Anders Nilsen (b. 1973) is coming into his own as one of his generation’s simultaneously most intellectually inquisitive and intuitively astute comics artists. Since the debut of his ongoing, “core” series Big Questions (9 issues published so far, 1999-2007), he has been unswerving in his exploration of, well, some of the big questions of life, all the while developing his at times scratchily harsh at others innocuously perambulatory, but always searching line, experimenting with different kinds of narrative.
Beginning with small, autonomous vignettes, Big Questions soon started growing into a grand ensemble piece that follows a number of small birds, a stray halfwit, a lost pilot, and others around, and under, an open landscape in search of answers. Nilsen’s world seems simultaneously absurd and fatalistic, but never entirely bleak. The bleaknehttp://www.metabunker.dk/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=847ss is leavened by the warmth that often exists between his protagonists, and occasional humour, and – perhaps more than anything else – the sense of purposeful exploration the animates all of his stories.
In addition to Big Questions, Nilsen has released the story of a young freak’s self-mutilation, The Ballad of the Two-Headed Boy (in minicomics form 1999, as a book 2000), the dreamlike narrative of a man traveling across a war-torn landscape, Dogs and Water, the alternately nonsensically silly and ontologically probing collection of gags, Monologues for the Coming Plague (2006), as well as contributed notable work to a number of anthologies such as Kramers Ergot, Blood Orange and Mome.
In the spring of 2005 tragedy struck in Nilsen’s life. His fiancée, Cheryl Weaver, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system. She succumbed to it the Fall of that same year. For a while, his loss naturally came to dictate his work. In 2006 he released Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow, which assembles letters, photos, short comics and other documents of their time together to create an alternately funny, humbling and harrowing slice of lived life. Private life made public in a way that makes you flinch, but ultimately take notice. In the more analytical The End (2007), Nilsen explores the state of mourning and memory, in search of something approximating the cathartic.
The following interview is a combination of two separate interviews, made several years apart. It consists of four parts: 2, 3, 4. The first two parts were conducted at SPX 2004 in Bethesda MA when Dogs and Water had just come out and Nilsen was looking forward to new challenges. The latter two parts were conducted via email from June-September 2007 and finds Nilsen essentially asking the same questions, further on up the road.
The publication of this interview is dedicated to the memory of Joey Hanzich, who left us too early.
I want to start out by getting a sense of your background, where you’re from, how you got into comics, etc.
I was born in New Hampshire, which is in the eastern United States and very rural, but I mostly grew up in Minneapolis, which is a city – so, pretty different, and I would go back and forth; my dad lives in New Hampshire and my mom lives in Minneapolis. As far as getting into comics, I guess… my parents had a friend who was particularly interested in underground comics, and they’d all lived in a commune together in San Francisco. By the time I came along, he was reading Tintin and had a son my age, so Tintin was pretty much what got me into comics, Tintin and Asterix, and later the stuff my stepfather would get me. He would take me to a store called comic city in Minneapolis and get me things like Ghost Rider, X-Men, so I really got into superhero comics, and as I grew older I started reading stuff like Raw and Weirdo, stuff like that.
So was your interest specifically in comics from the outset, or did you have more of a general interest in drawing?
I was interested in drawing; I was drawing all the time as a kid.
And did you know from an early stage that you wanted to become a cartoonist?
Um, yes and no. I think cartooning was the most immediate medium for me and I knew I wanted to be an artist. But my mom would also take me to museums and my dad was an artist and would draw for my sister and I. It was kind of all around me; my stepmom was also an artist, she’s now an art teacher, so I had a pretty broad range of influences. So I always knew I was going to be an artist, but I didn’t know it was going to be comics, specifically –- that was more like one among a broad range of ideas about what being an artist might mean.
So your dad used to be an artist?
Was he dabbling, or was he making a living as an artist?
Well, when they lived in San Francisco, in this commune, he took art classes at the Art Institute of San Francisco for a while, but ended up being more interested in politics – I mean this was 1969, 1970, 1971, so the counterculture was really strong at the time – so he became part of The Food Conspiracy, the co-op movement, he was part of the beginning of that. And then, when they moved to New Hampshire, they moved, originally with the idea of homesteading, which sort of fell apart, but my dad did start building a house there. And when everyone else left, he stayed. At that point he was still painting, but not super seriously, and by the time I was around 11, he wasn’t really doing it at all anymore.
