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February 8, 2007


Conversational Euro-Comics: Lewis Trondheim and the Fate of L'Association

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By Bart Beaty

When I was finishing writing my new book on European comics, Unpopular Culture, the artist that I most worried about was Lewis Trondheim. Of all the cartoonists in Europe, he was the only one to whom I had dedicated an entire chapter, and he was so relentlessly prolific (now over 130 books in print!) that there was a good chance that he would publish something that would complicate my argument between the time I submitted my manuscript to the press and the time, post peer-refereeing, post-layout, post-copy editing, post-indexing, that it actually hit store shelves. Imagine my happiness, then, when Trondheim "retired" two years ago -- a perfect ending for my book.

Of course, since that "retirement" Trondheim has published more than ever, so he upset my thesis on that score at the very least. He also, notably, was named President of the Festival International de la Bande Dessinee in Angouleme, the first serious omission from my book. And, in October, he left L'Association, the artist-run publishing house that he co-founded in 1990 (and the subject of my book's first chapter). Not good for the timeliness of my work. I'm beginning to see why so many scholars choose to write on artists who are already dead...

Trondheim's departure from L'Association, and the subsequent departures of Killoffer and Stanislas, was a subject that came up a lot at the festival in two forms. First, in a gossipy manner ("Did you hear about what someone said to someone else?"), the vast majority of which was probably ill-informed, mean-spirited and probably wholly invented to make one or more of the players look bad. But second in a manner where people wondered what will happen to L'Asso, and what will happen to the individual artists? What happens, one cartoonist asked me, if this was the comics equivalent of breaking up the Beatles? Sure, Lennon produced some good post-Beatles work, and McCartney some that wasn't terrible, but in the end none of them ever lived up to the high standards established by their younger selves.

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It's far too early to say what will happen to L'Association. The editorial in their 2007 catalog promises a renewed focus on quality and pushing the boundaries of the form, which is certainly exciting as a goal. From the outside, of course, it has always been impossible to really understand how L'Asso worked. Certainly Menu was the closest thing to a publisher in the group and he remains in that role, but it was also clear that each of the founders recruited works from various artists and had a voice in determining what was and was not published. Surely the heterogeneity of L'Asso might be lessened in the future, but it is far, far too early to tell what the effect will be as they are transformed into a different type of publisher.

It is somewhat easier to imagine what will become of Trondheim, as he keeps turning out the books. Two recent releases from Delcourt put the post-L'Asso Trondheim front and center.

Released in the line that he edits for Delcourt, Shampooing, Ile Bourbon 1730 and La Malediction du parapluie are books that once would have fit nicely in L'Asso's Collection Cotelette. Indeed, everything from the size of the volumes to the choice of paper recalls that earlier L'Asso collection, for better or for worse.

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Ile Bourbon 1730 is a long (288-page) comics novel written by Appollo and drawn by Trondheim, one of the rare books that he has illustrated from someone else's script. The story is set on Ile de La Reunion, the small tropical island 700 km east of Madagascar. For several years Trondheim and some of his friends have been visiting this island for a comics festival, and now, working with an author from the island, he has crafted a story set there.

Ile Bourbon 1730 is, as the title indicates, set in the sea-faring days of the early-eighteenth century. Piracy is on the wane, slave revolts loom and naturalists search the globe for dodos. The authors include all of this material, and, of course, much more. Yet in the end, this is a well-crafted but minor work. Not nearly as funny as the typical Trondheim book (to be fair, few writers are as funny as Trondheim) the book never quite lived up to my expectations of a comic book version of Patrick O'Brian's The Mauritius Command, which is partly set in the same locale. Nothing is really wrong with the book, but nothing is fantastically right with it either. It's a nice work, but certainly not essential in the grand scheme of all things Trondheimian. I read the book on the plane ride home from France last week, and, in all honesty, I can barely remember it today.

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La Malediction du parapluie is a different matter. A collection of Trondheim's blog strips (Les petits riens), this is a return to his earlier autobiographical material found in his Carnets (L'Asso) and the much earlier Approximativement (Cornelius). The material in La Malediction du parapluie follows Trondheim through a number of events, ranging several comics festival (last year's Angouleme and the news that he had won the presidency, the festival on Ile de La Reunion) to the adoption of a pair of cats. Each single page strip sets up a small quotidian observation, generally complemented with a darkly ironic punch-line. Trondheim is free here to put his personality at the fore, and the result is a charming book. Trondheim's autobiographical material is some of my favorite of all his material, and this may be his best work to date in the genre.

There are a couple of differences between Les Petits riens and Trondheim's Carnet material for L'Association. The most obvious of these would be the fact that the Delcourt-published work is done in color (Ile Bourbon 1730, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, is in black-and-white). Trondheim's earlier Carnets were done on the fly, direct on the page and without corrections (he'd simply scratch out bits he didn't like). These strips are certainly more "professional" looking. Whether that is a function of changing publishers or just a natural evolution of Trondheim's drawing (and coloring) skills is tough to say, but it does give La Malediction du parapluie a slick feeling that I associate more closely with his work for the Dargaud and Delcourt than with L'Asso. It's interesting that after 17 years the use of color would still distinguish a L'Asso book from a Delcourt book, but there it is.

In the end, no simple conclusions can be drawn from this pair of books. I thought that Ile Bourbon 1730 was a disappointment, but not a major one, and certainly not the type of book that will have fans claiming that he’s somehow lost his magic touch. Meanwhile, I found La Malediction du parapluie to be fantastic -- funny and engaging, and I wished it was a lot longer than its 100 pages. If Trondheim's career is going to suffer post-L'Asso then this work doesn't show it at all (of course, cynics will point out, he did both these books before he quit L'Asso in the first place).

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I like the L'Association as The Beatles metaphor, even though it's a tough one to work with. Is Trondheim John Lennon? Does that make Joann Sfar Yoko? Is Menu Brian Epstein? Which one is Ringo? But it's useful insofar as it highlights the fact that these six guys, working together, dramatically changed the face of comics in the same way that the Beatles changed the face of popular music. What they do from here will be an interesting thing to watch, but I hope that they don't learn that they were more vital when they were they were pushing each other than they will be on their own.

I have no doubt that at Angouleme 2037, I will see the founders of L'Association sitting at a table in the Hotel Mercure talking about old times, and telling war stories to a generation of cartoonists who are not even born today. And I hope, for their sakes, that that reunion won't be tinged with the regrets of authors who broke up the best comics publishing house in the world only to realize too late what they had accomplished together.

*****

* Unpopular Culture : Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s, Bart Beaty, University of Toronto Press, softcover, 320 pages, 0802094120 (ISBN), January 2007, $29.95

* Ile Bourbon 1730, Appollo & Lewis Trondheim, Delcourt/Shampooing, 286 pages, 2756006564 (ISBN), January 2007

* La Malediction du parapluie, Lewis Trondheim, Delcourt/Shampooing, 128 pages, 2756004111 (ISBN), October 2006

*****

To learn more about Dr. Beaty, or to contact him, try here.

Those interested in buying comics talked about in Bart Beaty's articles might try here or here.
 
posted 11:45 am PST | Permalink
 

 
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