Monday, March 9, 2009

Fending Off Stasis: Little Nothings 2

Rob reviews the latest collection of Lewis Trondheim's strips from his blog, LITTLE NOTHINGS 2: THE PRISONER SYNDROME (NBM).

Cartoonists are often known for living a sedentary, secluded lifestyle. By its nature, drawing is usually a solitary pursuit, demanding hours of labor. The great Lewis Trondheim, through his comics blog on his website, seems dedicated to being the exception to this rule. The strip that lends this collection its name discusses "the prisoner's syndrome" wherein a lack of activity leads to a further lack of desire for activity, creating a vicious circle that leads to stasis and intellectual death. Trondheim has always been interested in not just art but what it means to be an artist and how this relates to being a human being in general. In his "At Loose Ends" autobio strip, he obsesses over the relationship between age and creativity and how it seems to have affected so many cartoonists. His LITTLE NOTHINGS strips act as a diary strip, of course, but they also seem to serve a larger purpose. There's a lushness to his drawings and use of color that establishes that he's drawing and coloring simply to keep that act pleasurable. By the same token, writing about amusing, poignant or bizarre moments of his own life (even if he does take creative license with certain details) is an easy way to keep a creator's story-creating facility sharp. He's "drawing from life" in both senses of the phrase--drawing what he sees, and drawing from his well of experiences.

He's careful to draw himself on the move as much as he is at home. To combat prisoner's syndrome, he intentionally accepts as many invitations to appear at comics festivals as possible. Staying in motion and seeing new things seems to be key to him to stave off intellectual decay, and these strips are a sort of exercise he's sharing with readers. Trondheim expertly elicits an emotional response from each strip, be it laughter or sympathy. What separates him from most other journal comics is that he's hilarious and a master at framing small moments into punchlines. Some of that humor is physical, like the way he draws himself swatting at tiny insects. Other strips delve into his own fantasy world, delving into some paranoic daydream. Others are situational, dominated by his own internal narrative as he negotiates his world.

Of course, I'd urge anyone interested in this book to also pick up the first volume in this series. There are echoes of the first book that sound strongly in the second. For example, when his family took in two cats in the first book, he immediately worried about one of them dying, but consoling himself that the other would be around. He has to face up to the mortality of one of the cats in this book and how it relates to his internally generated belief in karma and bad luck. Another digression in this book concerns Trondheim's adventures as president of the Angouleme comics festival, an honor he received in the first volume. He depicts being in charge as not what it was cracked up to be--he can't even get an open bar at his hotel. When the torch is passed to a new artist at the end of the festival, Trondheim allows himself a moment of self-pity, even if he is winking a bit at himself while doing it.

That dry sense of humor is what I like best about Trondheim's authorial voice. It allows him to get away with all sorts of slapstick and physical humor without seeming too silly, and also allows him to write about more serious topics without seeming too ponderous. It helps that his style, depicting characters as anthropomorphic animals, is enormously expressive & clever without being cloying or too cute. His characters are his vehicles of expression, slightly abstracted for comedic effect, while his backgrounds are often lush and naturalistically depicted. With the characters, he wants us to "read" them in the context of a narrative. With his backgrounds, he wants us to look at them (and of course, he wants to look at them as well).

Of course, Trondheim lets us in on a little secret: one's life narrative is not the same thing as one's life. Details can be forgotten or omitted, or shaped to fit a story better. His partner calls him out on one strip where he depicts his family as deliberately "defiling tradition" by opening their christmas presents early. In a later strip, his partner provides more details, showing that the way Trondheim drew it omitted crucial context and information that changed the nature of the event. Trondheim drew a corrective strip but also fumed, "I can't even do what I want." That moment, and later strips where he's reading blog comments on things he discusses in past strips, reflects his own self-awareness about the difference between narrative and experience. As readers, we are fortunate that Trondheim is a master of connecting micronarratives and simultaneously embuing them with a wide range of emotional possibilities. He's a born storyteller and can't help but spin even the smallest moments into narrative, his mind in constant motion to combat the prisoner's syndrome.

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