Before reading Little Nothings my only experience with Lewis Trondheim was the Dungeon series and A.L.I.E.E.E.N., so I thought I knew what to expect: a silly and juvenile book aimed mainly at ten-to- fifteen year-old boys. Imagine my surprise when I found out Little Nothings is about, well, something! One thing I didn’t expect from Trondheim is a cleverly-done memoir. On each page we are treated to a little slice-of-life vignette. In this volume the French Trondheim relates incidents with his family on their trip through the United States, conversations with fellow artists, worries about health problems, and other observations on parts of life that most of us take for granted.
The artwork has a loose cartoon style that brings out the subtle humor Trondheim is trying to convey with his words. He also has a knack for fitting his cartoon characters into detailed, lovingly-rendered environments. You get a real feel for the places he’s been, filtered through his talented pen and watercolor brush. He makes the same decision Art Spiegelman did in Maus, putting himself and other real-life characters in funny-animal bodies. But where Spiegelman’s choice was made to heighten symbolism and allegory, Trondheim’s use of the same technique has almost the opposite effect: It quickly makes the reader at ease with the characters and helps the reader identify with Trondheim himself.
The humor is gentle and understated, full of appreciation for quiet moments, personal reflection, and self-deprecation. While each page could be considered a separate gag the effect is nothing like reading a collection of newspaper strips. Part of the reason is that the author is comfortable with letting a final moment on the page simply exist without ending, leaving you with a quiet smile and not locked in to that beat-beat-pause-punchline form that American comic strips slavishly follow. Trondheim also skillfully breaks up the page into as many panels he needs to make each point. He doesn’t follow any set layout, and pages can have as many as 16 panels or as few as two. Panels might be the wrong word, as he rarely draws a border, content to let his excellent watercolor coloring simply fade to white before the next ‘panel’ begins.
The book is an extremely easy read. You find moments that will make you think as well as plenty of moments that will make you smile. This isn’t a book that goes for the guffaw but rather the knowing wink. And due to its episodic nature it can be blown through all in one gulp or set down and picked up later to be savored bit by bit. There are a few references to adult situations but no objectionable material for younger readers. Still this is definitely a book that should go on the adult shelves, where it will find its natural audience. Readers will recognize these Little Nothings as moments that everyone has in their life, but it takes someone like Trondheim make us to realize how much we all should be paying more attention to them.