Lewis Trondheim: The Cerebral Cartoonist

Infinity 8 #1

Infinity 8 #1-6, or volumes 1 & 2, 3 issues ea.
Lion Forge comics, 32 pages ea, $3.99, or collected as trades

When thinking about various applications of comics, I often use the term “formal approach” towards particular ones. To me, this term describes a comic where the author has a structured, or formal direction they choose to use as inspiration, or as a springboard.

Some of the earliest practitioners of this method in American comics are Rube Goldberg, who drew outrageously complicated machines to demonstrate how to do the simplest of acts, leading to an absurdist conclusion along with a laugh; Windsor McCay, author of Little Nemo in Slumberland, exploring dreams from the mind in exquisitely designed landscapes featuring characters helplessly led through a series of visual challenges, up to the more recent fare of Chris Ware, whose Acme Novelty Library pushes despair and melancholy of contemporary life in the shape of the meticulously drawn classic old newspaper strips themselves.

Infinity 8 #2

Each of these artists chose a particular method to help direct the narrative, working within a disciplined language unique in comics that both entertains as well as gives marvel in the way they accomplish it.

Lewis Trondheim, a French practitioner of this method, works in this manner in the most successful way. Neither artsy nor intellectual, at least not on the surface, his work gives forth the atmosphere of just another daily cartoon, using simplicity of concept, as well as simple technical means, to achieve this goal. When experiencing Trondheim’s work, you are not reminded of the grand structural goals of the aforementioned cartoonists, you are merely on the ride along with him, whimsically drawn along whatever he’s feeding you with.

Infinity 8 #3

Trondheim, a young master born in 1964, has had an incredible volume of published work in his life so far, and the only drawback for us yankees is that most of it isn’t translated into English. However, thanks to such forward thinking publishers as NBM and Fantagraphics, some of the masterpieces are readily available to those good hunters within our hobby.

Such formal directives as Mister I, a 60 page book consisting completely of 60 panel, one page strips of the protagonist in a universe of situations, where he is doomed at the end of every single one of them. Even more disciplined is the follow up, Mister O, a twin-ish volume of the same structural 60 single page, 60 panels per page use of the title character trying to cross a chasm in each, but spectacularly failing in every attempt.

Infinity 8 v2 #1

Other exercises include A.L.I.E.E.E.N., and the absurdist Mickey Mouse’s Greatest Adventures. These use the “lost” discovery method of unearthed antique masterpieces, offering the left behind comic book of an alien child visitor from outer space; or rediscovered Sunday newspaper comic strips never published with popular Disney icons in an adventure that makes little sense the further you go into it, but doesn’t matter as the journey itself is what keeps you captivated, helplessly turning the pages for more.

His most well known work, Dungeon, a collaboration of many volumes with several European cartoonists, takes shape in the ever present “geographically placed” dungeon, spanning eons and endless dimensions, an ever changing cast of characters, with a couple of hanger ons, in a narrative that while each is individual, they have a familiarity between them all that will captivate lovers of fantasy books as well as gamers. Trondheim, to this point, produces high quality work, regardless of whether he is working solo or as part of a team.

Infinity 8 v2 #2

Infinity 8 seems to be another formal challenge along these lines. While fully ensconced in a modern comic book narrative style, both in terms of visuals as well as storylines, is yet another puzzle he has created for both himself and the reader, entertaining and also seeming cerebral in origin.

The spaceship Infinity 8, on its “mission”, contains an endless variety of cast and crew, all from different areas of space, all with different motivations, directions, and visual cues, with the book itself set up as a series of tales, each one lasting exactly three issues, with its total run set for exactly 8 adventures.

Here, Trondheim sets up a rigid structure that both produces “typical” comic book fare, but told in a pattern that stays true to the challenge he sets himself up with. The first, a post modern horror story, establishes our central character, a female law enforcement officer that seems sucked into the horrid plot of the tale, the second, a prickly review of the Hitler ultimate solution, finds our protagonist is now a different female law officer, remarkably similar to the one in the first tale, yet different in name and visual depiction. This is supplanted and reinforced by the captain of the ship, a powerful alien that can reboot reality back in time after a certain amount of hours, a limited amount of times. This captain, a beautifully depicted alien presence, and his(?) contrasting first operating officer, an overweight, unshaven sad look of a man, who constantly and fruitlessly attempts to court our femme fatale protagonist. Reading only the first two entries to this date, there is a perfect balance between what is consistent and what is changed in each “rebooting” of the stories of the two mini series.

Infinity 8 v2 #3

While I’ve read each story three times each, I’ve got to say even note taking doesn’t give you the entire picture of what’s going on, the sheer basic simplicity of the tale(s) is the highly successful kingpin of the narrative, giving both endless complexity along with a simple driving story that keeps you engaged and wanting more. Infinity 8 for me is the rarest of beasts, then. Something both for everyone, and also for the discerning comic book fan.

Each arc has a selected artist perfectly chosen for their visual talents to each tale, with cartooning skills not too detailed, yet just detailed enough. That perfect balance of story and art, an extreme rarity for those of us that are stuck merely reading American adventure comics, take the tools used in those comics, but shows what masters of the form can accomplish in the same genre. You don’t notice the art or the vivid coloring right away, and that’s the point.

Beware, though. If you’re a fan of modern adventure comics, there is a danger here. To read and enjoy them is a pleasure not easily matched by lesser practitioners, so remember that once you reach that plateau, ordinary comics will forever seem, well, ordinary.

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