Moving on to the much more traditionally narrative Big Questions. It’s evident that you had been leading up to Algernon’s descent into Hades for a while before it became obvious that that’s what you were doing. What made you decide to adapt the myth? [of Orpheus and Eurydice]
It’s funny, I actually didn’t mean to adapt the myth. It just sort of worked out that way. Once I realized that that was the story I was telling, I liked it, and I’ve been trying to reinforce the connections a bit. Bringing in more of Algernon’s singing for example. I’m also just really interested in myths, fairy-tales and religious stories like the Bible. They are endlessly interpretable and adaptable. A bottomless source. They’re the template for pretty much all storytelling in the Western world. Whether by design or by stumbling onto them I think there is much to be gained from brushing up against them, borrowing, stealing, rewriting and quoting from them, whether subtly, like the story you mentioned or overtly like in the Sisyphus story I did in Kramers 4.
I understand you wrote and drew the Orpheus and Eurydice sequence before you knew your fiancée was sick. It must have taken on a more immediate and harrowing aspect since then – it at least does for this reader. How do the events of your life affect this particular story for you?
I did write it before she was ever sick, but I didn’t draw it until after she died. Probably about five or six months after. It was a little strange to be drawing a story – which is to be giving it life in a way, that’s all about something you are going through at the moment without meaning it to be so. But in a way it therefore became a little bit of an extension of Don’t Go and The End. A little bit of catharsis. And at the same time it was just Big Questions. Just my work. Really I don’t think Cheryl’s death has affected Big Questions that much. It was already a story about life and death and loss and understanding, and it still is. I’ve done a fair amount of work in my sketchbook that is directly about losing Cheryl, trying to understand it, trying to get it to make sense. And there is a way in which… there is one way in which art can be very helpful in allowing you to actually experience things more fully, and in communicating experience and creating common understanding, a sense of shared experience. And I’ve been willing to share some of that work partly because I hope it is doing that. But there is also a way in which making art about something like death is pretty useless. The best you can do is circle around it. If you’re staring into the void, the best you can do is describe yourself looking and try to make poetry about how it feels. You can’t describe the void. It’s just not possible. You can describe a person, and you can describe your experience of their absence, but you can’t describe their absence.
It’s a weird thing, I guess, and maybe sounds callous, to say that Cheryl’s death doesn’t affect this story that is my main work, my main creative output. But that’s not my own sense of things. The one other thing I might say about it is that when making comics is working, it really doesn’t feel like you are the one telling the story, it feels like the story already exists and you are just doing your best to get it down on paper. It’s like a very carefully attentive manufacturing process. So for the story to change would be like for someone who assembles calculators to start changing the calculators. They probably wouldn’t work.
You’re obviously dealing with the death of Cheryl in your other work at the moment. I assume that that’s to a large extent a case of this event looming so large that it naturally makes its way into your art. Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow is the most direct. What made you decide to publish this very personal material?
After Cheryl died I couldn’t really think about much else, and didn’t really want to, so everything else was put on hold. Much of the material that ended up in Don’t Go was stuff I’d set aside before her illness with the idea of doing some kind of book or zine or travelogue about she and I. So most of the material was there. When she died the material seemed like an obvious candidate to turn into a sort of memorial for friends and family. The original idea was just to print 20 or 30 copies out on my inkjet printer, but the book got longer, as did the list of people I wanted to have one, and when I printed out an early version to proof, I realized that my printer wasn’t really up to it and I couldn’t really afford to self-publish it in the form I wanted it to take. I asked Chris [Oliveros, DQ publisher] if he’d be willing or interested to put it out. He was, and so the book was published. So it really was intended for a very small, very specific audience. The fact that it made its way beyond that audience is perfectly fine with me, but wasn’t my main interest. As it happens it seems to have struck a chord. I’ve gotten more mail from and about that book than any other single book I’ve done.
