Nine years ago, (freeze-frame, record scratch, “wait, nine years ago?!” “Oh yes, it has indeed been that long”) nine long fucking years ago, one fine day in June (May?), I torrented a bunch of comics off of Demonoid. For those who came in late, Demonoid was a sort-of elite bit-torrent hub that guaranteed quality content. Umm, quality pirated content, back in those Dark Ages when the internet was a mud-pit you needed to dive in to and swirl around in for a bit before you grabbed onto something that might be good but you wouldn’t really know until you got the dang thing on your hard drive and clicked on it, but then oh no, all your file extensions would change and you could not click on anything anymore and the only way to do anything was to set the computer on fire and move to another city and start over with your life…. Ok, maybe not that dramatic, but close. Things were not synchronous — you could not press a button and have movies, music, or books streamed to you with zero delay. There was work involved in consumption.
But Demonoid was a safe space, in the sense that the torrents were vetted properly, and uploaders were particular about what sort of files they put up. My deal with Demonoid was that every night, I would scroll past the comics section, checking for new uploads that looked interesting. From the descriptions and an accompanying Google search, of course. Most of it was filled with random superhero trash, most of which I already read and owned, or random underground trash that I did not like, or porno comics that barely fit the constraints of “porno” or “comic”.
Except that night, I came across this series called Dungeon, and a creator named Lewis Trondheim. Searching for him led me to French blogs and websites. The cover artwork looked great, cartoon figures done in a minimalist way, and with just the kind of signals that tell you the content within is not for kids. And turned out the American publishers were an outfit called NBM, who were bringing in, among other things, works by Hugo Pratt, reprints of classic Terry and the Pirates. Cool. I downloaded the set, and read the first two arcs. The reading order was included in the description, because apparently the series had been published as collections of stories that jump through time and various characters. Even the choice of artists was different, except of course, for the common elements — creators Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar.
I loved it. I loved everything about it. I loved it so much that I sat down and wrote a long review of the first arc, Dungeon Zenith, for my ongoing Rolling Stone column. It is still online, bad formatting and all. (Not my fault, I believe their website mangled some encoding characters) I stand by nearly everything I wrote, and that’s a kinda-sorta miracle considering how much my tastes have changed in the last decade. Except I cringe about the fact that I say Joann Sfar is the artist. I am wrong, Trondheim did the art. Sfar is an artist as well, and you can read his incredible work in The Rabbi’s Cat, but the distinctive look of Herbert the Duck and Malvin the Dragon is all Trondheim. And as I found out later, Trondheim has a thing for anthropomorphic animals.
The problem with reading Dungeon back then, and with writing the review, was that I ended up getting inundated with questions about where one could buy the books. To close friends, I told the truth, and even passed on a DVD burnt with the set of downloaded Demonoid files. (On an aside, isn’t it strange that the phrase “burn a DVD” will cease to exist in a few years? If it hasn’t already). To others, I pointed them to the NBM site, because at that time, their books weren’t even stocked on Amazon. It was obscure beyond belief.
A year and a half later, I traveled to Spain for the first time in my life, and ended up meeting a whole new universe of comic art friends with whom I had corresponded online for the better part of a decade. They in turn took me to meet various creators, in their studios, and to the homes of their friends. And funnily enough, every shelf I glanced at (and drooled over, because the Spanish publishing houses did not skimp on their deluxe editions. This was the time when Preacher did not even have a hardcover release in America, while Spain had them published in oversized editions with faux-leather covers, designed to look like family Bibles) had a couple of series in common. There was the ever-popular Tintin and Asterix, and Franquin’s Spirou and Pratt’s Corto Maltese. And there was, surprise surprise, Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar’s Dungeon series.
To my surprise, these were large, album-sized volumes. It was jarring to realize that Twilight was actually six volumes when I had read three, but flipping through them, I realized that the American editions were 2-in-1 editions. My friends told me about how the rotating crop of artists were fan favorites, names like Christoph Blain, Manu Larcenet, and Boulet, whose works I would go on to explore later. It transpired that this series that I had thought of as an adorable, little-known whimsy was actually quite the cultural cornerstone. In France and Spain, Donjon or Mazmora was a phenomenon among fans and creators alike.
In 2017, Trondheim visited San Diego Comic Con, along with his wife Bridget Findakly, as part of the release of Bridget’s graphic memoir Poppies of Iraq. That was a year when my SDCC plans had fallen through, but I got a pass for a single day just so I could go meet them (and a few other creators, like Marjorie Liu, Adam Warren, and Nate Powell). It was a pleasure meeting them, and Lewis did a beautiful sketch in my copy of Ralph Azam and another in Poppies, which Bridget colored beautifully.
