This year at Comic-Con International in San Diego, Drawn and Quarterly debuted the collected volume of Anders Nilsen’s “Big Questions.” The book is, as Nilsen calls it, both his oldest and newest book, having begun as a mini comic originally published in 1999. It is perhaps too early to call any work by a thirty-something cartoonist a magnum opus, but it’s hard not to think of this volume that way, and not just because of its length and philosophical depth. It’s a book that demands rereading and rethinking and is already on many readrs’ short lists for one of the best books of the year.
While “Big Questions” may have taken more than a decade to create, Nilsen has been very busy with other projects including the books “Dogs and Water,” “Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow,” “Monologues for the Coming Plague,” “Monologues for Calculating the Density of Black Holes” and “The End.” He also contributed to the “Mome” and “Kramer’s Ergot” anthologies and been published in the annual “Best American Comics.” Nilsen received a Xeric grant for his book “The Ballad of the Two-Headed Boy” and received two Ignatz Awards.
Nilsen will appear at The Beguiling in Toronto on August 13th and at Magers and Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis on August 20th. For more information about his book tour, which will include appearances in Chicago, Canada, the East Coast, France and the U.K., check out his blog (themonologuist.blogspot.com) and the CBR events calendar.
CBR News caught up with Nilsen in the midst of his book tour to talk about his work and the long journey “Big Questions” undertook to arrive at this year’s CCI, drawing squirrels beating up birds and the influence of skateboarding and the Midwest on his work.
CBR News: “Big Questions” is a project you started at the beginning of your career, yet it took more than a decade to finish.
Anders Nilsen: It’s my newest book, but it’s also my oldest.
Having completed the book and seeing it collected after all this time, do you feel a sense of accomplishment? Relief? Exhaustion?
[Laughs] Exhaustion was definitely a part of it. I finished the last issue somewhere around September-October and then after that, there was a good six months that was just editing. I think out of all of those pages, probably ninety percent or more have some changes, even if it was just moving a word balloon over or adding a word there. It turned into this giant editing process. I didn’t redraw much. I added a few pages. I added one scene in the body of the book and then extended the material from the last two issues. I think I added ten or so pages to the end of the book. There were some deadlines which I did not quite make. I think the book was originally supposed to come out in May for TCAF, which did not happen. That process was just crazy labor intensive and it wasn’t the fun part of coming up with the story and doing the drawings. When I was finally done with that, I was definitely exhausted and just slept for a couple days.
What was the thinking behind those changes, or were they more about clarity than anything else?
There [were] definitely clarity issues. Timing and rhythm is important to me. Wanting things to hit beats in the right place was important. On rereading it, there was one plot line having to do with the birds that become devoted to the pilot that I feel like I hadn’t really fleshed out enough. I went back and drew two little scenes just to emphasize that part because I think it’s important to the story, but I hadn’t really been clear about it the first time around. Otherwise it’s just tying up a few loose ends and inconsistencies. I did a little bit of changing names at the beginning so that characters that I introduce later would exist early on.
It was interesting reading the book’s afterword and learning that you had it planned it out from the beginning, it just took more time and space than you envisioned.
The book has a great many wordless scenes and I know many cartoonists who draw wordless stories often talk about how those always take longer than they think it will. Was that part of why it took longer?
I think that’s true because words are very clear. You can have a character talk about what they’re doing and it registers instantly in the reader’s brain where watching still images that are supposed to translate into some kind of complex action, the level of clarity has to be pretty high because you want it to be seamless. You don’t want the reader to have to figure it out. You have to show smaller increments of action and so that inevitably takes a little longer.
Do you think “Big Questions” was affected by the fact that you were regularly stopping to work on other projects?
I don’t know that that affected the book that much. It took longer, for one thing, but I also learned how to make comics in the process. I took a break to work on “Dogs and Water” where I didn’t use any panel borders, for example. That clarified in my head a little bit how that operates and what the function of panel borders is. Working on the “Monologues” books allowed me to separate the two sides of cartooning I was interested in. Early on in “Big Questions,” I’m not really sure which way I [wanted] to go. Some of the issues like #5 and #6, the drawings are much rougher. Later they get cleaner and more careful. Working on the “Monologues” really allowed me to focus on drawing well and telling the story more intensively than I had at the beginning.
