Big Questions

By Anders Nilsen


Drawn and Quarterly
August 2011

Reviewed by Tanner Hadfield


Last year, I came across a translation of Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar, curated by Blackie Books, a small press run out of Spain. The cover was darling: a wheelbarrow-bound man, a tiger lying nearby, in a sparsely drawn, black and white clearing. I immediately recognized this clearing as Anders Nilsen's. He has been wrestling with this clearing for some fifteen years (the time it took to create Big Questions from serialized episodes) and apparently still hasn't managed to shake it.

Most of Big Questions takes place in this nameless clearing, a hazy, timeless place not unlike iDeath or the Forgotten Works of Brautigan's novel. It isn't necessarily an absurd space though, as semi-permanent clearings such as this one, often created from the havoc of fires or avalanches, are vital to herbivorous animals for scavenge and shelter. Nilsen's clearing is shaped by two strange events: the landing of a dud bomb (and its eventual detonation), and later, the crash of the airplane which had once carried it. The clearing is indeed semi-permanent as a result of Nilsen's drawing style. The pages are flooded with white space. The middle distance is sketchy, the far distance vacant. His pen strokes resemble a bag of dotted lines spilled, the magnetic soot of Wooly Willy, or perhaps a once solid landscape, which, like a chicken whose lopped off head and body squirm about separately, trying to reconnect, exists in a sort of segmentation created by the frostbite of print. He shows us wrinkles in lieu of lines of definition.

Within this clearing is a primitive house, home to the grandmother and the idiot, so named for Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem "Spring," in which "April / Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers." The grandmother feeds seed and doughnuts to the cartoonish finches who comprise most of the cast (and who ask the big questions), and the idiot, well, does things such as babble and strew flowers. When the grandmother is killed, the finches and the idiot are left bereft of their provider.

The book begins with sparse panels depicting finches expressing larger-than-life concerns, answered only with non sequiturs and punchlines, invoking the frustration of Nilsen's own experience with the grandiose, installation-happy art world. Soon the finches are given reason for these concerns, as their habitat incurs a radical shift. The scaffolding of panels withers away, detail reserved only for inking covers appears on every page, and Nilsen comes back around to grandeur. He can't escape it, even with his self-imposed, amusingly cloying tone. A third of the way through, we get a foldout page, and from there, the novel takes on a cinematic scope. Landscapes cross page barriers. Pan outs and close-ups becomes regular features. Nighttime brings a violent shift from pastoral to a more illuminating chiaroscuro. Some characters begin to resist singularity, as they appear five and six times within a single frame, connected to themselves by lines of motion.

We are introduced to more characters: walking skeleton finches, indifferent dogs, asshole crows, and an old snake who has lost his appetite. A pilot rises from the downed plane, interacting with the finches and  two gibberish-speaking, dimension-shifting swans (the products of his imagination). The characters aren't given many distinctive attributes, but are easily distinguished by their unique confusions and mistaken interpretations of the unfolding events.

Within the wreckage—the contents of the house and the house reduced to its contents, like a nest for the clipped airplane—a sort of religion is born. The finches cast lots upon the pilot, the idiot, and some of the more exuberant birds as saviors and prophets. To divulge more of the plot at this point would become an attempt to characterize the history of theological movements within culture, which transpire here on an accelerated scale. It's tempting to brand this book as fable or allegory, hard to describe it without doing so. A few inescapable allusions (the very Orphic search of a finch named Algernon for his dead wife, birds appropriately named Theodorus, Eusippius, and Philo, and a pretty clunky reference to Plato's cave metaphor which is hard to swallow even ironically) don't really help. But Nilsen doesn't force the reader to that point. It's certainly more Watership Down or Redwall than Animal Farm.

Perhaps the reason for this is the series, alternately comical and affecting, of the finches' conclusions on their environment, which rest safely within their realm of knowledge. The airplane is a bird. The bomb—an egg. There is no discussion of the heavens, and the dead are rooted firmly within the earth. And the characters aren't really allowed the time to figure these things out on their own. The accelerated scale pushes initial reactions and inquisitions into assertions. In the search for the divine, the space of the clearing is never transcended. Its mythologies don't extend any further. And how could they? We do see a couple episodes of cosmic dust swirling into solid shapes (on a plane that none of the characters is aware of), but the products of the swirling are trivial at best: a shoe, a pair of pants. Only punchlines. Or perhaps a palate cleanser, much like a novel's episodic breaks, highlighted by kaleidoscopic designs and images telescoped by circular frames.

Comics have long gotten at a kind of naturalism and misery that literature hasn't been able to—or at least they feel more accessible. One doesn't have to be familiar with back catalogues of Mome or Kramers Ergot in order to participate in this novel. It's a uniquely inviting space. If you find yourself reading each page multiple times, it will be for indulgence, not guilt from a failure to absorb.

When I finished Big Questions, I immediately flipped back the 600-odd pages to the beginning. I was shocked. I wouldn't have remembered how unadorned the beginnings were, even though I had read them earlier that day. I had imagined that the increasing grandeur of the story had unfolded in my own mind, when really, Nilsen was doing most of that work for me. I thought about Updike's words: "A drawing can feel perfect, in a way prose never does, and a poem rarely... there is no material retaining ground for the imagery that words generate in one brain or another." It's a tricky perfection from a form that seems to gain its charm through a sort of revisionist disfigurement. Not that I didn't have a say in the end. Just as the pilot's dream space is still a real context for other characters, so too was mine. Only the tug on the sleeve of this clearing and its inhabitants made me feel a part, made me feel somehow responsible for creation.