Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel Shortcomings, recently adapted for cinema by Randall Park, is the story of a schlubby Japanese American theater manager in the tail-end of a relationship. Watching this movie about a movie buff may end up drawing viewers further into a spectacle about Asian American masculinity, given that the character of Ben Tanaka brings up “important questions regarding surveillance, race, sexuality, and intimacy,” suggests critic Stella Oh.
“Shortcomings illuminates the intertwined relationship between the ethical and the optical, addressing how one sees, is seen, and how comics illustrate both of these processes,” writes Oh, who highlights the use of a “voyeuristic gaze” in Tomine’s narrative.
Through “visual syntax and the spatio-temporal framing of the panels,” the graphic novel explores how Ben’s desire for intimacy is frequently frustrated, as sexually charged interactions are depicted as “visually intimate yet physically distant” and actual consummation is skipped over.
Ben is a voyeur who uses pornography to cope with romantic rejection—especially films featuring white women, since “desiring and dating white women elevates his masculinity and sexual prowess and validates his cultural assimilation to the American nation and way of life,” as Oh recounts.
“The act of watching porn allows Ben to exert a coercive surveillance in which he maintains total control over the images of women on the DVDs and his interpretation and use of them, so antithetical to his seeming inability to manage the real women in his relationships.”
Shortcomings is delivered in a graphic novel format—a medium in which “the visual is privileged,” notes Oh, but also a medium that forces race to be represented and seen in a certain way. Yet Ben’s best friend Alice, a Korean American graduate student, accuses him of refusing to “see” race—although an ellipsis cuts her off before she can articulate that critical word.
“In Shortcomings, bodies are racialized and gendered through interpellative viewing practices,” argues Oh. But, on his part,
Ben refuses to see the braided relationship between racial formations, gender constructions, and sexual fantasies. He also fails to see himself as a part of the scopic gambit that produces and reproduces such interpellated behaviour.
But Tomine does not let his audience off the hook either; the very act of reading the book makes the reader complicit in Ben’s transgressions.
“While Ben gazes at images of women (on pornographic DVDs and on a surveillance camera monitor), the reader is equally engaged in observing Ben looking at women,” Oh argues. “The audience sees and reads about the varying degrees of intimacy Ben shares with several women in order to understand and identify with him.”
Thus, like Ben, “the reader…who sees and reads the intimate actions of the characters embracing, fighting, kissing, having sex, taking a bath, and watching porn,” becomes a voyeur, following him down the same path to the objectification—and intimacy.
From frames to shots, graphic novels and films have much in common. But fans of Tomine’s text and Park’s adaptation might also keep in mind Oh’s point on a key difference:
“What the filmic lens cannot offer through its fast-moving frames the graphic narrative allows: to slow down, to consider the intertwined contexts of multiple ways through which we see and are seen.”