I think it may be that taking breaks and working on other work allowed me to stay really interested. When I did come back to “Big Questions,” I could see it with fresh eyes. After working on some other project for a while, I would come back to “Big Questions” and I would think, this is going to feel like old work and am I really going to be engaged with these characters anymore, but it always seemed compelling and fresh. I would find that I was really interested in seeing what the characters were up to. This process of rediscovering the story each time and realizing that the subject matter and the themes were things that I was still really interested in and I hadn’t played out.
I know you went to art school. What was your focus there?
I was in the painting department, but in the last year or so I was doing a lot of collage stuff and I was doing these giant room installations. These little fragments of paper stuck on the heads of nails in giant swarms on the wall. It was pretty different than comics.
What was it that drew you to comics? Was it narrative, illustration or something else?
Comics were fun. My experience of art and art-making as a kid was drawing pictures of characters. I read comics a ton as a kid. You go to art school and painting is the default art form to be involved in. It’s sort of the official art form of the Western world. I think it makes sense to go to art school and study that. When I was done, I felt like painting made less sense out in the real world. It makes sense in art school. It makes less sense in the real world when you’re a middle class kid. Paintings are expensive. Comics are an art form that anybody can own and so there’s a sort of democracy to it.
Also, when I was a kid, it was the art form that I related to the most. My parents would take me to museums and we would look at paintings and sculpture and what was coming through town. I totally dug that stuff and I totally learned from it, but the thing that I was the most excited about was the new “X-Men” comic that came out every month. That was something I could actually own and hold in my hand and stick on my shelf and reread over and over. I think coming to comics was a way of coming back to my roots or just more a down to earth experience of art. Coming back to drawing and rediscovering the fun of drawing and the fun of inventing crazy stories was a huge part of it. And the fact that once I made a little booklet out of all this stuff from my sketchbooks, it instantly had an audience. It was pretty accessible. You didn’t have to have an art education in order to appreciate it. My mom could get it. My uncle could get it. My hipster friends at my job could get it. All of those things contributed to me deciding that this art form made more sense somehow.
What kind of comics did you read as a kid?
I think the first comics I read were “Tintin” and “Asterix.” When I was six or seven my stepdad took me to a comic shop in Minneapolis and I got a “Ghost Rider” comic. I think it was around fifth grade that everybody in my class was reading “X-Men.” It was the height of the Chris Claremont era. I collected “X-Men” and the “New Mutants” and “Alpha Flight.” I was super into “Elfquest” at a certain point. I was the perfect age for when Alan Moore and Frank Miller were messing around with the superhero genre. “Miracleman” was huge. I still think of “Miracleman” as one of the best comics, superhero or not, on earth. It’s great stuff.
If we looked back at your sketchbooks as a kid, what would we see? Would we see a lot of nature studies and animal drawings?
Probably not. I remember there’s a lot of “Dungeons and Dragons” characters. There’s a lot of kids skateboarding and skate parks. In high school I started drawing skulls a lot. [Laughs] I definitely had a phase. I would draw these hot rods with giant engines and flames coming out of them and weird troll creatures driving them. Whatever came across my path I would draw.
So much of your work is defined by landscape and nature, when did that start being a source of interest?
I don’t know. I think that really started with “Big Questions.” I don’t have a memory of any specific interest in that as a kid. I definitely was interested in allegorical stories. I was super into fairy tales and Greek mythology, things like “Wind in the Willows.” I think there’s something a little bit magical about talking animals. [Laughs] It’s not that I’m specifically that interested in nature. I’m not a big backpacker. I feel like clearing away human culture and the distracting details of society is helpful if you’re trying to address complicated philosophical questions. If you can get rid of the details and present a story on a blank slate, you can get at the heart of the matter a little bit easier. That’s how I think of it, as trying to present as blank a canvas as possible on which to pose the action of the story.
I think the talking animals do the same thing. If all your characters are human characters, every detail sends a message. The way they dress is going to give the reader cues about what sort of person they are. Using animals characters gives you a shorthand for personality and automatically connects them to some kind of symbolism. Birds are symbolic of transcendence or flight. Snakes have this history in Western culture, whether it’s the Garden of Eden or the way snakes are portrayed in Greek mythology. You get this extra material that just sits there in the background. You don’t have to be explicit about it but it can inform the story and inform the character.