But the inspiration was there.
Yeah, the option of doing art was always there – it was an obvious, easy thing to do, it wasn’t like rocket science, it was just what people did.
Right. What kind of education do you have?
I went to university in New Mexico and got a BFA. Then I took two years off, after which I moved to Chicago and started at the Art Institute. I did a year of graduate work there; in undergrad I’d done mostly painting and installation art, but by the time I got to Chicago I was basically doing comics and it seemed like… people were very supportive, but they weren’t well-versed in the subject, they couldn’t really talk to me about comics in a way that was helpful. It wasn’t working out, so I just quit, after a year.
To do comics.
To do comics full time, yeah. Well, I still actually work two days a week as a cook, but…
OK, do you also have some background there?
No, not really, I just always liked it, and it was an easy job to get, but I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t have to pay the rent.
I haven’t seen your early comics, are they exploring similar themes as the ones you’re doing now?
Yeah, I guess they are exploring similar themes, maybe in a simpler… you know, in a couple of pages instead of in a whole book.
I’ve seen all the Big Questions books, but I guess you’ve done a lot of stuff before that…
Oh, OK, actually I hadn’t done much before Big Questions #1. That was stuff I was doing in my sketchbook around my last year of college, maybe the year after. I didn’t do much before that. The Ballad of the Two-Headed Boy I did in college; it started out as paintings and then I turned it into an artist’s book, but before that I didn’t do much… It was interesting actually, at this show [SPX 2004], seeing Jeffrey Brown’s minicomics – he has stuff in there from when he was a kid; he was doing full-on comics when he was ten, while I wasn’t really; I think I did a couple of two-page strips when I was in high school…
The reason I ask is that the ambition evident in Big Questions pretty much seems to be the same you exhibit now, so I was curious what your initial conception of your work was when you started doing comics. Was there a conscious choice to do something different from what you were seeing in comics then, for example?
Uh… [silence] It’s a good question. I think that now, I have a sense of what I do and how it relates to what else is happening in comics, but I don’t think I was as aware of that when I started doing Big Questions, I mean I think I’d just discovered Jason Lutes and I’d been reading Chester Brown for years, and I feel that those are people whose work mine is kind of similar to, but I wouldn’t say I was really reacting against anything…
That’s what I thought – it seems that for your generation of cartoonists, doing something different than what has been the norm for decades is much more of a natural choice than it was for the previous generation who really reacted against something.
Right. So do you mean people like Chester?
Yeah, or like the Hernandez brothers, and especially of course the people before them.
I do feel like now, some of the people that are coming up with me, we are looking at it as part of a larger cultural field, we are not… well, there are definitely people that I know who are very knowledgeable about the history of comics, but it’s also people who went to art school and hated it, and I feel like people are now seeing it within the context of things like graphic design, and illustration, and painting and installation art, and so on, which I think is great – you don’t have to just try to piss off the people that came before you.
Why do you think that is? I assume it’s to a great extent because we’ve now had two generations paving the way…
Yeah, I think so.
The comics scene today seems much more like the general art scene…
…than it used to, whereas before it was kind of regarded as an isolated phenomenon, and I’m just wondering what the reasons are – comics have shown themselves capable of embracing a wide range of subjects and themes, but the difference in the background of the cartoonists is probably also very important.
Yeah, I feel like culturally, lines are getting increasingly blurred now, and I guess I don’t know why that is.
Yeah, well, I guess I was just thinking out loud without formulating a question here. Let’s talk about your work. There seems to be a quite consistent interest in exploring fundamental philosophical questions – your comic is called Big Questions after all [Nilsen chuckles] – is that something you spent a lot of time getting into? Do you read a lot of philosophical texts?
