Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Big Questions 9
by Anders Nilsen

The comics of Anders Nilsen do not appear to exist in the same plane of reference as most other comics. Often, the setting is desolate blankness, emptiness stretching off to the horizon line. The frequent lack of panel borders contributes to the sense of vertigo. More than any other creator, Nilsen uses blank space on the page to create anxiety and tension. The quietude and sparseness is so pervasive a mood that the reader is almost overwhelmed.

Big Questions 9 is, as the title may suggest, the ninth in Nilsen's ongoing series of pamphlets, released as an adjunct to recent long-form work such as Dogs & Water, Don't Go Where I Can't Follow and Monologues for the Coming Plague, as well as regular contributions to Fantagraphics' ongoing Mome anthology. Nilsen's recent spate of productivity, all the while maintaining a dangerously high standard of quality, places him firmly within the upper echelon of current cartoonists. His style, while firmly established, is still elastic enough to provide for multiple ongoing experiments, of the type provided by multiple ongoing venues. Paging through Big Questions 9, an uneducated reader would be hard-pressed to say that this was the same man who produces those devilishly abstract strips in Mome. That's a good thing.

The multiple features within Big Questions are continued from previous issues, but you'd be hard-pressed to call them serials of the conventional kind. Sitting down to read the issue with little or no memory of the events of the last issue, the book seems as effective in isolation as it would be otherwise. Just as the characters in Nilsen's stories wander through unadorned, numbing expanses of time and space, so too is the reader thrust into the liminal zones between confusion and comprehension. It's the feeling of having walked into a film after the first reel, long after the initial exposition -- there's nothing left but a long sequence of actions occurring seemingly at random, shorn of all necessary context. Perhaps the context is hidden or missing, perhaps it never existed. What is left for the reader is the pleasure of the present tense.

Considering how sparse the storytelling is, it's remarkable that Nilsen manages to communicate emotional states with as much urgency and focus as he does. Perhaps the lack of context creates a hyper-awareness on the part of the reader, a heightened alertness to the nuance and detail of simple interaction that would not occur in the context of a more elaborate story. The prominent characters in Big Questions 9 are mostly animals -- birds and a snake, in addition to two humans. One of these humans is mentally retarded, placing him below the level of the story's animals in terms of his ability to communicate effectively, either to his fellow characters or to the reader.

Nilsen's birds are surprisingly expressive creatures, considering the fact that they are only minimally anthropomorphized. Or rather, although the birds talk and communicate on-panel, they don't have expressive faces or bulging eyes or elastic body language -- The most we get as far as that goes is a single dot for a bird's eye, with a single line above it to illustrate emotion. Nilsen does a lot with not very much, managing to use the birds' own repertoire -- flapping wings, flight -- to communicate very human emotions. He breaks these rules slightly in the book's final feature, "Algernon", featuring the culmination of the title character's journey to Hell -- but still, for all that his birds remain stridently bird-like.

I was surprised at just how much emotion Nilsen could get out of a few silly birds. Although the story itself is familiar to anyone versed in Greek mythology, "Algernon" still surprises with the unadorned potency of its climax. Perhaps it's because I didn't see the allusion until it was too late. Perhaps it was the seeming incongruity of birds. But the emotion was real, regardless of the source and regardless of the form. Away from his technical virtuosity and formal ingenuity, Nilsen is still capable of using authentic emotion to tell a rich and elegant story. No matter how abstruse his methods may at times seem, it is that reservoir of honest expression that will provide Nilsen with the tools to create work of even greater lasting value and impact.

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