Monday, August 10, 2015

REVIEWS: Anders Nilsen, Big Questions and The End


I just finished writing a review of Anders Nilsen's excellent new sketchbook compilation Poetry is Useless for Rain Taxi - if it's accepted it'll be included in either the print or online iteration of the Fall 2015 issue. This is the third time I've written critically about Nilsen and it got me thinking about my past reviews for the now-defunct contemporarylit.about.com. To save these texts from vanishing entirely, I thought I'd reprint them here since they no longer appear in search results. I'll be occasionally doing this here for reviews I'm particularly fond of, so I hope you bear with me.

Needless to say: Anders Nilsen's one of the best out there and I find it wildly perplexing that he's not been permanently crowned with laurels by both literature and comics aficionados. Check his work out, and hopefully these texts will inspire.



Big Questions by Anders Nilsen
Published by Drawn & Quarterly in 2011
Review by Jeff Alford
Originally appeared on contemporarylit.about.com

It's been twelve years and fifteen issues since Anders Nilsen's first installment of Big Questions was published as a Xeroxed, staple-bound comic book. At long last, Drawn and Quarterly has compiled the entire run of Big Questions into a beautiful omnibus edition that allows Nilsen's story to flow uninterrupted from start to finish. Seeing Big Questions in its entirety will dazzle readers with its progression.

Nilsen's story doesn't just flow: it blooms. In the twelve years it took to complete Big Questions, Nilsen's creative skills have blossomed exponentially and readers will marvel at the transformation that takes place between the book's covers. In just 650 pages, we see Nilsen grow from a cartoonist to a true artist and watch his story slowly become what just might be the acme of the comics-as-literature movement.

The first issue of Big Questions featured crudely drawn birds and people, both species in equal states of existential crisis. "I hate the world and everything in it", one bird thinks to itself, unable to find the means to convert this sentiment into words. "Shit, seeds again", another bird says in a different strip, as his flock proceeds to peck away in silence. At first, these seem like short gag comics, but through Nilsen's impeccable pacing and frequent use of silence in his frames, even the simplest scenes find a way to distill a world of philosophical complexity into just a few lines.

After the first few issues of Big Questions, Nilsen shifted his spotlight entirely onto his philosophical flock. Although they all look identical, his birds are given names and they begin to take on new roles as representatives of the many intellectual facets and ideas that Nilsen grapples with in his story. Leroy is the unchained philosopher, prone to unwelcome monologues, and can be found early in the book trying to discuss his ideas with another bird named Zwingly. "If we change our behavior and try to direct our actions in a positive way, could we influence the course of world history?" he asks, "and yet, even if we could make such a difference, how would we know where to start?" A bird named Betty leans more towards the spiritual side of things with her beliefs, and is visited by the boney ghosts of passed birds (including the recently-killed Leroy, who "sought advice on philosophical matters from an owl"). Algernon leads another thread of Big Questions as he searches for his missing mate Thelma. Algernon is kidnapped by a snake and kept in a cave that allegorically will make any Plato buff proud.


Eventually, humans are introduced in Big Questions by way of an old woman and her mute, mentally unsound grandson. "The Idiot" (as he's referred to in Nilsen's dramatis personae) sees the world differently, from a mind stuck somewhere between that of birds and humans. The Idiot's curiosity and peculiarities manage to attract a bird named Bayle, who eventually becomes a devoted follower and almost a disciple of the man. Some of the finest scenes in Big Questions are with Bayle and The Idiot as they wander through the forest together in search of some kind of unknown connection.
Although Big Questions deals heavily with ideas and philosophy, some of the most exciting and awe-inspiring aspects of the story are two major plot points that further explore the relationship between man and nature. When a bomb drops near the birds' tree and remains undetonated, the birds are forced to reconfigure their simple world-view to include this new, metallic egg and its unclear origin. Later, hinting lightly at a large-scale political subtext, a plane crashes into The Idiot's house, killing his grandmother and completely leveling their home. The pilot survives and provides Big Questions with a much-needed and well-voiced human element as he struggles to regain his composure after his near-fatal accident.

Big Questions is an astonishing achievement and the many years that Nilsen spent with this story will shimmer through to his readers. This book has enormous potential to appeal across its medium; Big Questions's outstanding text and artwork should be capable of drawing in even the most comic-phobic lover of literature. Like Algernon's cave, Big Questions is more expansive the deeper you go. Multiple readings will surely lead to new discoveries and will keep readers captivated until Nilsen's next masterpiece, whenever that may land.

