Robot 6

Comics College: Lewis Trondheim

Sequence from 'Mister O'

Sequence from 'Mister O'

Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.

Today we’ll be crossing the Atlantic to take a look at the one of the most prolific cartoonists of the past 30 years, either in Europe or America, Lewis Trondheim.

Why he’s important

Beyond being one of the most celebrated names in French comics, Trondheim was one of the stars  — perhaps in some ways the biggest star — of the small press movement in Europe in the 1990s that gave birth to artists like David B, Marjane Satrapi, Joann Sfar and Chris Blain (indeed, as one of the founding members of the seminal publishing group L’Association, you could argue that he helped give birth to the movement in more ways than one). As Bart Beaty so aptly puts it in his book, Unpopular Culture:

That an artist who, by his own admission, had no ability to draw could become one of the most prolific, popular and financially successful cartoonists of his generation was conceivable only given the redefinition of the field by the artists of the small press. Few cartoonists involved in the movement have yet matched his success, and his victories are not entirely shared. However, the ascension of Trondheim to the top ranks of European cartoonists and his ongoing success in a number of related fields and international markets symbolize the importance of the entire small press revolution and the transformation of the comic book field that it put into motion.

What’s more, having produced over 30 books in as little as 10 years, he straddles genres — be it humor, autobiography, adventure, fantasy, children’s books, historical fiction or experimental works — with uncanny ease. American cartoonists looking to try a similar trick should look to his example.

Where to start

Dungeon Twilight, Vol. 1: Dragon Cemetery

Dungeon Twilight, Vol. 1: Dragon Cemetery

The best place to begin is Mister O and Mister I, both easily available from NBM. These two thematically similar, deceptively simple books (O concerns a round-shaped creature who keeps attempting to traverse a short gorge and fails; I deals with an elongated man who tries to find food only to meet one gruesome death after another) provide a good sense of Trondheim’s black, dry wit, his love of formal play, his excellent sense of timing and his ability to convey action and emotion in just a few lines.  They’re both very emblematic of his general attitude and style and both very funny.

Another good place to start is the Dungeon series, a ongoing, epic fantasy series he’s currently working on (and will probably never finish) with Sfar and a revolving door of artists. The series started out as a spoof of your average D&D-type stuff but has ended up taking on a life of its own, spanning out to cover hundreds of years, many characters and many, many volumes. You should start with the first one though, Duck Heart, also from NBM. (In general, I’d recommend reading the series in this order: Zenith, which covers the “present day;” then Twilight, which looks into the future; then The Early Years; Parade, which is unrelated, fun stories; and Monstres, which focuses on the supporting cast.)

From there you should read

Harum Scarum

Harum Scarum

Once you finish (or at least get through most of) the Dungeon books, move on to the Little Nothings series, a collection of one-page autobiographical strips (originally serialized on Trondheim’s website) in which the author provides a humorous, off-the-cuff look at his general philosophy and day-to-day existence. The series is up to three volumes here in America — The Curse of the Umbrella, The Prisoner Syndrome and Uneasy Happiness — and they’re all good.

In the late 1990s, Fantagraphics took a stab at introducing Trondheim to an American audience. The books sold poorly (to put it mildly), but both Harum Scarum and The Hoodoodad remain supremely entertaining tales featuring McConey, Trondheim’s shy, nonplussed, anthropomorphic rabbit and his friends.

Not to let one bad attempt keep them down, Fantagraphics tried again with an ongoing pamphlet series, The Nimrod, which sadly only lasted seven issues. It’s a great hodge-podge of some classic Trondheim material though, including autobio stories, McConey tales and the great wordless piece, Diablotus (found in issue #2). The back issues are available at dirt cheap prices too.

For a look at Trondheim at his blackest and most grotesque, pick up A.L.I.E.E.E.N, a dark, disturbing, but frequently hilarious (and again, wordless) tale of life on an alien planet that literally ends with everything drowning in a flood of excrement.

Further reading

Tiny Tyrant

Tiny Tyrant

In addition to producing his own comics, Trondheim has collaborated with a number of noteworthy European artists, most notably on the Dungeon series, but also on a number of kids’ comics.

My favorite of the bunch is Tiny Tyrant, done with Fabrice Parme, which chronicles the hilarious adventures of a monomaniacal boy king. Also good is Astronauts of the Future, featuring art by Manu Larcenet and centering on a precocious boy and girl who are convinced that there’s an alien conspiracy afoot in their sleepy town and discover that it’s completely true, but not in the manner they initially thought.

