novels to make a quick buck.

"The real risk is that comics as a medium wears out its welcome," he said by phone from his Ann Arbor, Mich., hotel room. "I'm astonished to say that there might be a greater demand than supply of top-notch work."

Even though the public's greater acceptance might be trendy, the business itself is anything but, he believes.

"To be new isn't as important as being good," he said, pointing to the esteemed careers of Chris Ware and Oakland's Daniel

Clowes.

From an early age, Tomine fell in love with comics and could never fathom doing anything else.

"I never had a phase where I wanted to be an astronaut," he said.

His work eventually caught the eye of Chris Oliveros, publisher of Drawn and Quarterly, which releases high-quality comics. Oliveros remembers receiving copies of Tomine's self-published mini-comics and being impressed.

"I naturally assumed that this was done by someone in his 20s, and I was later surprised to learn that he was just out of high school."

Fourteen years later, their partnership still flourishes, with the Canadian company publishing "Shortcomings" and his "Optic Nerve" series, which developed a cult following and generates a lot of letters. Part of the reason for those letters is that Tomine is unafraid of bringing up touchy topics. In "Shortcomings," his mostly Asian-American characters talk candidly about interracial dating, political correctness and even penis size in Asian men.

Tomine refuses to use his cartooning as a soap box. There are more immediate ways of accomplishing that goal, he says, adding that "Shortcomings" took him five years to produce.

Reach Randy Myers at

rmyers@bayareanewsgroup.com.