The End by Anders Nilsen
Published by Drawn & Quarterly in 2013
Review by Jeff Alford
Originally appeared on contemporarylit.about.com

Published last year, graphic novelist Anders Nilsen's Big Questions (a 600-page tome about a flock of birds ruminating on life, love and death) is an exceptionally neat and meticulously detailed feat of illustration. Careful pen strokes render every leaf, blade of grass, and grain of wood with a precision that imbues Nilsen's rudimentary birds with a lofty presence. No detail has been glossed over: everything is exactly as it should be.

This precision makes the philosophical aspects of Big Questions all the more engaging: while there may not be one "Big Answer," it seems Nilsen's exposed all its pieces, plainly, beautifully visible.

But what happens when this foundation breaks, when a hand becomes too shaky for a neat, clean line? In 2005, Nilsen endured the loss of his fiancée Cheryl Weaver, a tragedy that fractally shattered the artist's interest in careful composition. Two cartoonists emerged from his loss: the Nilsen who maintained writing Big Questions up through its conclusion in 2010, and one more interested in abstraction, minimalism and the de-atomization of the comic book form.

The End was originally published in a staple bound format in 2007 under Fantagraphics's Ignatz imprint and has been expanded and re-released. With only 80 pages, The End is a quick read but it is hardly fleeting: these pages come from such a raw emotional place that they'll reverberate like an echo from a well.

There are three types of minimalist storytelling in The End and each represents a stage of grieving and overcoming that loss. Initially, the book is composed of sketchbook pages that will look most familiar to those readers who know Nilsen for his work like Big Questions and 2005's Dogs and Water. A chapter called "Since You've Been Gone I Can Do Whatever I Want All The Time" features floating cartoons of "me crying while doing the dishes," "me watering your plants," and "me talking to you though you're not even there," among many other lonely moments. Fascinatingly, the line work in these single-frame cartoons grows more confident as the pages go on. Nilsen removes the captions as the figure in the panels grows more used to his solitude. In just a few pages, absence becomes a routine. It's not uplifting, but it's progress.


Nilsen then shifts into a very difficult, metaphysical realm: the central bulk of The End features two crude silhouettes conversing amidst an ethereal blue page. It's through these pages, and through the mouth of a forlorn, questioning figure that Nilsen is able to converse and reconcile with some of the emotional hurdles that have him paralyzed. Early in the book, a short, bossy figure approached and berates the other over the course of seven frames:

"Why do you keep calling me? You've had a lot of time to think about all of this. You need to stop calling. And get on with it. You need to get over the whole thing. You need to stop putting it all on other people. …What if I give you twenty bucks? If I give you twenty bucks will you get over it and stop calling me? You aren't going to answer me are you. God I find this so irritating. Aren't you bothered by it too? Don't you want to move on? God you piss me off sometimes."

Nilsen moves from this aggressive self-reflection to something even more abstract: later (and in a similar, minimal format), the figure approaches a female silhouette, a vessel for his late fiancée. "Can we talk?" he asks, and it's possibly the biggest question the author's ever posited. Their discussion runs quickly through shared memories, uncertainty of the past as well as the future. "I still have a lot of questions," he asks. "If I fall in love, will you haunt me?" "I will always haunt you, no matter what," she replies, and he makes her promise.

The third format in The End doesn't actually end the book, but it provides some of the most uplifting closure in its attempt to inspire a continued, fulfilling life despite the tragedies endured. "How Can I Prepare You For What's To Follow" was originally screen printed in poster-format, and features a faceless figure illustrated over found imagery of beautiful landscapes and vintage photography. This section functions like an abstract Terrence Malick film, running quickly through worldly imagery while a faceless figure delivers an inspiring conclusory speech. "You get to eat whatever you want a sleep and dream and be warm, to comfort and be comforted," he says, screen printed over a distant view of Machu Picchu. He reminds the reader, standing over what might be the French Riviera, that "you have a small, fragile heart, the same as all of us." It's a message we've heard before, but its majestic delivery and the difficult path that led to this revelation make The End all the more exceptional.



Currently reading:
Purity by Jonathan Franzen

Currently listening to:
Jamie XX, "In Colour"

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