This month Drawn and Quarterly will publish Anders Nilsen’s massive graphic novel Big Questions, a book fourteen years in the making. Nilsen’s previous books have dealt with humans facing the unpredictability of the natural world. In Dogs and Water (2004), a boy makes his way across an expanse of desert to encounter a roaming pack of dogs and the dying victim of a helicopter crash. In the Ignatz award-winning memoir Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow (2006), the stresses of travels gone awry are movingly contextualized by the unexpected and fatal cancer of the artist’s partner.
Ambitious and eccentric, Big Questions anthropomorphizes Nilsen’s themes. The book focuses on the reactions of a flock of philosophic birds to a bomb dropped on their remote plain by a fugitive pilot and to the crash of his plane into the house of the beatific Idiot. The situation is complicated by a prescient snake and a gang of cutthroat crows. The book is filled with verdant deep-space landscapes—rendered in a lush stipple and hatching inking technique—and with sparely rendered characters that misapply mystical significance to their circumstances. In the ambiguous world of Big Questions, birds can be misguided or courageous, predators can indulge in irony, guilt is set against innocence and the living speak to the dead.
Originally published as a periodical comic, Nilsen was several issues into the narrative of Big Questions before he began to organize the plot and plan the text and drawings. But for all the spontaneity of his working process, Big Questions is a unified reading experience. The black and white art is crisply reproduced and the book’s fold-out widescreen spreads, elaborate border art and decorative elements enhance an elegant package. The hardcover edition includes the original color comic book covers and a selection of supplemental strips as appendices. In an email interview with Nilsen, PW Comics World discussed the conception and creation of the book and its characters; the metaphysical elements of its story and his use of violence, color and political allegory.
PW Comics World: You cite that your practice is inspired by Chester Brown’s outrageous, improvisational early graphic novel Ed the Happy Clown. It also reminds me of Alexandre Astruc’s “Camera-Stylo,” the “camera that writes” that inspired the auteur filmmakers of the French New Wave. By this method, a story may or may not begin as a script, but it fully forms or mutates in the process of filming; the camera becomes the tool of writing. Applied to comics, the story forms from drawings that are interconnected with language. In comics, it is the “internal camera that writes,” the art is the story as much or more so than words. Similarly, you seem to have started with your discoursing birds and a plane crash, which you then extrapolated into what became the book.
Anders Nilsen: That’s probably a pretty good description of how the book got made, actually—at least early on. I was talking to [cartoonist] Brian Ralph recently and he described his early process of writing as basically drawing a bunch of dramatic splash pages and then figuring out how to connect them with a story. And that’s basically what I was doing, too, at first. The plane crash, the unexploded bomb, the collapsed grandmother, the giant crater. I definitely started by just working to find connections between images I found compelling. And even as the book continued, a lot of the story is wordless. I feel like telling stories with pictures is very different than using words, our brains register things differently and meanings are more open in a way. I find that way of working compelling, for sure.
James: The figures are drawn simply, but often the backgrounds take on the labor-intensive look of engravings. The stippled dots and little close hatching marks [hatching marks are linear marks that add contour to forms but without crossing] give a richness that reacts well with the spare, thick basic outlines of the characters. The architecture of the individual pages, the interrelation of shapes on the pages and cartoon devices—there is a lot of visual weight to the presentation.
AN: I actually was looking a lot at the graphic design of money when I did BQ #3 (specifically through the work of JSG Boggs, who is amazing) and since then I found a book of images of stock certificates which are very much in the same vein, but even more elaborate. That was the other thing about returning to comics, the discovery of design. As a punk kid I’d always thought of graphic design as vacuous and commercial. Once I started doing comics I realized it was half the fun and made a huge difference. There’s something about the super detailed, elaborate ornamentation of things like money that, as you say, gives a sense of heightened value, but it also is a way of carving out meaning. It is part of the way we insist graphically that this is a real thing, a thing you can trust and put faith in. An elaborate frame is sort of a way of insisting that a thing has value and an objective worth. To me, Big Questions is all about how people (or birds as the case may be) make meaning, and how it can easily shift. The contrast between the intense ornamental framing on many of the covers and the lack of frames around many or most of the panels inside the book is just one other way I’m playing around with that idea.
James: You ignore or reject a standard comics rule for character recognition in that the birds are visually undifferentiated from each other. Your way of dealing with this is to provide the disc portraits on the flaps and to title chapters by the participant’s names; one must ID the individual birds from these cues and from the dialogue.
AN: I did actually play around with the idea of differentiating the birds at a certain point, early on, but it felt like too much. Their form is so simple and small that to clutter it up with markings or, say, differently shaped tails or something seemed a distraction. And ultimately I really am interested in the sameness. I kind of like the idea that they are, in a way, all the same bird, just reacting to different situations and contexts. The sameness of the birds was an accident in a way, but ultimately I decided to embrace it as part of the book’s content.
James: The compilation must be a substantially different experience than it was as originally published in periodical comic form, where one had to unravel your puzzle in exceedingly slow-paced issues. I see the same phenomena with many comics originally released as daily strips or as comic issues, they read differently in complete form, often better.
AN: Yeah, it’s pretty different as a single book. In my mind, now that it’s all together, I think of it as a more unified whole than I used to, when it was a bunch of pamphlet comics. I think that, even aside from a bit of editing and tightening up that I did, it’s a more cohesive book when it’s between two covers. I think a lot of people, even my fans, sort of thought about it as a series of little vignettes featuring a set of characters and a certain landscape, but that the connections, plot-wise were pretty loose—if there were any at all. Hopefully, read all at once, it’s clear that every thread feeds necessarily into the others and makes up a single story.
