By Anders Nilsen
Drawn And Quarterly
Anders Nilsen wants to talk about the big questions; life, death, philosophy, day to day existence, why we’re here and why we do what we do. But he’s going to do it through the lives of a group of birds.
It shouldn’t work, it shouldn’t be anywhere near as good as it is, this graphic novel Nilsen began some 15 years ago as a comic, without an overarching plot, his spontaneity creating multiple plot threads that he’s carefully, thoughtfully, and rather brilliantly tied together to create a near seamless whole in this collected version.
No, it shouldn’t work, but it does, it’s simply beautifully done, a metaphysical tale, huge in size and scope, ambitious, ambiguous, with an artistic simplicity that comes from somewhere outside normal comics. This is as special as it gets. The pace is perfect, page after page slips by, and I was there with each one, taking in every moment, every slight thing. It’s a genuinely transfixing experience, a huge undertaking by reader and author alike.
Big Questions starts with a group of birds pecking at seeds on the ground. It’s simple, funny stuff, with Nilsen’s loose line looking very raw. But within a few pages the story begins to coallesce, the Big Questions begin, the cast starts to assemble, each finch looking identical yet given character and personality by Nilsen.
Everything happens rather quickly after that, although this is more down to Nilsen’s relaxed style than actual pacing, quickly in this case takes a couple of hundred pages, but by this time I was so into the book I couldn’t stop, and it all seemed to fly by, I was absorbed, engrossed.
Characters are added; the grandmother and her idiot son who feed the finches and live in the only house for miles around, the plane that delivers the unexploded bomb to Nilsen’s endless plain below before crashing, destroying the house, killing the grandmother. The plane’s pilot, his actions unclear, his past hinted at via radio signals and his own disturbing dreams.
The birds interact, with each other and the rest of the growing cast. They’re fascinated by the idiot grandchild, the pilot, and the unexploded bomb. Divisions develop, factions form. They see the people as curiosities, the plane as a bird and the bomb as its giant egg. There’s philosophical debate, and the decision to help the giant egg hatch doesn’t end well. The explosion leaves the birds devastated, death and injury all about them.
Nilsen’s cast expands; the owl, the snake, the crows, a fleeting yet menacing appearance from a gang of squirrels.
Meaning, ambiguity and character. Each animal, no matter what species, has a distinct personality; courageous, cowardly, brash, thoughtful, philosophical, ironic, cruel, caring…. every facet of human emotion given anthropomorphic reality in these animals. And all beautifully captured by Nilsen’s art.
You want an example? Here’s heartstopping terror as Algernon Finch realises where he is and who’s talking to him:
That’s what I mean. Capturing such emotion, raw and obvious, on a finch just like all the others. Beautiful.
Nilsen’s animals flit from simple natural actions to philosophical discourse without any confusion or incredulity on the part of the reader. That’s just part of the magical nature of the spell Nilsen is busy casting. There is a near religious significance to the events going on here, the birds removed from the reality we see sufficiently to misapply their knowledge and remake these events into something quasi-religious, magical, laden with potential, with myth; this is ancient, epic, life and death stuff after all, we could easily tell that long before one of the finches wanders into his own version of Orpheus and Eurydice in an anthropomorphic version of the Underworld.
Nilsen’s control of his work is incredible, his art matures and develops over the course of the book, as you’d expect from something that took anything up to 15 years to complete. Yet the style remains much the same throughout, it’s merely his craft that improves.
It’s beautiful, minimalist work, and very much reminded me of John Porcellino. The same development of mood, of spare, stark artwork and themes that allow the artist to tell something expansive whilst always looking so simple. The art may start raw and rough, but it doesn’t take that long (in page terms at least – Nilsen was at this for at least a decade remember) before the linework becomes so much more controlled and beautiful, but that detail never overwhelms the simplicity of his mostly white pages, full of blank space, wide and as open as the plain it all takes place upon, his frameless panels allowing extra room for the work to breathe.
The thing is, this was the softcover version. The hardcover clocks in with another 50 plus pages. It’s a sheer brick of a thing. Monumental, heavy, cumbersome, and a bloody pain to read. At times literally a pain to read. It’s also not one for book lovers who hate to see their books damaged, do what you will, there’s no way to avoid cracking the spine on this one.
Take my advice, go for the hardback, and settle down with a drink, find a comfortable position, and prepare to be here a while, the day will turn to night, and you’ll find yourself lost in something wonderful. One of the books of the year? It would have been had I actually read it in 2011 when it came out.
Drawn and Quarterly have a preview pdf of Big Questions at their website – it’s the genuinely atmospheric and threatening sequence where Algernon talks to the snake. A perfect indication of the delights within this enormous, and enormously satisfying book.