While Don’t Go certainly struck a chord with me, I was initially slightly wary of reading it. Was this going to be too much of a voyeuristic experience, private pain exposed? Of course, I read it and was both entertained, touched and led to reflection, but I still worry a bit about reading about such intimate details of your private life. What were your concerns, if any, in this respect? And what made you decide that this was something for the broad(er) public?
I don’t know. That question is a slowly untangling knot. At the time, as I said, I had a particular agenda and wanted the book to exist for friends and family. As time has gone on, I’ve become somewhat less comfortable with the idea of having that material available for any and all eyes. I’ve always had a little bit of a love-hate relationship with confessional autobio – in comics, because that’s the medium I work in and understand the best, but in other media as well. Obviously it can be done well – in comics, the example I’d go to would be Chester Brown’s The Playboy and Fuck [aka. I Never Liked You]. But I think it can also come off as self-indulgent and the interest it generates can be hard to distinguish from voyeurism. Nothing learned, nothing really said about life, about the world. An endless rehash of Crumb letting us all know how much he masturbates and what girls he thinks are hot.
In thinking about Don’t Go, the example that came the most readily to mind for me was the record Lou Reed made after his wife died of cancer [Magic and Loss, 1992). I think it came out when I was 17 or 18 and I remember it getting a lot of critical praise. And it was truly a powerful and affecting record. There were several very, very potent, beautiful songs on it. But it was also hard to listen to. And I remember it leaving me with a sense of, like, should I really be listening to this? Is this really appropriate to have out in the world, for strangers? I could see why he wrote those songs and he really communicated his thoughts quite well. But I'm not sure what the point was for me. Actually, I also thought of another record he did, Songs for Drella , with John Cale, which is another brilliant, brilliant record, all about their relationship with Andy Warhol. And again, though to a lesser extent, it felt almost too personal.
Maybe there is a way in which – in this age when art is fundamentally commodified, just another product in the marketplace, and the general consensus is that art exists primarily for entertainment – there is simply not a comfortable place for that kind of work. I feel like what I was writing and drawing was like a psalm or a death mask. I mean, it was precisely a memorial. All art comes from religion. From trying to understand and contend with the world. I’m not a 100% comfortable with the place of that work in the world, but in order for it to do the job that needed doing, I was, and I guess still am willing to accept a little collateral damage in the form of some portion of readers cringing and throwing the book in a swimming pool. I was aware of that possibility when I was drawing some of that stuff. All the stuff in The End about “me crying while trying to build a wall.” I was totally aware of the fact that it straddles a very delicate fence between, on the one hand being maudlin and on the other hand effectively showing the absurdity and strangeness of the process I was in the middle of. I was more or less sure that I was coming down on the right side of that fence, but you can’t ever know that for sure. You have to close your eyes and step over the cliff sometimes. Hopefully it works out relatively often. Sometimes it totally doesn’t. If you didn’t take any chances like that, if you only let people see work that you were 100% sure was brilliant and completely defensible, you probably wouldn’t let much work out your door at all. I just don’t know what else an appropriate place for it would be, so until I decide, or figure that out I’m okay with the form it took.
As time goes on it does become more awkward, though. Because the book is permanent and my life moves on. I’m not in that place, now, but when I’m at some show, signing it for someone who just saw it for the first time a year and a half from now, the book still will be. I’m still weighing how to manage that disconnect.
I wanted to ask you about the comic at the end of the book, about the scattering of the ashes, which I assume was drawn specifically for the collection (?). It’s drawn in a tighter, more meticulous and textured style than the rest of your work. It’s a strong, affecting contrast to the harrowing sketches from the hospital. What led you to drawing like that?