James: I see that there has been some reformatting of the pages in BQ.
AN: Yeah, I have a hard time restraining myself from making small adjustments in the pacing and rhythm. They’re never really done, they just get to a point where there’s a deadline and I have to stop. So there was quite a bit of editing in BQ, which involved adding a panel here and there, making room for a pause, clarifying the action, things like that. I think probably 90% or more of the pages had some adjustment or other. I didn’t actually draw that many whole pages to insert, maybe five or six, but there’s probably 15 or twenty pages worth of extra material if you add up all the new panels and the moving things around.
James: The book is subtitled inside: Big Questions, or Asomatognosia: whose hand is it anyway? Definition: “lack of awareness of the condition of all or part of one’s body.” Does this refer to your improvisational method?
AN: I think about that word, Asomatognosia, as a kind of metaphor for the religious impulse. I heard about the condition while listening to an interview with the neurologist Oliver Sacks. He described it as a condition where one loses one’s sense of ownership over a limb, usually an arm or hand. He said that when women are pressed about who the hand might belong to if it’s not theirs, they will often say it’s their husband’s, and that when men are asked the same thing they will often say it belongs to their mother-in-law. Sacks is great to listen to or read, discussing the mind (that interview is still online at Fresh Air). But our hands are the organs we use to manipulate and control our world—they are as uniquely human an attribute as it gets. That sort of alienation from one’s own sense of control, our own agency, to me works as a kind of metaphor for the displacement of responsibility that a belief in the supernatural, or in god can sometimes entail.
James: In BQ, the metaphysical or religious aspects become detached from dream sequences to enter into the greater reality of the main narrative. Do you see transcendent experience or the paranormal as a part of nature, but a part that most of us do not feel, perceive or understand?
AN: Setting aside the fact that the animals talk, I was interested in trying, generally, to have the world of the story be generally realistic and nonmagical. I wanted to try to make it feel magical to the reader, and yet not actually break the rules of the world. Of course I push it a bit, and end up bending the rules pretty seriously in a few cases, but for the most part the things that are sort of magical-realist, like Betty talking to the dead, or the cave of the birds are basically things that can be seen as metaphors for a single character’s thinking or internal transformation. Because that’s how life is, I think. It obeys the rules of physics, which can be mundane, but the rules of physics are such that life can at times feel magical and transcendent.
James:The predators have moments that go against their nature by not killing when they have the chance. Perhaps the Snake is just so old he’s had it, but also he is part of the mysticism of the book. He has some sense of his destiny and intuits that the bird Algernon will lead him to his fate.
AN: The Snake also likes the bird’s songs. Somebody once said that all art is about death, when you come down to it. So perhaps the Snake is nearing death and so he’s developed a new appreciation for music. But, yeah, I also do think of him as a sort of mystic character. Snakes have a certain ancient weight of literary content. There’s the Garden of Eden, of course, but also in Greek mythology, snakes are often credited with great wisdom because of their closeness to the earth. I guess I’m trying to embody the latter, while playing on the associations of the former for dramatic effect.
James: Though the book is an exemplary literary comic, there is a surprising amount of comic book-style action fight scenes in there. The violence is well handled, characters are traumatized and suffer and die from their wounds.
AN: I’m definitely interested in the cartooniness of the birds and the cartoon shorthand of things like motion lines and popping eyes in combination with the slow unfolding of things like the Pilot’s dream sequences or the crawling odyssey of Clay toward the bomb crater. I think something happens when you mash those things together. They inform and augment one another. I also was always conscious of trying to compliment the slowness that I seem to be attracted to, with a little violence and drama. My intention is that the moments of violence or cataclysm are heightened by being set within the context of this slow stillness, and that the slowness, is sort of amplified by that contrast.
I definitely feel like the violence has to seem necessary—to serve and rise out of the story, and to have consequences, and move the story forward. It’s not just flash and excitement. Those kinds of fight scenes, too, are a little difficult to depict, I think. Everyone can think of a movie where the fight scene didn’t really make sense, or where you couldn’t really tell what was happening. And in a way I think that’s a sort of shorthand that can work in comics and movies. You can just show a bunch of violent chaos and then the smoke clears and what’s important is who’s on top, or who’s got a gun on who. The details of how it happened may not be the point. But for me, I’m actually sort of interested in that, and I wanted to try to be clear about it. Partly because the way the various characters act in the situation can be a clue to who they are: Betty’s relentless determination for example, and Clay’s hesitance.
James: Do you think birds that look to an idiot and to war machines for significance while a guilty pilot decimates their ranks can be read as a surrealist critique of America’s conduct since the turn of the century?
AN: Sure, I’d go with that. The Pilot as a surrogate for American foreign policy of the last 20 years. The main guiding idea, though, really, was of the Idiot and the Pilot as representations of two different approaches people seem to have toward the idea of god or the nature of the world. The Pilot is, for me, in part, a personification of the sort of angry, jealous god of the old testament. Weirdly inscrutable and frequently violent. The Idiot is a little harder to pin down, but I think of him as maybe a little more like how the universe really is. He’s basically disinterested in human (or bird) affairs. He has some small affection for humanity, but basically is also inscrutable, his actions are pretty arbitrary and governed by rules that are completely beyond us. Or maybe, really, just make no sense at all. And yet it’s sort of fun to watch him do his thing.
James: I really like your approach to color. I wonder if you have considered doing an entire book in painted color?
AN: God help me. I would like to do another longer story in color at some point, but I’ve yet to figure out a way to make it not take the rest of my life. Making comics is already slow enough as it is.
First published on Publishers Weekly