Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine is a collection of six stories: “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as “Hortisculpture””; “Amber Sweet”; “Go Owls”; “Translated, from the Japanese”; “Killing and Dying”; and “Intruders.” In perfect Tomine-esque brevity -in both text and illustration– each story presents the spacious darkness of the human condition through history, happenstance, and circumstance. Tomine once again brings a seemingly underground suburban landscape to the forefront through panels of characters bereft of merriment: the fallen excitement of winning free tickets to non-existent baseball game. Or the immense loneliness of a war veteran seeking normalcy and refuge. Tomine impresses upon the reader characterizations of people we likely encounter in our everyday lives yet dismiss, or no nothing about– we are constant strangers milling about each other, sometimes passing in crosswalks during our daily routine. Each story is like walking through a silent, crowded street.
“Amber Sweet” is perhaps my favorite of the six stories. A young woman recalls the difficulty of living in a world that defines or mistaken s her face for a porn star. Tomine’s story begins with this first sentence, “This isn’t the easiest thing for me to talk about, but I need to just get it out there…” (33). The panel continues and the young woman takes her listener back six years when she “started noticing something strange” (33). Throughout the story we witness the emotional turmoil and subsequent injustice of looking like someone else. It does not matter if she is experiencing verbal assault by men shouting from their car, “When’s our turn?” (34) or the unbelievable disconcerting moment when our main character seeks advice from friends only to receive an unsupportive, heart-sinking statement: “Yeah, I hate it when I’m so hot that I get mistaken for a famous porn star” (36). After revealing her failed relationships to the listener, she eventually runs into Amber Sweet herself, or so we think. Tomine expertly brings out our own misconceptions and flaws through text and illustration, leaving us to doubt and question the authenticity of a young woman who was never believed to be who she was in the first place. The possibility that our narrator could have been Amber Sweet remains, but maybe her story is one of mistaken identity. Regardless, your heart breaks for her, and you feel conflicted just thinking about it, and that is what great literature does for us whether we are right or wrong in our own interpretations. And, if you are like me, you’ll feel awful just considering the possibility.