Artist Anders Nilsen’s body of work deals with plane crashes, loss, jokes about metaphysics, packs of dogs, and blades of grass. He’s one of comics’ masters of white space (along with John Porcellino) and also its self-proclaimed best skateboarder. He’s published a bunch of books, and he’s played guitar with the TMT-approved band Talibam!.
His longest work, the 600+ page Big Questions, is about to be released by Drawn and Quarterly. It’s Nilsen’s newest work, but also his oldest: he began self-publishing it in individual issues 10 years ago. In the time between, he’s self-published some ‘zines; displayed work galleries in a bunch of places; contributed strips to Kramer’s Ergot (aka, the best comics compilation in history), Mome, and The Believer; and released one skateboard and a bunch of books.
Two of those, The End and Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow, deal with the loss of Nilsen’s fiancé, Cheryl Weaver, who died in 2005 of Hodgkin’s disease. The former is made up primarily of Nilsen’s sketchbooks; the latter was created originally as a memorial for those who knew Weaver, and includes reproductions of artifacts from the couple’s time together: postcards, photos, letters, house plants. While intensely — perhaps uncomfortably — personal, the two works are formally complex, with narrative gaps and abstraction butting up against clearly depicted moments of grief. It’s uncommon find work that’s at once so raw and so restrained.
Big Questions, on the other hand, deals with a bunch of talking birds who live in a bucolic wilderness as they’re disturbed by a crashed plane and its pilot, a snake, a wandering idiot, and a bomb. The cartoony little birds are often chatterboxes; it’s funny and cute. But the thin lines (despite his artwork’s precision, Nilsen doesn’t use pencil first) and copious white space still hold a lot of weight. It’s one of the year’s best comics, and I had the chance to chat with Nilsen over the phone about it — and a bunch of other stuff — back in March.
Are you tired of drawing birds?
[Laughs] Um, am I tired of drawing birds? No, the birds are pretty easy to draw. Not very tiring.
I asked not just to be funny. These birds for me, they stand out in your body of work. They seem the most traditionally cartoon-y things that you’ve done in how simple their forms are. They seem kinda elastic. The lines are more expressive. And you use a lot of devices on them like motion lines and those little bursts from the head that mean surprise. And there’s even that little dotted line following around one of the birds to show where it’s been in one scene. Was that quality a conscious thing?
Not really. I started my cartooning with the birds, so maybe I was just more open to a traditional approach then. They lend themselves to that. They are sort of small, really simple drawings. Maybe in a way the amount of expressiveness that you can get out of them is limited unless you use some of that traditional cartooning notation.
In Big Questions, one of the things that stands out is the contrast between that way of cartooning and the way I handle the Pilot and the Idiot, which are more oblique and mysterious.
Uh huh. And the plane crash and the landscapes contrast with the birds, too.
It seems to me that, out of everything in your work, Big Questions has the most number of different styles in it. It doesn’t seem disjointed. But Monologues, it’s really easy to look at it and see a style that goes through the whole thing. Or Ballad of the Two-Headed Boy. But Big Questions has different styles kind of brushing up against each other.
Well, I think that The End and Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow have a couple of different — and maybe more dramatically different — storytelling styles. But yeah, I think that Big Questions, within just cartooning, has more going on. I was interested in that contrast, because Big Questions started as just single-page gag strips, and when I incorporated the human characters, it just seemed like an interesting way to approach storytelling by putting these two worlds together.
“After Cheryl died, how I dealt with it was working in my sketchbook and trying to draw and write and figure out what I was dealing with.”
Did you know when you started to introduce the human characters how big the book was going to be? And did you have an idea where the story was going to go?
At the very beginning, I didn’t know where it was going to go or how big it was going to be. I thought it might be 75 or 100 pages. The first human characters that I introduced were the Idiot and the Grandmother, and it was kind of just in drawing that issue in which they first appear, Big Questions #3, that the other elements of the story fell into place.
I’m finishing up the collection right now, doing last-minute stuff on that. And I just wrote a little Afterward in which I talk about creating this little cabin that they live in, in the middle of nowhere, and having them have breakfast and then leave and then, sort of to just end that scene, I drew this pulled-back view of the landscape with the house and it just felt like it needed something so I put an airplane shadow over the house. And that, just that image, started percolating in my brain and gave me ideas, foreshadowing what’s coming. So that gave me the idea of crashing the plane into the house and the character of the Pilot.
The story just kind of grew out of that process of coming up with interesting, satisfying images that were fun to draw.
In Dogs and Water, there’s that crashed helicopter, too. And there’s a pack of dogs that’s in both works. Did that emerge the same way? As an image that you wanted to work with?
Yeah, a little bit. I mean, it has its metaphorical implications, its symbolic implications. And I will probably do my best to avoid any crashed aircraft in my comics from now on. [Laughs] It’s just a powerful image and it’s fun to draw. It’s also a dramatic contrast with the white space in the landscapes and in most of my drawings. I mean, I think that’s something I tend to gravitate toward, telling stories and drawing landscapes that are very plain and very little is happening. Very small variations form panel to panel, punctuated with these very dramatic themes or images. Hopefully the contrast is powerful and striking.
