Reading an excerpt of Lewis Trondheim’s Approximate Continuum Comics in the pages of the SPX 2000 anthology sparked my interest in modern European comics. Originally published as a series of U.S.-style single issues in the early 1990s, it was supposed to contain a mix of autobiographical, gag, and fiction pieces. Trondheim found himself drawn to autobio for the bulk of what wound up comprising this volume, which manifested as a prototype for the sort of diary comic that James Kochalka later made popular in American Elf. The initial framework Trondheim started with can still be seen in his later output, even if only traces of that structure are maintained.
For example, fantasy elements pop into Trondheim’s otherwise quotidian observations. At the very beginning of the book, Trondheim imagines himself kicking the ass of a guy who shoved him on a subway and then sees his hand grow to a tremendous size, so as to punish another person who shoved him. Of course, it doesn’t take long for the self-deprecating Trondheim to deflate his own daydream, noting that “even in my own fantasies, I can’t sustain a heroic role to the end.” That conflict between his fantasy life and his own crippling self-doubt forms the bulk of the emotional narrative of this book, an overarching through-line that flows in and out of the gags and daily observations.
The two years Trondheim happened to chronicle yield a number of interesting anecdotes, due to a number of competing tensions in his life. He was considering a move from the city to the country; he married and became a father; he had begun to achieve financial success and influence as a cartoonist; the gang of cartoonist friends in L’Association was transforming itself from an informal alliance to a full-fledged publisher. While there was clearly a lot on his mind, Trondheim is still first and foremost a gag man. He imbues every page with his dry wit, creating an authorial voice that allows him to get away with all sorts of slapstick and nonsense (without seeming too silly), while also allowing him to write about personal and serious matters (without seeming too ponderous).
Approximate Continuum Comics is all about ebb and flow, as one anecdote bleeds into the next without a definitive end note. In terms of Trondheim’s visual style, he depicts his characters as anthropomorphic animals, establishing a bleed between fantasy and naturalism. The funny animal approach (inspired, as he reveals in this volume, by the Donald Duck adventures of Carl Barks) allows him to be expressive and elastic with his characters without being too cute and cloying. There is a tension in Trondheim’s art: his characters are vehicles of expression, abstracted as funny animals for comedic effect, while his backgrounds are naturalistically rendered in a surprising amount of detail. The characters as marks on the page are meant to be “read” as part of the narrative, whereas the backgrounds are to be looked at as drawings qua drawings. There’s a lushness and verisimilitude to these backgrounds that helps evoke the idea of living in the city or the country quite vividly.
Even though many of these comics focus on the small details of everyday life, Trondheim nonetheless manages to propel the reader from page to page with frequent reminders of what’s going to happen or what has just happened. For instance, he frets about visiting America for the first time, indulging himself in the most paranoid fantasies of encountering violent, xenophobic Americans. However, his trip to the U.S. was mostly uneventful and he finds himself straining to say anything interesting about it. We’re given reminders about his impending move, the potential success in Japan for his “La Mouche” character, and his own sense of guilt and self-doubt. These reminders provide a touchstone for long sequences about a party held at L’Association, bull sessions in the artist’s studio, and Trondheim’s desire to get into better shape.
There’s a sense in which Trondheim operates with the sensibility of a long-form improv artist; themes and bits established early in the comic often pop up in unexpected ways later. What makes this sensibility unusual is the way Trondheim manages to combine the dramatic with the comic. There’s a running gag wherein various manifestations of his personality torment him over the choices he’s making or the feelings he’s experiencing. A hydra-headed monster attacks him over his general sense of guilt and fear of being an egoist. We get frequent cuts to his conscience berating him for indulging in schadenfreude over the fate of some of the more obnoxious people at that party he threw, accusing him of having no pity or empathy. When he learns, to his delight, of the ultimate fate of the most obnoxious person at the part (a white Rasta-man who gets progressively and hilariously more drunk and out of order), we cut to Lewis punching his conscience before he can even get a word in edgewise, too delighted to let his guilt get the best of him.
Trondheim is constantly aware of the fact that recording the narrative of one’s life is not the same thing as living one’s life. (This may appear obvious, yet it’s an illusion many autobio cartoonists prefer to maintain.) He reminds the audience that at certain points he forgets details, and chooses not to document others, because he wants to really live an experience instead of taking painstaking notes. He furthers this theme by allowing everyone he talks about in the book space for rebuttal at the end, with hilarious results. The book’s very title points to this awareness, as the continuum or continuity of his life should be seen as approximate–not an exact retelling. Trondheim is a storyteller first and foremost; while there are poignant and self-revealing moments to be found along with nuggets of genuine insight into his own character, it’s for entertainment purposes only. To be sure, Trondheim is the star of the show; while he offered text space for rebuttals, he forbade Emile Bravo from doing it as a comic, not wanting to be upstaged in his own book.
Trondheim manages to finish the book while closing off a narrative loop. He reaches an uneasy peace with his own manifestation of guilt, who gives him a gentle lecture and tells him it might be easier for him to break old habits since he’s moving and about to become a parent. The very process of moving and throwing out objects he was keeping more or less for vanity’s sake seem to assuage that guilt, even if it does tease him about some items kept. If the ending feels a bit pat, Trondheim leaves us with an image of himself in a room full of empty bookshelves saying “Tomorrow is another day”, a cliche’ turned a bit on its head by the full implications of that statement in a series of silent panels. Tomorrow offers hope and uncertainty in equal measures, leaving only the work of everyday life to tip that scale.
Trondheim’s style of autobiography isn’t one that many other cartoonists have emulated. Denny Eichorn has a similar commitment to narrative, but isn’t self-reflective. Jeffrey Brown focuses on quotidian details but eschews a narrative through-line. Joe Matt, Robert Crumb, and Ariel Schrag are far more personally revealing. David B doesn’t have Trondheim’s dry sense of humor. Vanessa Davis is funny but far more effusive. The best match I can think of in terms of contemporary autobio comics (other than Trondheim’s own recent work) is Gabrielle Bell. Bell’s sense of humor is every bit as dry as Trondheim’s, but it’s obvious that she’s after laughs even as she reveals things about herself. She lets us in on her fears and feelings but withholds context in much the same way Trondheim does. Bell also meanders from event to event but finds ways to stitch them together; not as elegantly as Trondheim, but that structure is still there. Trondheim and Bell share the same wry wit, restraint, and subtlety, balanced against the desire to entertain. In later years, Trondheim would return to autobio comics as a way to revive his interest in drawing, but he’s truly at the height of his powers in Approximate Continuum Comics.