Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings is relentlessly negative, argumentative, and filled with “asshole” characters, yet it is strikingly realistic and compelling. One of Tomine’s strengths lies in his amazing ability to authentically portray the exchanges between his characters, especially their verbal altercations, debates, and disputes, which comprise the majority of their interactions with each other. His other strength lies in the level of detail that he devotes to the illustrations of his characters’ facial expressions and body positions, which are unspoken yet critical components of their exchanges. The realistic quality of Tomine’s graphic novel stems from the interplay between the two central characteristics or components of conversation: verbal and non-verbal communication.
The verbal communication, or dialogue, in Shortcomings is remarkably authentic and natural because it is un-stylized and unrefined—the characters do not always express themselves clearly or elegantly. Near the beginning of the graphic novel, the main character—Ben Tanaka—is upset because he feels that his girlfriend—Miko Hayashi—turned their “conversation…into a personal attack” on him. Shortly after, he sits down to lunch with his friend Alice Kim and begins to express his frustration(s) over this change, stating, “I mean, she didn’t give a shit about any of this community…political…whatever when I met her” (Tamine 13-14). Ben’s inability to precisely communicate his annoyances can be seen in his struggle to find the “right words” to describe his problem—he tries two different words before resigning with a bolded “whatever,” signaling his giving up out of frustration. The trouble Ben has expressing himself is closely linked to the emotional element of the conversation; in other words, it is hard for him to effectively communicate since he is distraught—a phenomenon many people experience. It is also important to note that Ben uses colloquial and inelegant diction, such as the phrase “she didn’t give a shit,” to convey what is bothering him—something that is often done when speaking with close friends, especially when one is “venting.” In addition to the dialogue being unrefined, it has a tendency to turn argumentative, become illogical, and escalate quickly or “spiral out of control,” due to the strong emotional force driving most of it. For example, after Miko moves to New York City—a very tense situation, due to the ambiguity of their relationship or relationship status—she and Ben have a phone conversation which begins rather cordially and ends in a violent shouting match:
Ben: So how’s the internship going? You haven’t told me much about it.
Miko: Oh, I’ve learned not to bore you. But it’s incredible. I’m meeting so many amazing people.
Ben: That’s great.
Miko: I keep having these moments where I’ll stop and think, “Wow…I’m in New York City!”
Ben: Well, that is where you are…
Miko: I know, Ben. You don’t have to get all sarcastic because I’m enjoying myself.
Ben: What? You started it with that “I’ve learned not to bore you” comment! I’m trying to act interested, and you…
Miko: “You started it?” How old are you? And why can’t you ever just be genuinely interested?
Ben: You really want me to answer that?
Miko: You know what? Maybe we should just not talk for a while this is-
Ben: Fine. [Ben hangs up] (Tomine 47-48).
It is precisely this emotionally driven, erratic, and volatile characteristic of Tomine’s dialogue, coupled with its unremarkable and often banal diction and subject matter, that gives it such a strikingly realistic quality.
Unlike the aforementioned verbal communication which derives its realism from its unpredictability and unsophistication, the non-verbal communication in Shortcomings appears realistic because of its incredible detail and photo-like quality. The vividly detailed facial expressions and body positions are important because they communicate the characters’ emotions that cannot be accurately conveyed through the dialogue. This is seen for example, after one of Ben and Miko’s arguments, when they are apologizing to each other and trying to figure out what sparked their argument and how it got so “out of control.” In the midst of these panels that are heavy with dialogue, there is a silent panel in which Ben is facing forward with a pensive look on his face (his lips are closed, forming a straight, horizontal line, and his eyes stare past the reader and off into space) and Miko is looking down toward Ben’s side with a remorseful look on her face (her eyes are slightly closed and angled down as if she were about to start tearing up, and her lips are closed, forming a slight downward droop or bend that gives the appearance of a slight quiver).
Through the dialogue it is clear that Ben and Miko are trying to simultaneously discover the cause of their argument and apologize for their role in it, but it is only through their body positions and facial expressions that their feelings are revealed—his meditation and her remorse. It is also important to note that the use of a silent panel in the midst of several dialogue heavy panels is in and of itself an essential contribution to the graphic novel’s non-verbal realism; this panel not only effectively draws the reader’s attention to the characters’ facial expressions and body positions, but it also simulates a pause in conversation—something that often happens in thoughtful exchanges or interactions.
Despite the sharp contrast in the level of detail and sophistication between the verbal and non-verbal communications, it is through their combination that the incredible level of realism in Shortcomings is achieved. The un-stylized dialogue accurately portrays the frequently banal conversations of everyday life—seldom do people express themselves perfectly and elegantly, especially when arguing or “venting”—while the incredibly detailed facial expressions and body language faithfully reveal the emotions and feelings that are frequently “shown” and rarely (if ever) “spoken.”