Trondheim initially began Kaput and Zosky, the comical adventures of two would-be space warmongers who can’t conquer a planet to save their lives, on his own but then let Eric Cartier take over the art chores, with somewhat lesser results. Still, it’s a pretty funny series, goofy enough that your kids will get a kick out of it (and successful enough to warrant an animated series, episodes of which you can find on YouTube).

Finally, for the very young reader there’s the Li’l Santa books he did with Thierry Robin. These cute, wordless (it’s a running thing with Trondheim) tales feature the manic adventures of a pint-sized Santa Claus. NBM has released two of them so far.

Ancillary material

Mome Vol. 7

Mome Vol. 7

In 2004, Trondheim announced his intention to retire from comics (it didn’t last long) a decision he chronicled in At Loose Ends, a sprawling, thoughtful examination of the creative process, how age can dull the imagination and the thin line between art and commerce. Fantagraphics serialized it in three issues of their Mome anthology (vol. 6-8  to be exact).

If you don’t mind doing a bit of digging around the Internet, and you’re willing to pay a bit more for shipping, I’d recommend checking out some of the artist’s as-yet untranslated works. There are a number of “silent” comics that have yet to be published stateside, like Non, Non, Non or the fantastic La Mouche. The latter is the story of a fly who for reasons best not spoils, finds himself growing to monstrous size. It’s a fabulous comic that, if it were more easily available in the U.S. I would have included it up in the “start” section at the top of this post.

If you want to learn even more about Trondheim, I recommend picking up a copy of issue no. 283 of The Comics Journal, which features an extensive interview with him.

Avoid

I enjoyed Bourbon Island 1730 (co-written with Appollo), but it didn’t tickle many people’s fancy. I can sort of understand why. It’s a departure from what most American readers have come to expect from the artist — much more serious, downbeat and contemplative than the concept (Trondheim does pirates) than you’d expect, and the detailed but loose and sketchy black and white sketch art came off as cluttered and difficult to read. I don’t agree, but I can see where it might not be the best place for a neophyte to begin. Make it your last stop on the Trondheim express.

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Comments

18 Comments

Great job on talking about Trondheim! I don’t know why he isn’t so popular in the US. In the rest of the world he is an artist’s artist and rightly so. Dungeon for example, never ceases to amaze me. It’s so simple, but at the same time, so unique and perfect. I’ve heard the US version is in black and white. Is this true?

I agree with you about Bourbon Island 1730. I liked it.

So he doesn’t draw Dungeon? I finally started reading that. I just finished The Early Years Vol. 1 and got a kick out of it. I didn’t think he drew it but sometimes I wasn’t sure, like maybe he inked it or something.

Anyway, Lewis Trondheim is great!

Corey — i believe he and Sfar traded off on art chores together on the first couple of Zenith volumes (though I’m probably wrong about that). After that though it’s a hodge-podge of their friends and contemporaries. Chris Blain, for instance, does the art on all the Early Years volumes.

The English-language versions of Dungeon are in full color, but they’re not printed at the album size of the originals. Instead, they’ve been shrunk down to a little digest. It makes reading them a little tricky (lots of words crammed in), but they’re a ton of fun – like comic book candy.

Another Trondheim series that I wish would get translated are his Les Trois Chemins books. The approach to sequential art is very original and the story in the first one is very clever. (I haven’t gotten to the second book yet, but it looks entertaining.)

I also enjoyed Bourbon Island. It should be noted that it was written by Appollo (cartoonist from the island of Reunion). Trondheim’s loose black and white artwork in it is great.

Some of the other “McConey” (Lapinot in the original) books are really good. It’s a shame Fanta couldn’t finish the series.

There was also a series of pamphlets that NBM put out… forget the title. It had more of the Lapinot material and some other stuff in it.

Chris Mautner

May 2, 2010 at 7:50 am

I believe it was called Oddballz

Simon Richard

May 2, 2010 at 10:28 am

Trondheim drew the first 4 Zenith, the last 2 have been drawn by Boulet.

With Dungeon, I would recommend Lapinot… but I don’t know if they exist in english.

Lapinot is translated as McConey in English.

Concerning “who draws what” in Dungeon, Zenith was originally drawn by Trondhheim, Early Years by Blain, Twilight by Sfar, Parade by Larcenet, Monstres by 10+ different artists. Lately Sfar & Trondheim have focused on the writing of the series.