Yeah definitely. That pull-out spread of the plane is… I don’t know. It’s just very exciting to pull that open and see the crazy detail and movement, especially in the context of the book. Since you brought it up, I was going to ask about the landscape in your work. It stands out to me. Your Monologues books have landscape photos as backgrounds. And I have a comic that was screenprinted over a US Geological Survey map. And in both Big Questions and Dogs and Water there’s that barren type of landscape. Is landscape important to you, or am I totally making things up?
Yeah, I’m into landscape. Around the time that I was contemplating expanding the Big Questions gag strips into something longer, I spent a couple of weeks in Europe — Italy and Amsterdam. And I spent a lot of time looking at paintings — early and proto Renaissance paintings. Which is basically cartooning, a lot of it. The figures are vary cartoon-y. But one of the things that I remember being really striking about that work is the landscapes, and I think maybe that inspired the way I think about it a little bit. Although those landscapes aren’t barren.
I think that one reason the birds grabbed me was because they’re so easy to draw. You can make them do a lot and express a fair amount with a really minimal amount of drawing. And I think that landscapes are kind of the same way. I’m mostly interested in the action and the interaction of the characters, and I don’t want to spend a lot of time mapping out the landscape and figuring out where stuff is — although I still end up spending a fair amount of time on it, because I draw all the grass and stuff. But I kind of just wanted a blank canvass for the action to happen in. Also, there’s the matter of it being important not to have too much of a larger world out there to be thought about, you know? It needed to deal with this little community of little birds and animals, and if I have to think about a whole village nearby or something… It’s just a way of simplifying the story.
It makes it seem more symbolic, too. I felt like I was supposed to read it as, not like these are birds that live right by my house or in my backyard.
Right, yeah. I think also in Dogs and Water, the landscape itself really is a metaphor of being lost and devastation and bleakness. Some people see Big Questions’ landscape as bleak, but I don’t really see it that way.
“Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow was going to have a second printing, and I decided at the last minute not to do it.”
No, there’s a lot of scenes where there are really great, detailed trees.
You talked about The End and Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow as having more diverse narrative styles earlier. It seems like those two are perhaps your most formally experimental, at least in terms of how they tell a story. And I think that’s really interesting because they’re both nonfiction narratives. It doesn’t seem like that would work in Big Questions, but in those, it ends up being very affecting, having a nonlinear narrative or simply a bunch of abstract lines.
They’re both sort of the least traditional, but they’re pretty different from each other, too. Don’t Go, I think I had an idea to do a book like that before Cheryl died. When I took those photos of our trip to France, I was thinking I wanted to do a little travel journal with drawing and writing. And I kind of thought of it in terms of zines; I mean, I did zines when I was in college with writing and photos and drawings and whatever. So that’s how I was thinking about that book. So it seemed like including things that were objects or actual documents — like the letter I wrote to my sister about the camping trip — it seemed like this is a nonfiction story, so if you’re going to tell a story like that in pictures, you might as well go straight to the actual artifact.
I started doing comics for a variety of reasons, but I was a painter and I did a lot of collage and journaling. I have my hand in and am interested in all kinds of different media. It’s just that when I started doing Big Questions, it took on a life of its own and it became a self-sustaining thing… so I kept with comics. But I’m still interested in doing storytelling and bookmaking — book-based storytelling — in general, whether it’s comics or not. Don’t Go was an opportunity to work in a more expansive way. And it was, you know, also very particular to the subject matter. It was a memorial, so it needed to be grounded in the facts of our relationship.
With The End, again, a lot of the work I was doing and the work Big Questions came out of, for that matter, was from my sketchbook. And my sketchbook work when I was younger was all muddled up — collage, drawing, writing. A little bit of everything. After Cheryl died, how I dealt with it was working in my sketchbook and trying to draw and write and figure out what I was dealing with. The End is kind of — I didn’t intend to publish that stuff, but it’s just stuff… like, if I was having a particularly difficult day I would do some drawings about it. A lot of it I later expanded on once I decided to do a book. But there’s really just the one strip “I can do whatever I want all day long” that I did specifically for the book. I looked at all the other material and I thought, this story needs something else that’s a little bit more grounded, more explicit about what’s happening. That’s the one thing I sat down to do for the book; otherwise, it was just about trying to process Cheryl’s death.
I was still working on that stuff when the book came out so there’s another issue’s worth of stuff that I’m at least tentatively planning on putting out. Because The End #1 feels like half of a story.
It’s mostly completed?
Well, it’s kind of a hard question—
A Big Question?
It’s never completed. Eventually, just… life goes on and you get over it or whatever. So that’s actually one of the problems with the book: there’s not a satisfying ending. I would probably draw a strip to try to put a cap on the end of it, sum up the experience or whatever. But the material just sort of continues and peters out.
Is it weird going back to that material now?