Just as clearing away society places the philosophical questions in a different context, having those questions posed by animals also places them in a different context.
And it simplifies the dynamic. They’re confronted with this very basic question of survival. There are predators out there and you’ve got to eat. Those are the main questions. But then there are these other concerns as well.
Along those lines, one scene that really struck me was where the squirrels beat up the bird. It starts out hilarious because it’s a bunch of squirrels beating up a bird–
But by the end of that sequence, it’s just too violent and too real to be funny.
It starts out as like half slapstick but then by the end you realize that it’s for real. I think that’s something I’m interested in, for sure.
I think that speaks to the book as a whole. In the beginning there are talking birds which can just be funny anthropomorphized animals, but then it becomes much more.
Early on I was a little worried about whether that transition was really going to work or if it was going to just seem ridiculous. It wasn’t intentional, but I feel I recognized it when I was working on the early gag strips with the birds. You look at the birds and they’re small and cute and sort of ridiculous and they’re asking these giant questions that are way beyond them. Basically the idea is, that’s us. We’re also small and ridiculous. We just don’t feel that way all the time. So yeah, translating that cartoonish-ness and then mutating it into seriousness happened by itself, but it was definitely something that I wanted to do. Starting off that way it brings the reader in, it’s kind of easy and fun, and then all of a sudden they realize there’s a knife in their ribs and I’m twisting it. [Laughs]
I read an interview you did a while back which had what I found to be a very telling comment. When talking about “Tintin” you said, “I think there’s something about the utter blankness of Tintin, the character himself, that allows you as the reader to completely project yourself onto the action.” Is that something you strive for or are conscious of in your own work?
I don’t think it was intentional early on, but I think that was one of the reasons why the birds were compelling to me. I feel like I happened on these birds accidentally in a way. They came out of this drawing exercise and I just recognized that they were interesting and compelling and I kept using them. I think that’s one of the reasons. They are these blank slates that make it easy for the reader to project onto. I happened onto it and then realized it more than it was an intentional strategy.
Before I started reading “Big Questions” a few years ago, I remember hearing two things about the book from multiple people and I’m curious about your thoughts about their reading. One is that the book is existential.
I guess I’m happy with the label “existential.” I feel it’s so connected to French philosophy in the ’50s or ’60s. It seems a little dated to me, but I am sympathetic to those ideas and that philosophy. It is, in a way, how I see the world.
The other reading is that the setting of your books is bleak and barren.
The bleakness is interesting because that’s totally not how I see the landscape. “Dogs and Water” was a bleak landscape, for sure. That’s what I was drawing, a barren windswept nowhere. With “Big Questions,” it’s empty and featureless, but to me, it’s a green grassy plain with some trees and some water and a blue sky. It’s black and white, so maybe I’m not getting that across exactly. [Laughs] I think the landscape is very much informed by the upper Midwest plains. I guess people who aren’t from that landscape or know that landscape, they probably would go to North Dakota and go, ‘Wow, this is bleak.’ To me it’s beautiful and full of life. It’s very quiet, too. I talked about trying to create a blank slate for the action to happen on, but my intention was for the landscape to feel blank in that it’s not a positive or a negative. It’s not bleak in my mind, but it’s also not super lush. It’s grass and a few trees and a river and that’s it. The blankness is what you make of it. I have heard people talk about it as bleak but I have also had people say that they heard it described as bleak but they don’t really see it that way so I don’t know. Hopefully it functions a little bit as a rorschach blot and people take from it what they put into it.
You mentioned you were from Minnesota, and when I first saw the book I thought that the landscape really felt like the upper Plains.
In the last week and a half I’ve been on the west coast and it’s interesting. LA is this weird combination of super-dry and then in parts of the city it’s incredibly lush. At the moment I’m in the Pacific Northwest and there’s mountains and there’s rolling hills and giant pine trees. I’m realizing a little bit how much the Midwest has informed my sensibility. You come from that and you don’t really realize that’s how you see the world.
Did your time in art school studying painting and what you learned then about composition affect the design of your comics?
