Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Little Nothings, Vol. 1: The Curse of the Umbrella by Lewis Trondheim

The world never lives up to our demands of it, but we make those demands anyway. How else are we to live?

And now you're wondering if I'm talking about the substance of this book of diary comics by the French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim, or my reaction to it. Well, Dear Reader, why can't it be both?

I think diary comics work best when anchored: they don't have to be done every single day, but that's the most durable framework for them. One page for one day, dated and specific: building a wall of observation one brick at a time, each one a moment or event in a specific day. New strips can appear irregularly, or weekly, or monthly, depending on when the creator has time - that all works. Regular is better, though, and the date helps reinforce the regularity. This was Tuesday, says the date, like so many other Tuesdays, but here's what was different.

That's my only major quibble with Trondheim's autobiographical comics: they're pretty clearly single pages, done one at a time, probably most days in a stretch but not necessarily all the time, so they line up to a sequence of events over time. And it would be stronger if they were time-stamped in an inobtrusive way: March 1, March 2, or more likely 2 janvier, 3 janvier. Trondheim doesn't do that; as far as I can tell he never did. 

Little Nothings, Vol. 1: The Curse of the Umbrella was published in 2007 in the US; it appeared the year before in French. (And somewhat earlier - another year, maybe two? the sequence is not entirely clear - as individual pages on Trondheim's website, where the sequence still lives. [1]) I'll also note that the book had the somewhat different title La Malediction du Paradise (the Curse of Paradise) in French. I probably should mention the series title is Les petites riens in French, which means basically the same thing as "Little Nothings."

There were seven collections of the diary comics in French; only the first four appeared in English. Given that the US editions appeared from 2007-11, my guess is that Trondheim stopped making these comics not quite a decade ago, but I could be wrong.

Trondheim was an established professional when he made these comics: nearly two decades into his career, settled into fairly quiet suburban life with his wife and two tween children. So these comics tend to be either quietly contemplative - the ones that look at day-to-day life - or about the breaks in his routine, vacations and trips to comics festivals. In this book, he goes to Hong Kong, Madrid, Edinburgh, the Angouleme festival (the one where he won the Grand Prix, actually), Reunion, Dublin. The travel comics fall into sequences: my guess is that these basically span a year, and that Trondheim was more likely to make comics about events but, over the course of that year, basically made a strip for about every third day, mostly in clusters. (Again, without dates, this is mostly speculation.)

From the newest pages on his site, it looks like these were drawn in a sketchbook, with watercolors layered over. I tend to doubt he carried the watercolors on all these trips - though maybe he did; creative types are weird - so maybe he finished the pages later or did most of the work later. On the other hand, some pages are pretty clearly sketched from a specific place - though, again, it's never clear if Trondheim did sketches in a sketchbook in the moment and then cleaned up and redrew things for this project.

In any case: each page is a moment, an full thought. Some thoughts come in sequence, especially on vacation, away from the everyday pressures of the world. They're fun, thoughtful slices of life.

And Trondheim uses a somewhat cartoony, anthropomorphic style for all of this, though I suspect he's sticking closer to people's real appearance than it appears. His bird-headed vision of himself is startlingly similar to real pictures of the cartoonist; specific expressions are clear in his cartoons.

I'll always want more comics about real people living real lives: the Little Nothing books are great examples of that, by one of the masters of world cartooning. They should be much better known than they are.

[1] The website presents the art as photographed sketchbook pages, I think, by Trondheim himself, which may be more interesting for process people. The grain of the paper is clearly visible, and it hasn't been cleaned up for reproduction: it's a view of the art rather than a printed representation of it. Only the last twenty strips seem to be there, though.

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