Uh, I expect it will be, yeah. Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow was going to have a second printing, and I decided at the last minute not to do it. But before that, about the time that book was actually published and then a month or two later I had to think about new printings and I went back and read it — it was almost a year after I had done the material in the book — even at that point, rereading it was kind of intense. Just to realize what I had put out in the world. It’s such a raw, emotional statement. And it’s true that I’m not really comfortable with that being out in the world, but I also feel like it got a really strong response from people and I think people that read it really value it so it should be out there. I don’t know.
Can we talk about your sketchbooks? It seems like they’re not necessarily the way people might think someone would use a sketchbook, to practice drawing a house or a dog or something; from the excerpts I’ve seen in the Believer, they’re a very specific type of drawing for you.
Yeah, at this point, that’s kind of it. For a long time when I was younger, I thought of the sketchbook as a kind of medium in and of itself. But now that I have other outlets in terms of these comics and making books, for one thing, I just don’t have as much time to work in my sketchbook. But yeah, a couple of years ago, I was sitting having a conversation with a couple friends during a comics festival in Switzerland and I came up with this motif — I’ve used it in other places — of using a faceless character and taking little snippets of conversation that are happening. It’s fun; I have a hard time doing short pieces because I keep wanting to expand them into gigantic graphic novels. [Laughs] And this is one style that I’ve been able to just have fun doing — just little short snippets.
They almost seem like gag strips.
Yeah, right. I mean, a lot of them are related to that idea.
But maybe the form is there, but stripped down. And the content is bizarre. It’s not a joke but —
Zen poems in the form of a gag strip.
“Also, there’s the matter of it being important not to have too much of a larger world out there to be thought about, you know? It needed to deal with this little community of little birds and animals.”
Can you talk about your — I don’t know what to call it — your art that goes in a frame? I don’t want to call it “fine art.” It seems like for a lot of comic artists, the opportunity to do something for a gallery is the chance to explore something different. In some your works, it seems like that’s the case, but in others, it seems like there’s still a big narrative element.
Yeah, I think that’s definitely the case. When I do drawings and paintings, I think of it as trying to tell a story but to do it all in one image. So, I do think of it as kind of being the same thing. But I also feel like books are my medium as much as comics, and so a single picture is very different than a book. It’s an obvious thing to say, but… the way books are designed and the way they’re read, the way a story reveals itself to the reader page by page are all things I think about.
Do you think a lot about the design of your books, too?
Yeah, definitely. The last 2 weeks have just been working on the design for the Big Questions collection. There are two version: a softcover, which will be just the story, and a hardcover, which will have all the other material from Big Questions 1 and 2 — which are really hard to find — and a bunch of other strips that I did that appeared in different anthologies and minis. And it’s going to have a color section with all the covers of the individual issues.
OK, I want to ask about Alpha Flight. You used to like that and New Mutants, right?
Yeah, those and X-Men were what I collected as a kid.
I used to really like New Mutants and X-Men. When I was growing up they were already in their shitty period, but my brothers were a little older than me so I inherited their 80s issues, when Chris Claremont was writing X-Men and Bill Sienkiewicz was drawing New Mutants.
That’s the Golden Age, as far as I’m concerned. Although… I haven’t read a single issue since like 1990, so…
But I’ve never read Alpha Flight, and I interviewed Brian Chippendale for this site before, and he said that was his dream mainstream comic to work on. So, am I missing out on a classic with Alpha Flight? It is really that good?
Uh. It was sort of odd, it was Canadian. It had this weird mysticism about it, tied to tundra and arctic mythology and Native American spirituality. But it also had these weird connections to the X-Men because Wolverine was Canadian. Uh, the main guy died in one of the very first issues and his wife gets his costume. You know, superhero comics are just like soap operas with superpowers. And it did that really well, but was also weird and off. It had a good combination of personality; there were these superhero twins and one of them was a total asshole and a Quebecois separatist terrorist or something. So it even had actual real-world, slightly sinister politics to it. Honestly, I don’t remember it being that good, but I really like John Bryne’s drawing style.
That sounds fun. This is a music and film site but somehow I convinced the editor to let me do a comics interview. So to make it seem totally relevant… You drew a poster recently for a Dennis Hopper retrospective in LA, which was pretty awesome. Can you talk about that one film thing to make the interview totally relevant to the site? [Laughs]
My friend Sammy [Harkham] is one of the guys who is involved with Cinefamily and he contacted me out of the blue. Years ago when he first mentioned it he said, “I’m having cartoonists do the covers for the calendars, so if there was a movie you were going to do the cover for, what would it be?” So I thought that one day he would ask me to do the cover for something I was super-into. I had never watched either of the films that they were doing. I think they were already planning to do this Dennis Hopper festival and then he died, and so they wanted a cover that was sort of a more straightforward homage. And he knew that I could execute a piece like that. It was really fun to do because I went to school in New Mexico and I haven’t been back much and I haven’t drawn the landscape, and it was fun to draw a Hollywood cowboy dude in a desert landscape. But I can’t really say anything interesting or intelligent about the movie. I watched The Last Movie and I thought it was terrible.