Little Nothings, Vol. 4: My Shadow In The Distance

Little Nothings, Vol. 4: My Shadow In The Distance

Originally drawn in 2009, the fourth translated volume of Lewis Trondheim's Little Nothings diary strip now pushes the series up near the 500-page mark. It's simultaneously Trondheim's most disposable work and some of his best. Entirely free of genre and commercial concerns, it allows him to experience the simple joy of drawing and coloring his environment. As I've noted before, Trondheim's instincts as a narrative storyteller are too strong to slough off that aspect of his methodology entirely, even given this single-strip-per-page format, and in this volume there are a few narrative through-lines followed to interesting effect. If the last volume was titled (and concerned) "Uneasy Happiness" —Trondheim's life had fallen into a series of pleasant routines—then this one features a bit more anxiety (a health scare) and a lot more action (many overseas trips).

As a result of Trondheim having a bit more to sink his teeth into this time around, I thought this was the best volume since the first. The sometimes stale quotidian observations of the third volume are far more scarce here, as Trondheim emerges with a different set of observational tools. For example, there's the "Interesting Conversations In The World Of Comics" strips, which mostly involve cartoonists sitting around and talking about making zombies realistic and wondering how many zombies it would require to take down a cow. There's a running gag featuring Trondheim preparing for one of his trips and bragging about how prepared he is, only to find that he's forgotten something. There's an extended series of strips featuring Trondheim back in America, this time with his whole family. There's a delightful mix of fussiness and craziness in his depiction of crossing through Death Valley on a journey from Las Vegas to San Francisco.

The best strips in the book involve a trip to the Czech Republic during which Trondheim discovers that he suffers from nasal polyps, which obscure his vision. This leads to a series of lucky events, both good and bad: bad luck in that he's far from home when presented with a fairly serious medical issue, good luck in that his assigned guide's father is an otolaryngologist who immediately susses out Trondheim's problem. What's great about these strips is the way Trondheim manages to close out each page with a gag, even if it's a dark one at his own expense. The strips made while he was in the hospital are especially sharp in that regard, especially one joke involving Trondheim wheeled out in front of a bunch of people while playing dead. Trondheim manages to cap the book with a gross gag about something he blew out of his nose, a callback to an earlier joke in the book in which, after he regrets not having taken a picture of it, his partner Brigitte tells him she has faith in his ability as an artist.

That callback speaks to an integral part of Trondheim's sense of humor: he has the instincts of a long-form improv artist. Such artists spin stories out of jokes and then jokes out of stories, looping back around to earlier references in an unexpected yet organic manner. Trondheim is the same way, as bits he introduced back in the first volume (like his annual trip to Angoulême) continue to get callbacks in this volume and gain resonance through repetition.

It's a remarkable kind of alchemy, given the looseness of these strips. Indeed, it feels like one of their main purposes is to give Trondheim the opportunity to draw from life, especially when he's on vacation in an exotic locale. The tropical and underwater scenes are especially lush, with Trondheim painstakingly using watercolors to bring the environments to life. Even the sunsets are given special treatment in this book, with stacks of light oranges, reds, and purples mixing freely. Trondheim's autobiographical figures are typically anthropomorphic animals, and are both loose in terms of their construction and reliably sturdy in terms of their design. The reader automatically accepts their appearance when they appear on the page, and this allows Trondheim some room to inject a bit of emotion into the page.

Trondheim seems relatively open on the page but isn't an oversharer. He puts a little bit of distance between himself and the reader through dry wit, even as he shares his thoughts on page after page. We get hints of neurosis but not any deeper problems, nor are we made privy to any difficulties regarding his partner or children. This strip simply isn't the place for that. What's remarkable about the Little Nothings series is not its light tone and loose line; instead, it's that Trondheim creates such a complex, rich, and visually exciting narrative environment for himself and his readers to explore. Trondheim never leaves narrative behind; he never forgets that he's drawing and telling a story. Even if that story is based on a real experience, he doesn't lose track of the fact that the story and the experience are entirely different entities, and never lets the reader forget that either.