No, I haven’t read a lot of philosophy. As I work, I listen to a lot of radio, NPR etc, I listen to a lot of books and lectures on tape. I’m just curious about the world. Most of what I read is non-fiction; not philosophy explicitly, but I’ve always been interested in those kinds of issues, the heart of the matter; I’m not really interested in, like bubble gum-going-out-partying kinda stuff. So I don’t think I approach these issues with a lot of knowledge about what philosophers who dealt with them before me thought about them, I don’t have a strong grasp of the history of them, but they’re just interesting questions and I’m learning. Also, my grandfather, my mother’s father, was a Lutheran minister of a very universalist stripe, so I think that some of the issues that I’m interested in are theological and stem from that. Also, my stepfather was a Marxist when I was a kid, my dad’s family were communists, so growing up I found myself in this constant field of ideas about how the world works and why things are the way they are. I was always being confronted with it, not in a heavy-handed way or anything, but…
Are you religious?
I’m not religious at all, but I’m interested in thinking about religious issues, the nature of the world, meaning, things like that.
What are the challenges in translating issues like these into a work of art – comics – and how do you go about it? Do you set out with a conscious idea or formulation of what you want to articulate?
No, I really don’t. When I set out with a clear idea of what I want to do, it becomes super simplistic and neither illuminating to me nor the readers, so that doesn’t work. It sort of just happens by accident, really. I think it’s because I’m interested in these things, so when I draw the first panel, for me to draw the second panel it will have to have dealt with something. The biggest problem in artmaking is how to get out of your own way, how to explore issues without forcing it, without forcing yourself to do it. If you do ten pages of comics that are just not interesting, you’ve just got to throw it away.
So, is your approach basically to make it up as you go along?
Yeah, but invariably my mind moves faster than my hand, so a lot of times I have strong ideas and images in my head about what’s going to happen next, and sometimes I end up getting there, but sometimes the idea becomes stale before I get there and I end up going in a different direction.
So you didn’t, for example, set out with the idea of making Big Questions a large, interlocking story?
No, not at the beginning.
There are some strips in the early issues that just seem to disappear, but…
Right. The thing about Chester Brown, Ed the Happy Clown, if it’s not the best comic I’ve ever read, it’s pretty high up on the list, you know what I mean? And I feel like one of the things that I love about Ed the Happy Clown is the strong sense you get of him discovering the story as you’re discovering the story. When he started it, he didn’t know at all where it was going, and I feel like that kind of organic development of the story just makes it so much more compelling to the reader, while keeping the artist interested at the same time.
It’s remarkable how great an inspiration Ed the Happy Clown has been on a lot of young cartoonists.
What do you think of his more recent work? He’s moved into much more constructed narratives now, at least, and especially with Louis Riel of course.
I don’t know. I think his drawing is as beautiful as ever and maybe even more so – I think his drawings in Louis Riel are just gorgeous – and there are definitely sections of it that I think are well told and evocative, but for the most part – and I really don’t want to get into trouble for saying it or anything – I just think it falls so flat, it feels like reading a research paper, which is fine, but just doesn’t grab me. The covers he did for Riel, however, just blew me away, so I think there are things about it that show him continuing to step ahead, while there are others that I just didn’t get.
The reason I ask is that, to me, it seems like he’s exploring issues in there that are very similar to the ones you deal with in your work. It’s very subtle, and even perhaps appears dry, but to me it’s extremely powerful.
I guess I should probably go back and reread the whole thing, because I read it issue by issue as it was coming out.
He’s really been dealing with these kinds of fundamental issues throughout his work as well, which I found interesting in this context.
That whole theme of what constitutes reality, and I was just curious about whether he’d influenced you directly in terms of that, specifically.
I think I respond more to the kind of craziness of his mind, more than I do his depictions of the craziness of somebody’s mind, you know? I obviously think Louis Riel is more than that, but… I don’t know…
[Laughs] It’s going to be out in Danish [alas, no], so you’re safe.
Great, so I can name all the names I want and tell you what I really think.
Inserts from Big Questions #9 & #1, The Ballad of the Two-Headed Boy, and Big Questions #5. Examples from Ballad and Big Questions #3.
Check out Nilsen’s website here, and read this profile of him in the Chicago Reader.
If you read Danish, my reviews of Dogs and Water and Kramers Ergot #4, which contains Nilsen’s “Sisyphus,” and Louis Riel are available at Rackham. And, oh yeah, so are the official Rackham photos from SPX 2004. Also, if you’re in Denmark between now and the new year, Nilsen is one of the exhibitors at ‘Comix’, Brandts klædefabrik, Odense.