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L’il Santa and Happy Halloween, Li’l Santa
posted November 25, 2003

Creators: Lewis Trondheim and Thierry Robin
Publishing Information: NBM $14.95 each
Ordering Numbers: 156633356 and 1561633615 (ISBN)

The incredibly prolific French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim has found two important publishing homes in North America. Fantagraphics attempted to find an audience for two of Trondheim's Lapinot albums as stand-alone comedy adventure graphic novels. Both are still in print, and in fact were discounted together for Christmas 2003. The always-dicey proposition of a series of such books has either been long delayed or outright canceled. The McConey books featured entertaining and solidly translated work, but were not so remarkable their genre-busting nature could be viewed as an advantage rather than as a detriment. Put into marketing speak, The Spiffy Adventures of McConey books (The Hoodoodad and Harum Scarum) were too funny to be taken seriously by action adventure comics readers, too propulsive in a narrative sense and ultimately vaudevillian to be seen as proper comedy by snark-saturated and parody-loving English-language comics readers, and featured that second toughest of all sells to fans of the art comic: talking animals. An old-fashioned comic book series with the joke title The Nimrod has turned out much better creatively (it's a great home for Trondheim's sentimental one-pagers). As such, it succeeds at putting together a package with a potential to reach a target audience, although the standard alternative comic reader is a target worth very few points even when you hit it square.

The Fantagraphics effort on Trondheim's behalf has been two-pronged; longtime North American album publisher NBM's entry into the field has featured three efforts to date. Surprising everyone, the company initial entries weren't albums but comics. A comic book series called Oddballz almost immediately fulfilled its own self-declared marketing mandate, although to date eight issues have been released, making it a remarkable success in this market. For some reason, the stories presented in Oddballz -- McConey work in addition to a serial with Manu Larcenet called Astronauts of the Future -- comes across as minor. With the production choices and overall dour look of the book, everything about the book feels slightly unnecessary, like editors had somehow come to the end of the artist's output when it came to finding and translating books. Nothing could be further from the truth, Trondheim is a mini-industry in Europe, and the second and third groups of NBM offerings are much livelier and more interesting. The intensely enjoyable adventure comedy series Dungeon has run afoul of many English-language readers for breaking up the European color Donjon albums into two issues of black and white comics apiece. This is not only a disappointment simply knowing the other exists, but black and white shading takes away a significant contributor to the visual splendor that many look for in fantasy work, even a funny and satirical one. Dungeon ended recently after eight issues (four books), with a sideways jump into reprinting a different portion of the massive run of albums scheduled for 2004.

The final arm of the NBM effort to bring Trondheim to North America may be the most promising in terms of finding an audience. It takes the form of two stand-alone but connected volumes of silent adventure featuring Lewis Trondheim writing with the art of Thierry Robin: Li'l Santa and Happy Halloween, Li'l Santa. Santa adventures have been a fertile sub-genre for fantasy authors. J.R.R. Tolkien's Letters from Father Christmas casts Santa as a kind of austere but kindly occasional goblin-fighter struggling to hold the light of the world against the assault of darker forces and the general goofiness of his fellow North Pole residents. Tolkien wrote these letters to his children, and therefore Christmas was never really in danger, and Santa mostly spoke of his adventures in terms of a series of eventful summers. Santa also pops up in the C.S. Lewis classic The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in a kind of big-star cameo, and has dozens of other adventures all his own in a variety of media. Some are well-known: a few of the better Rankin Bass Christmas specials feature Santa singing songs and foiling grumpy people. Some are obscure: I seem to recall one of those awful black and white comics from one of the boom comics industry periods where the Santa-related icons fight deadly battles against marauding hordes in celebration, one would guess, of their status as copyright-free characters. The Trondheim/Robin efforts are among the best uses of Santa in comics form and one of the more charming characterizations of the mythical figure as a stock fantasy protagonist.

As it should, Li'l Santa consists mostly of introduction. We are taken through what seems to be this Santa's daily routine, almost so that we can note the differences between past versions, our own imagination, and the one we have before us. Trondheim has imagined Santa as kind of a country gentleman, almost a paragon of the new breed of 21st Century outsider who seeks rural living because he can do most of his business by mail. Li'l Santa crackles as narrative. Trondheim and Robin work in a tight 16-panel grid. This forces a controlled rhythm on the reader and allows some of the action to be broken down into easy-to-read slapstick. Larger panels made out of smaller ones are given over to scene-setting countryside shots or the climactic moments of Very Big Action. The book's pacing is extremely lively but also very measured. When the page is given over to a bigger view Robin can therefore stuff it full of detail without fear of losing the reader. Li'l Santa's adventures prove charming, particularly when he travels to a nearby town and performs minor miracles here and there, a saint who has a job to do yet can't help but act according to his generous spirit and impish nature. This Santa gets his raw material by collecting garbage, making his work a part of the civic process -- a reasonably subtle point about the role holidays play in many of our lives.

Yet as an entry into the Santa sweepstakes, Li'l Santa lacks the kind of set-apart, memorable moments that might distinguish it from similar works of fiction. A lot of what this tiny Santa does is nice, but very little of it is magical or overly impressive, making him little in a kind of unfortunate way. Robin's design work seems overly stylized and as a result, hard to embrace and slightly chilly. The settings are pleasingly drawn, if nothing jaw dropping, but the characters fail to make a similarly happy impression. This is fine in that it focuses attention on Santa himself, but the lack of someone for everyone to latch onto means one less thing that might encourage a second reading, a third or a fourth. It's almost like a stage set and handmade costumes are on display here, and while the results would be a wonderful achievement in that field, the blank page demands a little more in terms of execution. Trondheim and Robin do provide some nice character shtick in the way of introductions, such as the yellow and fearsomely large Abominable the Snowman enjoying his task of wrapping gifts perhaps a little too much. He's lucky; the central casting quality never quite recedes for the majority of those introduced. Li'l Santa is cute and funny, even heartwarming; yet the book falls just short of surprise, delight and captivation.

The positives and negatives of the initial book's set-up come home to roost in Happy Halloween: Li'l Santa. In this second and equally attractive color volume, Santa and the gang thwart an ecological disaster with the help of another holiday community, the Halloween equivalents to Santa's Impies and Snowmailmen. In several well-played individual scenes that add up to kind of a forced sum, the ghouls and goblins have set up house nearby Santa's thanks to the Christmas gang saving the head ghoul and his amusing monster-steed. The best parts of the second volume can be found in Trondheim's ability to slowly build narrative interest until the final sustained action scenes (yes, Santa throws down) are brimming with high-stakes worry and trepidation. The chief logger and his machine are appropriately formidable in the world depicted through Robin's art, and an early sequence featuring Santa on a reindeer running afoul of the tree-cutter displays a really acute sense of how to use size and perspective to build up suspense in a comics narrative. Still, one can't help feeling that if more had been invested into making Santa's friends more appealing in the first album, the reader would feel more is at stake in their world being threatened. It never sinks in that these men aren't just killing forests, they're threatening our comic story friends and through them, Christmas, in the way that the best children's literature involves the reader. Despite those wishes for what it could be but isn't, Happy Halloween, Li'l Santa is in fact a bouncy and, in the best sense of the word, wholly commercial work, technically assured and easy to parse. I can't imagine legions of children waiting on the yearly reading of the Li'l Santa books, but these are solid books that will reward a sizable audience.