Stephanie McCanles had just broken up with her boyfriend when she came across Adrian Tomine’s comic book Optic Nerve. Floored by Tomine’s acerbic humor and starkly illustrated stories about alienated urbanites, McCanles–the artistic director of the Milwaukee avant-garde theater group Inertia Ensemble–knew she had to get the latest issue. Unable to find it in Milwaukee, she ask asked her ex, who was taking a trip to Chicago, to pick up a copy.

“He read it and got very upset,” says McCanles. “He said to watch out for the first story. Of course I read it and got very upset. It was very appropriate for what we were going through.”

In “Sleepwalk” a young man named Mark has a dinner date with his ex- girlfriend on his birthday and learns how separation can suppress painful emotions. By the end of the story, Mark totals his car and is left standing alone in the middle of a deserted street. Like many of Tomine’s stories, it ends with the depressing implication that isolation is inescapable. What impressed McCanles was how much she related to a story that was told in a medium she once thought went no deeper than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

“I had no knowledge of alternative comics, ” she says. “The emotional impact of that story was so great that I immediately thought I had to do something with it.”

The three-year-old itinerant Inertia Ensemble has staged a number of unusual productions, including adaptations of short stories by Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury and a rock musical without dialogue titled Feedback. When McCanles wrote to Tomine–then an English major at the University of California at Berkeley–to ask permission to adapt his comic, Tomine was apprehensive.

‘A lot of people have written to me about different ideas,” says Tomine. “They want to do short movies or a CD-ROM of the comic or something–and then I find they’ve never done anything like that before and it’s some kind of experiment for them. But after a while I got the sense that she had a good grasp of what I was trying to do.”

“Whenever Adrian draws people in an urban setting they are always on an empty street,” McCanles says. “There’s a real feeling of this emotional and physical void that the characters are moving through. I started thinking that each story was just a part of this lonely urban world.” She started intermingling some of the pieces, shifting back and forth between different stories staged simultaneously on the same set–sometimes on the same piece of furniture: a couple argues on one end of a couch while a woman on the other end reluctantly reads scripted sex over the phone to her boyfriend. “The stories start to be about how all of these things that are happening in the world … compare and contrast with each other,” she says.

Though McCanles kept most of Tomine’s dialogue, she had trouble trying to evoke the noirish feel of his illustrations. She decided on a minimally decorated stage with lighting that immerses the actors in harsh shadow.

When Tomine went to Milwaukee for the opening last November, he was pleasantly freaked out. “It brought up a lot of weird emotions,” he says. “First of all I was absolutely relieved and satisfied at what a good job they had done. Aside from that it weird experience to sit in a theater and watch people enacting my breakup with my girlfriend.”

Optic Nerve opens Friday at 8 at the Blue Rider Theatre, 1822 S. Halsted, and runs through September 28. Tickets are $10; call 733-4668. The opening performance will be followed by a party at 9 at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western. Tickets are $6, $5 with theater ticket stub; call 276-3600 Tomine will sign copies of Optic Nerve Saturday from 2 to 5 at Chicago Comics, 3244 N. Clark (call 528-1983), and Sunday from 3 to 5 at Quimby’s Queer Store, 1328 N. Damen (call 342-0910).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liza Redlin.