Little Nothings: Uneasy Happiness
By Lewis Trondheim
At some point, for those lucky enough to realize their dreams, passions morph into careers. A blessing, to be sure, but certainly not entirely devoid of its own built-in curses. The line between love and obligation is often simply a matter of obligatory repetition. It is with that in mind that Lewis Trondheim declared his retirement from the form in 2004. And while deeming his venture dubious would be a touch generous, it speaks to a greater truth in art: transforming a passion into a job oft has the tendency to extinguish that initial spark.
No better is this double-edged sword demonstrated than in the world of the diary strip. Plenty of noble intentions give rise to such things. They can serve as a fantastic tool with which to hone one’s line or pacing or simply help an artist keep track of otherwise fleeting memories. Somewhere along the line, however, such intentions fairly often give way to obligations. Whether for public consumption or private reference, a diary strip holds little value if it’s not maintained.
As with all passions-turned-obligations, the question inevitably arises—has the value of such a pursuit been eclipsed by a sense of responsibility? What value, after all, is there for a reader in a work born of habit? Here, often, is where things get weird, with flights of artificial fancy, or, as is more often the case, simply peter out.
And then, of course, there is Trondheim. Its unfair to suggest that the artist thrives on the mundane. Doing so would discount the stellar work he brings to the table in nearly every genre he tries his hand out. Rather Trondheim embraces minutiae with the same zeal that he applies to the fantastic.
Take, for the sake of comparison, the work of James Kochalka, another pillar in the world of the contemporary diary strip. As is often (and rightly) reiterated in reviews of American Elf, the appeal of Kochalka’s diary only truly becomes apparent in the abstract. Repetition is the reader’s friend. If he or she does not surrender to boredom or bafflement, the payoff is great, the pieces of the puzzle coalescing into a truly human portrait.
But while American Elf is something akin to a serialized novel, the same descriptor cannot be applied to Little Nothings. Trondheim’s diary work is more comfortable compared to a book of poems. Every strips is a self-contained meditation. And while the nature of the genre certainly necessitates some degree of overarching story arc, the book presents little, if any, learning curve for the reader.
As the series’ typically self-effacing title and artwork (a happy middle between a sketchbook page and an art class watercolor) suggest, Trondheim seemingly welcomes with open arms those readers who approach the work with a cavalier sensibility. And while Trondheim’s own nonchalance is likely as deceptive as his seemingly simplistic artwork, there’s something to be gained in even the most cursory reading of the worked contained herein. It’s funny, it’s charming as hell, and it’s almost painfully relatable. And best of all, it’s not work.