But it was San Diego, so there was not much in terms of interaction other than a thank-you and the hurried drawing. There were other fans waiting behind me, and there were signing schedules to queue up for. I felt lucky to have met them — and Findakly’s book was an excellent read during my train ride back. The little sketch they drew almost looked like it was printed on the paper, and brought a smile to my face every time I saw it.
* * *
At SDCC 2018, I saw an ad for a comics festival due to be held in May 2019 at Huntington Beach. The guest list for the festival was awe-inspiring. Sergio Aragones, Dan Clowes, Los Bros Hernandez, usual SDCC stalwarts. Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips would be there, Sean’s first Stateside appearance in more than a decade. And a treasure trove of French creators, including Lewis Trondheim and Boulet, another Dungeon artist. I marked the dates on the calendar, eager for a chance to meet Trondheim again.
Last September, I visited Rose City Comic Con, as part of an attempt to visit more conventions outside California. It was held in the heart of Portland, and the experience made me eager to continue my non-California con trips. Talking about this convention experience will take a whole post of its own, but what was important about Rose City was that at one particular booth, Cosmic Monkey Comics, I found a near-complete set of Dungeon, and Trondheim’s autobiographical Little Nothings for a price that made me want to go around shrieking with joy. I had tried, without much success, to look for Dungeon in bargain bins, but NBM did not run discounts. Their books were on Amazon, but at full price.
So last weekend, when NCSFest was due to happen, I decided to go overboard with my signing plans, and took every single one of those books with me. The worst that could happen was that I would get one or two signed, and I didn’t even want to think of the best-case scenario. Which was that I would get all the books signed by Lewis Trondheim.
(That is a conscious thought I have at the moment, dear reader. To have every book on my shelf be signed. It just makes the pleasure of owning a thing also be tied in to the experience of meeting a creator, and it somehow adds a meta-story to the physical object. Anybody can buy a book, but it’s an honor to create a story around something you have bought. Is that hubris?)
The thing about NCSFest was that they were trying to emulate the European model of having the town be involved in the convention. Everything was free. Parking was free at City Hall, and shuttle buses carried you over to the pier, where all of Huntington Beach Main Street was cordoned off to traffic in favor of streetside booths. Events were held at the Huntington Beach library and the Arts Center. There were live drawing sessions organized right on the pier. The best part was everything looked so laid-back. The crowd was a mix of comic-book fans and casual tourists who were curious about what was going on. A lot of children and parents together. My favorite retailers Stuart Ng was set up, in association with Comics BD, who were hosting a bunch of signings.
Lewis Trondheim was due to arrive at the ComicsBD booth from 11:00 AM, and I was there, with my Dungeon: Zenith books. Boulet, the artist on Vol 3 (vols 5 and 6 in the European versions) was sitting next to him, and he grabbed my copy. Apparently he had never seen the English version before, and for a few nervous minutes, I thought he was making good on his claim that he wanted to keep the book. He didn’t. Instead, I got a breath-taking sketch inside.
Since this was a very informal event, the amount of people making their way to the creators could only be described as a trickle, especially that early in the morning. The majority of visitors who came up were French expats. I chatted a bit with Boulet as he was sketching, asking him what he thought of the show. “The lines in France are crazy”, he said. “I am kind of a big deal there with the blog.” He sketched a copy of his English release for me as well. Trondheim sketched on my two books, and then refilled his pen. He had some free time, and I put the Little Nothings books in front of him, saying that he did not have to sketch in them, just a signature would be enough. “I have all the time in the world”, he said. “I am here for you.”
Long story short: I bought a few more of his books from the ComicsBD store. He sketched in all of them. He drew sketches in every single one of my Dungeon books. “I am a huge fan”, I said, and with a glint in his eye, he deadpanned: “I see it”. Which made Boulet crack up.
Later, I went and found a bottle of wine at a store, and came back to the booth to hand it over to Trondheim, who was by himself. He graciously accepted, and we talked a bit about art collecting and what kind of books he read. Joann Sfar was his favorite collaborator, and he hadn’t read any American comics in ages. I told him that Dungeon Monstres vol 1 was the only volume I did not own, because it was out of print. “I can ask my publisher if they have it”, he offered. I said that I had already spoken to them in Toronto, and they apparently were sold out and did not have plans to bring it back into print. He shook his head. Apparently, there were a couple of new volumes of Dungeon he was working on, but he wasn’t sure if NBM would publish them in English.
Finally, just before I was due to leave, I asked him if he sold any art. “Yes, but it’s very expensive”, he said, laughing. “You may look on my website”. He was right, the two pages up were indeed in the five-figures, but he had a surprise for me. He took out a small portfolio filled with watercolor sketches of La Lapinot, his character that hasn’t yet been translated into English. They were all superb, and I picked one immediately, because the price was perfect too!