French Cartoonist Lewis Trondheim Takes Funny-Animal Comics to New Heights

The guiding principle for American fans of European comics is: Get 'em while you can. Whatever it is—Moebius, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Hugo Pratt—you can be reasonably confident that it will be out of print soon and selling for outlandish collectors' prices. (As for comics from Latin America, Asia, or Africa—you might as well just forget it.)

The trouble with this principle is that the kind of immediate hoarding it requires can still get expensive. Only a small selection of the French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim's voluminous catalog is available in English translation right now, but just snagging what's listed at Amazon will set the ambitious fan back several hundred bucks. (And that's just new, in-print editions. Check out the number of out-of-print early English editions that are already jacked up to $100 or more, or not available at all.) But it would be worth it, because Trondheim's books are among the most generous, big-hearted, and enjoyable in contemporary comics.

I won't pretend to be an expert on Trondheim—there's just too much to read, even in English, and I can't afford all of it. But I have read a fair sample of his translated work: a couple of volumes of the massive, and massively fun, Dungeon series, a high-fantasy collaboration with Joann Sfar (The Rabbi's Cat) and a host of other artists that takes place over multiple generations in an intricate Dungeons and Dragons-style setting; Bourbon Island 1730, a melancholy pirate adventure created with co-writer Appollo; and Harum Scarum and The Hoodoodad, the two translated installments of Trondheim's 10-volume series of funny-animal escapades, The Spiffy Adventures of McConey. (His other notable translated work includes the rest of Dungeon, 24 of the original 30-plus volumes of which have appeared so far in English, the autobiographical comics collected in the Fantagraphics anthology series Approximate Continuum Comics, and NBM's Little Nothings series, reprints of brief sketches that first appeared on Trondheim's blog.)

It's almost exclusively funny-animal adventure stuff in the tradition of Carl Barks and Walt Kelly. But Trondheim has his own distinctive sensibility, a mildly sarcastic voice and crafty emotional depth that shade his ebullient sense of joy and wonder. And he's a remarkable artist, a cartoonist's cartoonist who uses bold lines and delicate craftsmanship to etch out deceptively complex characters and settings that feel like complete worlds. His drawings resemble those of Stan Sakai, the creator of the never-ending samurai epic Usagi Yojimbo and another disciple of Barks. But Sakai is reverent and high-minded; Trondheim maintains a more complicated and fully realized tone.

As the title indicates, things definitely take a dark turn in Trondheim's just-released Ralph Azham: Why Would You Lie to Someone You Love?, the first part of Fantagraphics' planned translation of his ongoing fantasy mock epic about a wise-ass slacker duck who can predict births and deaths. (This first book reprints the first two volumes of the French series, originally published in standard European oversized album format in 2001, as a single, compact landscape-style hardback.) His strange powers might mean that Ralph is the Chosen One, destined to defend his unnamed and vaguely medieval village, populated by talking birds, rodents, dogs, and cats, from marauding armies; those same powers, and his insufficiently respectful attitude, have also made Ralph an outcast.

Among Trondheim's strengths as a storyteller is his confident, matter-of-fact narrative voice. He seems to assume that the worlds he creates make perfect sense; there's never a feeling, even during his most daring flights of imagination, that he's showing off. In the course of the slim new volume, Ralph sort of fends off the romantic advances of Claire, a flirtatious tabby cat; gets tied up in the village pig sty as punishment for eavesdropping on the Wise Men's Counsel; rescues Raoul, another potential Chosen One, who can demolish buildings with his voice; and learns a devastating secret about his childhood that ultimately drives him away from his home. (The secret has been covered up by the lie that's the source of the title.) There's action, drama, pratfalls, bad-ass mercenaries, and a last-panel surprise that promises future volumes will head off in entirely unexpected directions. And Ralph is a fairly typical but almost ideal Trondheim protagonist—a wounded, bullied, resourceful underdog who keeps his dignity even when he's covered in mud and pig shit.

Ralph Azham is off to a near-perfect start. It's a quietly marvelous addition to the English-language catalog of a working world master. Get it while you can.