I didn’t really think about design until I was doing “Big Questions.” I grew up in the city and I was kind of a punk rock kid. I thought of design as commercial, vacuous enterprise in a way, not realizing that it’s everywhere and information has to be arranged and presented. But there were certain things that were probably influencing me without my knowing it, definitely comic books. “Weirdo” and “RAW.” Crumb’s covers for “Weirdo” are just amazing. They definitely burrowed a hole in my brain and I think I’m still working with that material.
The other thing is I was a skateboarder and design in skateboarding was a big part of it. There were different magazines that had wildly different takes on design; it was very conscious but also very self-driven. When I made ‘zines in college I started dealing with it, but when I started doing “Big Questions” the problem was a little more clear. It was like, this is a comic book with a cover that has to have the same title on it and it has to have certain information presented. It was a realm of art-making that I had never explored and I totally dug it. I started looking at stuff that I had never looked at before like money and stock certificates and old botanical illustrations.
You received a Xeric Grant in 2000, and Peter Laird just announced he’s ending the award next year. Could you talk about what winning meant and if you had any thoughts on the grant ending.
I haven’t read much about that so I don’t know exactly what his reasons are. I know he talked about the web being a tool now for cartoonists to get their work out there. I was talking to my friend Sammy about it recently. At first I was thinking when I got that grant, “The Ballad of the Two Headed Boy” was not a calling card for me. Chris Oliveros didn’t ask me to do work for him because of that book. My first thought about it was it was nice, I’m glad I did that, but it wasn’t a stepping stone for me. Sammy made the point that even if it didn’t function in that way, it did force me to figure out Photoshop. That was my first venture into figuring out how to make these drawings into a published book, outside of cutting and pasting and going to Kinko’s. It forced me to make take my first steps towards making a finished product. To think about paper stocks and color and size and distribution. I had to figure out how to get it out in the world. I had thirty boxes of books and it forced me into the real world of self-publishing. I think that is the really useful thing about it.
I’ve talked to a couple people and I think there’s a little bit of a consensus that it might be true that there might not need to be ten Xeric grants a year, but if there could be one or two. There’s still a real potential value to it. The funny thing is that every time this subject has come up in the past week, half the people I talk to about it are like, ‘I’m definitely going to apply this time.’ I think there was a feeling of, he gives out ten a year, I’ll get around to it at some point. Now it’s like, the goose that’s been laying this golden egg is all of a sudden not going to be, so I need to get one of those eggs. I think the Internet is important as far as getting people’s work out into the world, but it’s really not the same as books. I think especially with comic books, the object is actually important and thinking about a book as an object. So who knows. Maybe he’ll get five times as many applications as he ever did before and he’ll have amazing work to chose from and he’ll reconsider.
I realize this may not be an easy question to answer given you didn’t intend for the project to take this long to complete, but do you see yourself doing a project as large as “Big Questions” again?
[Laughs] I probably will. I don’t know if it’s going to be 600 pages. I have a feeling it might be a little bit tighter, but I also am completely aware that I thought “Big Questions” was going to be tighter and that went on forever. I definitely have three or four half finished projects, things that are in various stages of completion, that I want to finish. That’s going to take a year or two. I’m probably not going to start a new long graphic novel until those things are off my plate, but that’s definitely something I want to do. One of the things about “Big Questions” is, it’s the book that I started doing comics with. It totally shows my learning curve. I would love to start and finish a book where I know what I’m doing from the beginning. [Laughs]
Will that next project be serialized?
I definitely would like to. I don’t know. It’s a little ways off so I haven’t talked to Drawn and Quarterly about it. I think the market for pamphlet comics in the alternative press is basically close enough to zero that they don’t want to do it, but if that’s the case, I probably would self-publish it. I know basically that’s what Sammy [Harkham] is doing at this point with “Crickets.” He’s self-publishing it and Fantagraphics is helping him distribute. It seems like a viable model. I feel like the serialization was really a great way of breaking up the work involved into bite sized pieces. It also it allowed me to do kind of a first draft and get some feedback and get a sense of how it worked. I have a hard time not continually revising and changing, and so having a deadline to get the thing done and then getting a second chance later when you do a collected book is super helpful for me. I feel like it totally made [“Big Questions”] a much better book than it would have been if at the end of #15 I had stuck them all between two covers and sent it out into the world. It really needed a go-over, I think.