Readers of The Lost Art


March 4th, 2009

Writer and Artist: Lewis Trondheim
Reviewer: Alex

AILEEEN┬Žlt;br /> You know that feeling you get when experiencing a foreign culture? When visiting another country, or just watching/reading a foreign film/book/comic, and something is just intrinsically different? Little things like what they eat for breakfast, or how they don’t use three-act pacing, or where they draw the lines between ‘rude’ and ‘socially acceptable’? Well, that’s exactly that sensation that Trondheim has tried to capture in this book, except on a much grander scale.

A.L.I.E.E.E.N. (or ‘Archives of Lost Issues and Earthly Editions of Extraterrestrial Novelties’ to give it its full English title) is presented as something which Trondheim ‘found’ amid extraterrestrial debris whilst out hiking with his family – a comic left by some visiting alien. A lot of effort has gone into keeping this conceit up. For example: all the speech bubbles (and the cover ‘review quotes’!) are in an ‘alien language’, the colour is printed slightly blotchily to give it the look of old newspaper stock, and the pages have been made to look slightly grimy around the edges.

It’s almost impossible to give an accurate precis of the storyline, suffice to say that there are assorted alien creatures and weird stuff occurs, varying from gentle oddness to macabre humour to slightly disturbing menace. It’s told from several characters’ perspectives, with the interlocking stories gradually building up a more complete picture of what is going on.

Of course, you can take the book on its most simple level and appreciate it just as a weird little comedy – Trondheim’s accessible cartoony (slightly cutesy, even) art style certainly allows the book to be read this way. However, if you are prepared to put in just a little more effort, you can take an awful lot more from this book.

Some ‘alternative’ comics (and such works in other media) seem to think that if a story is hard to understand then it must be clever and ‘arty’. A.L.I.E.E.E.N. is very distinct from the pretentiousness of such lesser works, in that Trondheim’s art and narrative is clear – the basic series of strange events are comprehensible, but it is left to the reader to ponder the causes, the details, the motivations that underpin them. Although the presentation (the colour, the ‘grime’ and so on) aids the tone of the book, it is Trondheim’s skill and inventiveness as a visual storyteller that makes it succeed in its purpose: to seem truly alien. It’s not simply ‘weird’, more like ‘foreign’ taken to an extreme – the story may not make complete sense to the reader, but it does come across that it makes sense within it’s own alien world.

The use of the ‘alien language’ is a perfect example of the tone of the book. It’s not just random squiggles, and neither is it something as simple as “this squiggle means ‘A’, this squiggle means ‘B'”. Rather, you begin to notice that a certain squiggle seems to be associated with shock, another with querying, and you get the idea that if you studied carefully, you’d gradually build up an idea of their language.

Just as after exposure to foreign human cultures, initial shock and bewilderment at differences is gradually replaced by recognition of underlying similarities. Particularly upon re-reading, you begin to get a handle on what’s going on, ascribing human emotional states and sophisticated extended metaphors to the characters and situations. Each reading provides further potential insights, but you can never be certain – understanding remains tantalisingly out of reach. That’s why this book feels like such a breath of fresh air.

Some graphic novels (From Hell is the example which always springs readily to mind) demand attention simply by being huge and intricately researched; yet in some ways, this strange little book is more thought-provoking – if you are in the mood to have your thoughts provoked. There really isn’t anything else quite like it.

Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: First Second (2 May 2006)
Language: English
ISBN: 1596430958

(First published 06/11/2006.)

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