A few different people have commented about that. I didn’t really set out specifically to do a certain type of drawing, and I actually don’t think of the drawing style as being that different than what I do in Big Questions, though I guess you’re right it is more finished. I may have taken a little more time and care with the drawings just because of the subject matter. The original drawings are also a little larger than usual and are shrunk down more than the drawings in Big Questions, so imperfections are going to be minimized because of that, and lines appear more delicate. I think the format – two large rectangular panels per page, one above the other – also lends itself to a different kind of reading than what I usually do. I was interested in a wide frame, almost like film or more specifically like a field of vision, or a point of view. I conceived of that piece originally as Cheryl and I watching the video of the memorial together in Heaven, of me telling her about it after the fact. So in a way the frames are intended as her point of view. That format actually is something I’ve thought about and wanted to use for a long time. I have a strong association with it to the work by Jacques Loustal in Raw. To me it’s more closely connected to painting and photography than traditional comics are. The images stand alone more, without dynamic changes in size, point of view, focal length etc. and the text is narration, which I don’t normally use that much. I think all of that leads to a slower, steadier rhythm and a more sober tone.
It was, as you say, drawn specifically for the book, pretty much the only thing in there for which that’s true.
… By the way, several months ago I got a letter from a guy who’d read Don’t Go, just saying he’d lost his wife and come across the book randomly and that it had been helpful. I wrote him back to acknowledge it and that was the last I heard. Today he called, out of the blue. He asked if there was to be a The End #2. He said The End had made a difference for him and wanted to see how the process continued to unfold. He also wanted to get copies for other people he was involved with in a cancer survivors/ bereavement group who were all going through some version of the same thing. It just made me realize that while I was just making it up as I wrote it, what I said before about that work having a slightly different point and different audience than, say, Monologues or Big Questions is probably right. Not that the book is for therapy – I think art and therapy are fundamentally different animals – but that it’s pretty specifically about the sharing and bringing to the surface of painful experience. And it makes sense that it ought not be approached as simply Artist X’s next book.
Wow, yeah. It does seem weird to have a The End #2. I was actually going to ask you about The End. It takes a somewhat different approach, obviously, than Don’t Go, but not entirely. There’s the same effort to document things, and then there’s the strip “Since You’ve Been Gone” which in some ways reminds me of “The Lake”, in that it is directed to Cheryl, and seems to present her view. I find it both moving and poignant that the other larger strip, the one with the man turning into a labyrinthic framework, is more about coming to terms with loss, it’s more of an attempt at reasoning. It seems more like a conversation with yourself, and is drawn simpler and more schematically, in the vein of the Monologues. What are your thoughts on how these strips came out differently?
I definitely think of them as separate pieces. Don’t Go was as much a document as it was an ‘artwork’ , as well as being a memorial. It really was about Cheryl and me and our history together. The End was, as you said, more about dealing with loss. So really it’s more about me. You related it to the strips in Monologues, which I do too, even though the tone couldn’t be more different. But, like Monologues, The End is composed of material from my sketchbooks, stuff I wrote and drew without really meaning to publish it, stuff that really was just about me trying to get some sort of handle on what was happening in my head, to describe the experience in the hope of… I don’t know what exactly… alleviating it, understanding it, or just trying to really experience it more completely. There is a bunch more material roughly along the same lines, but I’m unsure at this point whether I’ll ever publish it.
Regarding the way it relates to the Monologues, there was actually a very particular moment when I was able to start doing off the cuff, humorous pieces again, about 15 months after Cheryl’s death… specifically, I was back in an airport waiting to head back to Chicago after a book tour last February with Gabrielle Bell and Kevin Huizenga, I’d just been reading an interview with Paperrad. There’s something about that way of working – being in airports and spending time with other cartoonists seems to be conducive to it for some reason.
That sounds great. You mentioned earlier that you didn’t regard art as a particularly useful form of therapy, but I am struck by your description of The End and wondered whether doing it has helped you dealing with your loss in some way, and whether it also at times made the sense of it more acute. I’ve found something like that happening when trying to put into words similar emotions.
I don’t know. I don’t think of it as therapy, but maybe that’s just semantic quibbling. The thing is, I don’t think the grieving process is about trying to feel better. In a way what I wanted was precisely to feel it more. Like you say, more acutely. Which in a way feels worse, but it means feeling closer to the person who’s gone. Feeling the loss is the closest I could get to her being present. Doing the work was about trying to make it make sense, but then going back into it to turn it into a coherent book made me feel it more, made me re-experience it. And I guess that that is actually therapeutic in a way, because going through it is the only way to get to the other side and end up with a full, functional life again. It’s a little odd to be writing sentences like that now, because stuff like that sounded like platitudes to me at the time, but it really was the way it worked, at least for me.
