Monday, April 18, 2011

Sequart #120: Little Nothings

This review was originally published at

I first became aware of Lewis Trondheim's work with a long strip in the legendary SPX 2000 anthology (an anthology that introduced a number of remarkable European artists to American audiences). This was an excerpt from his excellent autobiographical comic APPROXIMATIVEMENT, much of which focused on his travels. Other excerpts were translated and reprinted in the much-missed Trondheim spotlight comic THE NIMROD (Fantagraphics), so this was the material I associated most with Trondheim. Of course, it was also the least commercial Trondheim material, and to date a complete translation of APPROXIMATIVEMENT has not been published in English.

American audiences have been slow to appreciate Trondheim's comedic brilliance, but some inroads have been made, thanks to clever format changes. Fantagraphics initially reprinted what should have been the audience-friendly Lapinot stories (as McConey) in a format very similar to the original French albums--a format that for some reason baffles American audience. When NBM started to reprint the Dungeon stories in smaller, manga-sized volumes (packing in more pages, albeit in a more econonomical package), they've achieved a great deal of success. Combine that with First Second's success in aiming these books at children and young adults, and one can see that American fans have much to be grateful for with these smartly-designed volumes.

That success has led to reprinting some more recent Trondheim autobiographical comics, with the hopefully-numbered volume 1 of LITTLE NOTHINGS (subtitled THE CURSE OF THE UMBRELLA). What separates Trondheim's autobiographical stories from so many others of its kind in the world of comics is that each page is a perfectly self-contained unit with its own punchline. At the same time, he manages to collect a series of quotidian observations into a narrative of sorts, deftly weaving in references to past events to create a story with weight and heft that addresses a number of ideas in addition to delivering jokes.

There's a sobering moment early in the book, when he notes that his family acquires two kittens in case one of them dies, "we won't be as said thanks to the second one". He then pauses for a beat, then notes, to his own dismay, "Just like with the kids?" Trondheim also muses on fate, the creative process, comics themselves, dealing with the public, his friends and the various places he visits. Travel is obviously a big part of his life, but writing about travel gives these musing a sort of forward momentum, a propulsive quality that helps draw in the reader and keep them focused on Trondheim's voice. By varying his settings, Trondheim helps the reader enjoy a variety of "little nothing" moments where Trondheim is riffing on a TV show or at home in his studio as well as seeing him in a variety of settings. By keeping the tone light and putting a punchline on every page, Trondheim is able to sneak in his thoughts, feelings and ideas without force-feeding them to the reader.

One interesting aspect of this comic is that Trondheim riffs on the nature of humor itself. He's a funny guy in everyday life, which sometimes makes him an irritant. "Advising" a man on how to get a rental car out of a hotel lot ("You just have to crash through barrier with the theme of Starsky & Hutch blaring"), he skips a couple of beats as the man stares at him, and then thinks ("In his place, I'd have thought I was a moron, too"). He reacts with annoyance when someone snaps off a punchline about feeding cats to a Venus fly-trap, saying that it should have been his line. A joke he plays on a friend (pretending to find a 50-euro bill after finding a dime on the street) turns against him and then escalates into paranoia after a man accosts him, saying he had lost such a bill. When he receives the Grand Prize at Angouleme, he gives an interview where he solemnly claims to be depressed that this is the height of his career and that it's all downhill from there to the media--and then chuckles to himself as he walks away, having played his own little prank on the public. Trondheim operates with a bit of a long-form improv artist's sensibility, building up narratives that culminate in punchlines down the road. That's capped off with the final page of the book, which doubles back on an earlier punchline from a museum with a wordless, full-page image that is instantly recognizable as a killer punchline.

Trondheim's calling card has always been his remarkable versatility. He's made comics where the images hardly ever vary, instead depending on his witty dialogue. He's a master of bon mots along with naturalistic dialogue, generating a score of vivid characters. He's made comics that were mute and depended entirely on his compositional and storytelling abilities. He's made abstract comics that depended entirely on composition and use of color. Trondheim has done many autobiographical stories and is equally proficient in genre stories of all kinds: fantasy, science-fiction, mystery, action-adventure, horror, romance and more. He writes comics aimed at kids that don't talk down to them and that any adult can relish. He does it all with a decidedly unfussy line and a preference for anthropomorphic animals as his characters (his own representation is a bird), a refined color palette and a love for comics qua comics that shines through all of his work. There's really no American equivalent for what Trondheim has done in his career (maybe the Hernandez Brothers come close) with regard to the variety of genres he's embraced; for Trondheim distinctions of "high" and "low" in his art don't exist. And now, with LITTLE NOTHINGS, there's a single volume that I can recommend to a general reading audience in America. Needless to say, this book instantly makes it to my short list of "books of the year" for 2008.

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