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Désoeuvré, Lewis Trondheim
posted March 25, 2005
One of the bigger pieces of news in European comics last year was the word that Lewis Trondheim was retiring from comics. This retirement is probably unique, insofar as it seems to mean only that he would continue to work on a just a few of his many ongoing series (Roi Catastrophe, Donjon), but still likely produce more books than the typical comics artist. This will still be fewer books than normal for him, since he's averaged something like eight or nine books per year for about fifteen years now, and it seems that he'll be focusing more on writing than drawing in the future. Nonetheless, Trondheim ended his signature Lapinot series last year with the award-winning La Vie comme elle vient (arguably his best single book) and has moved on to other projects in his life.
The question on everyone's lips was: Why?
Désoeuvré, the first book in L'Association's new collection of essays (Collection éprouvette) is something of an answer. The book is an autobiographical essay in comics form, revolving around the question of why it is that cartoonists are unable to age gracefully. Why is it that so many cartoonists totally lose their talent, moving from star to has-been to huge has-been so easily? Trondheim cites a disturbing number of examples of this tendency -- so many that it becomes depressing. At the same time, his greek chorus of imaginary readers offers counter-examples that he is forced to conceed: Moebius and Schulz to name but two. Nonetheless, the basic premise of argument carries a lot of weight. How much great work did Jack Kirby produce in the last twenty years of his life? For every Eisner, still battling away up to the point of his death, there are a hundred -- probably a thousand -- cartoonists who have harmed their legacy by staying around too long. In one funny scene in the book Charles Berberian points out the obvious -- everyone loses it in all walks of life, and Trondheim could equally produce a book about butchers who age badly too. But, it is true that we feel the loss of an artist's talent more keenly than that of a butcher.
So what is the way out? Well, Bill Watterson is held as an example of someone who got out while the getting was good, with no bad period of Calvin and Hobbes that will eventually make the connoisseur cringe. This is Trondheim's goal. In the book, he tells Lapinot that he just can't envision wanting to write books about Lapinot getting married, Lapinot having grand-kids, Lapinot getting prostate surgery, and I can't imagine wanting to read them either. Joann Sfar counters that this generation of cartoonists is freer to reinvent themselves than were the previous generations, and that Lewis should take that into account, but as we drift through the pages a depressive air hangs over the total work. It is clear that we are reading a midlife crisis, and it is not clear how it will be resolved.
Trondheim has long been a workaholic. Anyone who produces ten books in a single year has to be. At the beginning and end of the book he is contemplating a break from his work for the first time in his career. Perhaps this break will be permanent, or semi-permanent. Perhaps he'll go stir crazy and be back at it with full abandon within a year or two. I'm sure only he knows for sure. As an explanation, Désoeuvré is complex and insightful, but by no means complete. As a book, on the other hand, it is fascinating, loose, and charmingly revealing in a way that very few autobiographical comics are. Trondheim, more than any other cartoonist, places his self-doubts on the page for the world to examine. This is fearless cartooning, and very smart. If this does turn out to be his swansong, it is an elegant one.