Posted by Don MacPherson on January 29th, 2012
Little Nothings Vol. 4: My Shadow in the Distance graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Lewis Trondheim
Translation: Joe Johnson
Publisher: NBM Publishing
Price: $14.99 US
As someone who loves the medium of comics and has been writing about them for years, I’m obviously familiar with Lewis Trondheim’s name, but I have to confess, this is the first time I’ve sat down and read his work. I honestly didn’t know what to expect from him, but now that I have, I know what to expect next: I expect I’ll be reading more of his comics. This collection of one-page, slice-of-life cartoons are eminently relatable, and the universality of Trondheim’s ‘toons becomes even more apparent when one considers this book is a translation of work originally crafted and presented in French. Loosely linked by a theme of the creator’s international travels, the book definitely reads better in shorter spurts. There’s not much in the way of an overarching plotline to provide a stronger connection and flow. Nevertheless, Trondheim’s honesty about the fleeting, neurotic thoughts that pass through his mind at any given moment is as touching as his ability to poke fun at his little foibles. As for his approach to the character designs, his intent is clear. The book is about exposing common human experience, and the simple designs reinforce the relatability of the work, allowing the reader to insert himself or herself into each situation.
Internationally acclaimed cartoonist Lewis Trondheim always has cause to travel to comics festivals and other events, but despite his jet-set lifestyle, he never seems to be able to overcome the challenges of travelling. With each trip, he always forgets something or packs something in his checked luggage he needs or wants on the plane. He’s seen the same bad movies on airlines time and time again, and hotels always seem to have something lacking or unusual with which he must contend. Adding to his travelling woes is the development of a sinus problem — one that wouldn’t be so serious if he didn’t spend so much time at 30,000 feet.
Trondheim boasts a fun, light cartooning style. His choice to depict himself and everyone else in the world as animals not only allows readers to imagine themselves alongside the lead (or taking his place), it serves as a clear message we shouldn’t take ourselves or others too seriously. Life is almost literally a zoo in Trondheim’s world, and he’s devolved everyone, including himself (as a chicken). The figures are simple throughout, but the backgrounds and settings are richly textured. It was fun seeing a variety of international locales, and Trondheim skilfully conveys the diversity in the natural and architectural beauty of each destination.
It’s interesting to see how Trondheim uses the pacing and brevity of the basic three- or four-panel strip while casting aside the limitations of the linear, horizontal model to such cartooning. The full-page approach offers him more in the way of layouts, detail and depth. Sometimes he opts for a two-panel, stacked sequence, while at others, he employs five or six panels, with some narrow, horizontal panels shimmied in there in unconventional but effective manners.
I found the most interesting aspect of the book to be a running plotline later in the book about Trondheim’s health issue. He doesn’t resort to exaggeration to convey the concern such a development would give way to, but he nevertheless manages to convey the stress of the situation while seemingly being casual about it. Maybe one reason this aspect resonated for me personally was a recent health issue I experienced that resulted in a hospital stay and a referral to a specialist. The physical vulnerability adds to the everyman tone of the autobiographical storytelling. It’s as though Trondheim decided to reinforce his self-deprecating self-examination of his foibles with a physiological shortcoming as well.
The translation of this European work is quite good. It never felt as though sentiment or humor didn’t cross the cultural and linguistic threshold. Though I’m a bit rusty, I have a strong educational background in French, so I’m honestly curious to read this book (or like works from Trondheim) in the original French.
Trondheim’s message throughout the book is clear. Sure, the focus seems to be on the goofiness of how the human mind works, but really, it’s a celebration of the human experience and the magic hiding in the world all around us. It’s there in the subtitle, “My Shadow in the Distance.” There are moments throughout the book in which Trondheim pauses from dwelling on the inconveniences of life and the small mistakes he’s made to focus on the wonders around him. It’s particularly apparent when he snorkels off a tropical coral reef, but one can even find it in his amazement at his own body’s ability to expel something big and disgusting as it heals itself. 8/10
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