This time around I got to talk to the always excellent Trungles, aka Trung Le Nguyen. Trungles is a singular artist whose work is instantly recognizable, and he makes some of the loveliest comics I’ve ever seen. We had a great time talking about art and storytelling and more.
Matt: What are your earliest influences, the things that you’ve been carrying with you the longest? In that vein, have you always been interested in art and the stories it can tell? Has that always been there?
Trungles: My earliest influence, I think, was Tomie dePaola’s children’s books, particularly his folk tales and Bible stories. They were his most fantastic, and he had this really lovely matter-of-fact way of illustrating his stories that stuck with me. Whether it was Oliver Button’s simple pleasures or Big Anthony’s magical misadventures, every image has this unfussy clarity about it. I couldn’t find it until very recently, but my absolute favorite book of his was a little fairy tale called The Prince of the Dolomites. It’s about a prince who falls in love with a princess on the moon, and how they came to be together. It’s a surprisingly dense little story.
DePaola’s drawings are very simple, measured, and deliberate. There’s not a lot of visual noise. Every little piece of information is intentional and un-frilled. His children’s books function a lot like a comic book to me because his drawings don’t just supplement the text as illustrations. They’re readable. The images are beautiful, and they are also text. This isn’t true of all illustrated books, but I think it’s true for his.
DePaola is a big part of the reason why I love telling stories with pictures. Images are an essential component of literacy, especially beyond the bounds of language. It can help bridge language gaps and facilitate formal language skills. That will always be part of my interest in making any sort of work.
M: Stories and art are constantly evolving with trends and the times. Yet the subject matter they deal with, one could say, has changed very little. Are there any “new stories,” or are we always only looking at the same old stories through new lenses?
T: I’m no stickler for novelty. I love old stories, and I enjoy hearing the same stories over and over from different places. I’m generally not bothered by remakes. We see the same stage productions interpreted over and over because it’s a little different every time. The context of the production changes, and the contexts of its viewers change, even if the source material or the text remains the same. A single story is always different depending on who tells it and when, and from that you can learn a lot about the people who tell them and the times in which they live.
M: Your art has a kind of classical, timeless quality that reminds me of storybooks from a hundred years gone. In the best possible way. What are some influences on your style and aesthetic that some people might find surprising?
T: I think a weird way I think about visual storytelling has a lot to do with sitcoms. The way I stage a scene or think about talking heads tends to be visualized in a way that’s really not especially dynamic or dramatic. It’s almost a little dry and perfunctory, I think. My comics are more dynamic than your average Sunday strip, but maybe less flashy than your silver age cape comic. It’s like how an Archie romance comic takes its cues from sitcoms versus how a contemporary superhero comic book telegraphs feature length action films, and I lean heavily more toward the static environment presented in a multi-camera setup.
M: How did you find your way to comics? What about the sequential medium appeals to you? You use it wonderfully to convey themes and concepts visually. Aside, what’s a medium you would like to experiment more with?
T: I always noncommittally made silly comics when I was younger, but I forgot about it when I went to college. Then I got an internship at the Minnesota Historical Society doing something like dramaturgical research for the history players, but the Minnesota government shutdown in 2011, effectively ended my internship a couple weeks in. Suddenly I was missing a full graduation requirement, and I hadn’t had anything else lined up for the summer. I just started making short comics and posting them on the internet because it felt nice, and people noticed. It was very strange.
I think comics have always felt sort of natural to me since I grew up reading a ton of them, both in English and in Vietnamese. Because of that, I always drew. If you can read text, you can learn to write text. If you can read pictures, you can learn to make pictures. It seemed natural to me to be able to produce visual information if I could consume it.
In the future, I’d like to try a prose-first storytelling effort. Standalone prose is a whole different set of problems to solve, and people can manage to do it beautifully.
M: Let’s play “What If?” What if you were given unlimited funds and time to adapt anything you want. Any property whatsoever. What would you choose, and why?
T: I actually don’t know. I would rather just make my own stuff, usually. If a publisher gave me carte blanche to adapt any and all old fairy tales into comic form, I would do it in a heartbeat. Give me all the Andrew Lang Fairy Books, but comics. I feel like that’s not a sexy marketable thing, though I hesitate to pitch it. People love novelty, and that’s wonderful but not really my bag. I want to make a thing a handful of people love forever, and not that thing absolutely everybody loves for five minutes.
Aside from that, the things I enjoy making are often very different than the things I enjoy consuming. I love reading action comics, but the idea of drawing one seems tedious. I like to draw old creepy fairy tales, but its close cousin, horror, is something I can’t bring myself to watch. It’s not often that I love someone else’s intellectual property and also love to work on it.
M: It’s the end of the world. Oh no. But don’t worry, because right at the last minute a portal to another world opens and mysterious entities say they’re going to rescue everyone. The catch: you can only bring three possessions to the new world. What are they?
T: I can’t tell if this is a fun and fanciful question or a horrifying one. Is it meant this broadly? Like, should I be trying to survive in the wilderness, or are you asking me what my favorite things are? If it’s the former, then I suppose I’d want a thermos, a sturdy bag, and a durable pair of scissors. If it’s the latter, then lord knows. I’d be more interested in seeing what’s waiting for me on the other side if everything I knew is gone. If I get raptured somewhere, so to speak, I’d want to go exploring.
M: A free platform: something of your own to push, something you’re excited to share with the world. And then something of someone else’s. Again, anything you want.
T: I have a Patreon, and I’m working on a graphic novel right now for Random House Graphic called The Magic Fish.
I’m extremely excited to read Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, written by Mariko Tamaki and drawn by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. Rosemary made a comic a couple years ago published through Shortbox called What is Left, and the moment I read it I vowed to buy and read absolutely everything she touches. Actually, let’s walk back to the question about the end of the world. I would take as many of Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s books with me as I could.