The Pleasures Of Repetition: Rob Clough on Little Nothings Vol. 3: Uneasy Happiness

Posted by on March 4th, 2010 at 9:00 AM

NBM; 128 pp., $14.95; Color, Softcover; ISBN: 978-1561635764

The first comic I read by Lewis Trondheim was an excerpt from Approximate Continuum Comics, his hilarious autobiographical series.  His lively wit both as a writer and cartoonist was immediately evident, but I was also struck by the sheer joy he seemed to evince in the act of drawing itself.  His drawings of a redwood forest revealed an artist who wasn’t exactly a virtuoso as a draftsman, yet still managed to convey the essence of the things he was observing.  Trondheim’s drawings, to put it simply, seem alive.  He’s found the happy medium between naturalism and iconic abstraction and has furthermore figured out how to adjust that line depending on his project.  Trondheim has at times done completely abstract comics, some deceptively simple gag comics (Mister I and Mister O), slice of life comics, adventure comics, kids’ comics and more.  He’s proven, time and again, that he’s a master of any genre, bending its needs to his own style and understanding of how to craft a story.

Still, I always found myself drawn to his autobiographical material the most.  He’s self-deprecating without being mawkish, introspective without navel-gazing and consistently funny.  The first volume of Little Nothings was a revelation not only because it was an extended return to autobio, not only because he was tackling the diary comic (an autobio subgenre he hadn’t yet done), but because it was some of the best-looking art of his career.  Indeed, Little Nothings seems as much about recharging his batteries as an artist as it is about telling stories and gags.  That first volume had a surprisingly coherent through-line for a diary comic collection, but it also had a number of pages where Trondheim was clearly delighted to be drawing from life.  While part of Trondheim’s endless urge to travel is due to a sense of worry about decay (as noted in the second volume), I also think he chooses locations based on how fun they will be to draw.

Little Nothings has the best of all diary-comics worlds: a humorous examination of the tiniest quotidian details of life, along with a sweeping view of a man constantly on the road.  Unlike the autobio story serialized in Mome, “At Loose Ends”, his Little Nothings work stays on the light side, deflecting more serious inquiries and making fun of himself when he does go down that road.  That said, there’s a bit of tension that’s developed in this series as it’s entered its third year.  There are times when it feels like Trondheim is doing this comic purely for his own amusement, and as a way to keep his drawing hand (and eye) limber.  There are also times when it’s clear that he’s trying to be an entertainer and strives to produce gags.

The way that tension plays out is that in this third volume, the reader essentially gets more of the same.  Trondheim’s routine hasn’t changed much in three years.  He’s living comfortably, he has a nice family with two teenagers who don’t require a lot of his attention, and he’s achieved fame as an artist.  There’s no tension, no real conflict or crises.  That lack of conflict is at times palpable on the page, perhaps leading to the subtitle of this volume.  Trondheim is happy, he’s been happy for a while, and he will likely to continue to be happy—but all of that makes him a bit nervous.  How does one retain one’s energy and fire as an artist when life is simply a series of pleasant routines?

Trondheim doesn’t really have an answer for that and simply responds by trying to stay in motion and enjoy himself.  As a result, we get more strips about Angouleme, more strips about tropical locations, and more strips about being outside, more strips about little adventures in his home and more gossipy stories about his fellow cartoonists.  Perhaps he concentrates on these kinds of stories because he figures his audience has come to like them, or perhaps he does it because he enjoys working variations on a few simple things.  Regardless, the freshness of the early book is no longer present in the third volume, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable a read.

Indeed, Trondheim’s work as a draftsman and especially as a colorist has only continued to become more visually sumptuous.  In the strip where he’s looking at a waterfall, he still manages to slap a gag on top of a pretty drawing.  His use of color tends to be naturalistic when he’s drawing a scene in nature and more expressionistic when elsewhere.  In the latter case, it’s not unusual to see his use of color as a kind of stage-lighting, reflecting mood and scene.  When background color suddenly drops out, it’s often in the service of emphasizing a punchline or change of mood.  Trondheim also breaks up his color field from time to time to depict a sense of being frazzled.  As much as Little Nothings is a way of Trondheim finding the joy of mark-making and drawing from life, it also seems to be about the joy of color as well.

Trondheim is at his best when he comes up with a killer gag to go along with an observation or weird story, with one of the best a strip where unusual luck at a casino is really Trondheim waking up from a dream with his pillow stuck in his gut.  Trondheim indulges in the occasional joke about getting old, like when he spends five minutes in a loud nightclub before he realizes that he’s completely out of place and simply needs to go to sleep.  The strips where he plays on his status as a famous cartoonist are also great, like when he lends Jose Munoz a pen for a signing at Angouleme and then chases after him when Munoz not only forgets to thank him, but walks off with it.

At this point, I hope Little Nothings runs forever.  It’s already my favorite diary comic of all time and certainly in the top 10-20 of all-time comics autobio.  It’s almost like Trondheim’s attempt at becoming a syndicated cartoonist, working variations on a theme to provide gag after gag, day after day.  Not every idea is an inspired one (some of the travel sequences dragged a bit in this volume), but the beauty of the book is watching the one Trondheim recovers from a misstep to craft a strip that delights, amuses and occasionally even surprises the reader.  The fact that Trondheim can do this while still working on a dozen other projects is stunning to me, revealing his remarkable work ethic and inner urge to express himself as a cartoonist.

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2 Responses to “The Pleasures Of Repetition: Rob Clough on Little Nothings Vol. 3: Uneasy Happiness

  1. […] Rob Clough at The Comics Journal: […]

  2. […] at the “front page,” Rob Clough beat me to the review of the third volume of Trondheim’s diary comics, “Uneasy […]