I was surprised that Fantagraphics never bothered to continue with the McConey books, given their support of unknown cartoonists. Part of it might be that it was poorly advertised, with practically nothing to compare it to. I only saw these two volumes once – and it was in a Dungeon & Dragon’s shop. Now that Trondheim’s beginning to make a comeback in publicity, maybe they can figure out a way to bring these titles (and future volumes) back in print?

I’d also like to see his faux autobiography The Nimrod in book form as well. I have no desire to collect a bunch of issues for a series that was never properly finished. It’s a good thing Fantagraphics is abandoning the comic book market (which never really apreciated them in the first place) and focusing their energies in the book market (where they’re more likely to find success), but it’s be nice if we could get some of their past “failures” a second chance. After all, they were probably not marketed to the kind of people who’d be interested in them in the first place.

Some cross-publication could be used as a bonus here. Fr’instince, “If you liked ‘Little Nothings’, you’ll enjoy The Nimrod.” Reading Bourbon Island 1730, I was reminded of another Trondheim comic, Mildou, an over-the-top comic about a Medival revolution that leads to one of the LONGEST and funniest sword fights in comics. What’s great about Trondheim is that he knows about Manga, but applies his own interpretation within the boundaries of the French books, and manages to make it work.

Whenever we say “no, no, no” and waggle our finger in the air, I think of Trondheim and that great mini-comic. I found a copy of La Mouche at Big Planet during SPX one year. Big thanks to Eric Reynolds for letting me know it was there. I think my fave was the Nimrod. I actually had them library bound.

I suspect Fanta’s Lapinot publication was a little ahead of the times. They’d probably do better now, packaged perhaps two originals to one translated. I think the choice of which volumes to publish was also unfortunate: going with the the historical genre one instead of Slaloms, which might be more of interest to the alt comics audience.

Actually, we’re releasing the autobiographical graphic novel APPROXIMATIVEMENT, the first half of which was serialized in THE NIMROD, in its entirety later this year. So there!

I’m mulling over jumping back into the McCONEY game. Note that NBM also published McCONEY in the ODDBALLZ comic and also failed to generate enough heat to justify a book, so we were not the only ones to fail at this. My sense is that there has been a bit of a shift if comics readers’ tastes as regards both format and content since we first tried McCONEY and it might work now.

Chris Mautner

May 3, 2010 at 11:48 am

Wow, that’s pretty fantastic news! Thanks for the scoop Kim!

I had forgotten about Oddballz when I did my initial write-up. A quick Google search, however, didn’t turn up much so I’m not sure back issues area easily available.

FYI, next month will be Harvey Kurtzman, since I didn’t say so in the post.

Martin de la Iglesia

May 3, 2010 at 2:04 pm

One of my favourite Trondheim comics, “Mildiou”, isn’t even mentioned here. But I guess that’s due to the lack of an English edition.

That’s great news, Kim.

Pedro Bouça

May 4, 2010 at 1:08 am

Kim!

I say that Fanta should go for more Lapinot books. When you first published it (also for NBM’s efforts), most of your comics were sold on comic shops, a venue where not just Trondheim but pretty much ANY european creator has been unable to find its public. Now you have bookstores, which is the venue those comics were originally aimed at!

Note that NBM’s Donjon also failed miserably as a regular comic book, but seems to have found a degree of sucess when compiled into book format.

That’s the same reason why Tardi failed so many times before on the US but the recent Fanta series seem to be selling. It wasn’t meant for the comic shop crowd.

So I think that a new US Lapinot ed will find its public nowadays. Go for it! And publish Mildiou while you are at that, it’s quite funny and at least was meant for the smaller size that the books will inevitably be printed on.

Best,
Hunter (Pedro Bouça)

Just checked back to see if my post generated any response, and I’m very surprised.

Martin, I DID mention Mildiou, only I kinda mispelled it, so maybe that’s what threw you off.

And Kim Thompson? The news that you’re planning to reprint some of your Nimrod stuff is happy news. Now, I just need to sit back and wait… And wait. And wait. It seems like half the time all I’m doing is waiting for awesome news to surface.

Maybe if we generated enough noise towards NBM’s dirrection, they might consider getting back into their earlier forey into Trondheim terrorority?

In fact, I’m going to post this link at their blog, right now!

Martin de la Iglesia

May 5, 2010 at 11:20 am

@DanielBT: Yes, I was referring to its absence in the blog post, but I had also missed that you had mentioned it in your comment already. Sorry for that.

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