Sounds very familiar. OK, moving on, I wanted to pick up on what you said about being able to do humorous work again and ask you what you’re working on and where you see your work going in the immediate future.
I just finished Big Questions #10 and sent it off. I’m hoping to finish the rest of the story by the end of the year. I expect it to be two more short issues. The only other big project I have in the works, though it’s sort of on hold while I finish BQ, is the next Monologues book. It’s, again, all material from my sketchbooks, similar to the first one and picking up threads started there and adding new ones. And probably in a way refining the sense of stories intertwining and stopping and starting that began in that one. The one other thing I’ve done recently that I’m sort of excited about is a story I did for Kramers #7. It’s three very large pages, all painted. Sort of in the style of the Sisyphus story from Kramers #4. Short and self-contained.
I suppose my last question will be what you’re looking to do, artistically, now. You’ve been doing work in a number of different formats and idioms and have experimented with storytelling as well as visual representation, and also worked quite acutely with issues of representing reality. Are there any of these avenues you see yourself exploring and developing more than the others, any of them that holds more interest as you proceed?
I’m trying not to think too much about what’s next. Between the next Monologues and finishing Big Questions I feel like my plate is full. That said, I have ideas about continuing the Sisyphus story… I’ve been doing some new sorts of Monologues-ish strips in a sketchbook that are really fun and feel like they could go on a while. I’m also working on a series of stand-alone drawings for a show Paul [Hornschemeier] and Jeff [Brown] and I are supposed to do in Paris next year. I’m really enjoying the process of that. Dropping in odd elements that hint at a story without actually telling one. Most of those drawings are in some way connected to covers I did for the French and Spanish editions of Dogs and Water, the angel picking the pockets of an unconscious figure in an open landscape. It’s evolved and mutated but it’s an image and sensibility that I’ve found to be productive. I’ve always had my fingers in a bunch of different pies. Usually I think that’s fine and keeps me entertained, but I’ve also thought that it might be good to try to bring some of those different ways of working together. As far as themes and issues that I work with, i.e. representing reality… there are a number of themes that I do keep coming back to, but it’s generally a result of following my nose through a story or a set of gags and the themes evolve organically. Any time I’ve sat down with the explicit idea of addressing some particular theme it doesn’t work out very well. Part of me really would like to address politics more directly, for example, or tell historical/political allegories or something, but it just doesn’t seem to be the way I work. It probably wouldn’t make that much difference given that my audience is only a few thousand people.
I wanted to say something more about the work I did in The End and Don’t Go and the process of loss and art and autobiography and all that. I mentioned being unsure about publishing The End #2. I’m pulled in two directions by that material. I feel like the story begun in The End #1 isn’t done, it ends in the middle of the most difficult stuff. And I don’t want to leave it that way for various reasons. But it’s funny because the work is about my life, and my life isn’t done either. My life has moved on and I’m actually very happy now with someone new. And working on that material is difficult in the context of a new relationship. Working on it is difficult, and just having it out in the world can be a little difficult at times. It’s an odd thing, because your life is your life. I wouldn’t erase anything or undo the time I had with Cheryl or go back and tell myself not to do those books, but it is a little odd to be carrying your life, and indeed the most difficult, intense part of your life, around with you publicly for everyone to see and form opinions about. I’m happy to be back to my usual practice of heavily disguising my life in the stories I tell. Generally speaking, it’s still me in my other work, it’s just that I’m disguised as a bunch of little birds.
Inserts from the cover of Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow, The End and Big Questions #8. Examples from Big Questions #9, twice, “Sisyphus” from Kramers Ergot #4 (2003), The End, “The Lake” from Don’t Go, and The End, thrice.
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,” are available at Rackham. Also, if you’re in Denmark between now and the new year, Nilsen is one of the exhibitors at ‘Comix’, Brandts klædefabrik, Odense.