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Comic Book Galaxy reviews BIG QUESTIONS #7 by ANDERS NILSEN

Updated November 16, 2005


Big Questions #7
By Anders Nilsen
Published by Drawn and Quarterly

Matt Fraction once wrote, in his old Comic Book Resources column Poplife, "I like any format that washes the bad taste of regular comics out of my brain." He was talking about the size and shape of Jessica Abel's La Perdida, and I didn't quite understand it at the time. La Perdida, although a bit smaller than the average comic, is still at a size and shape that feels like comics to me, the exact dimensions slipping away when engaged in the reading.

Anders Nilsen's Big Questions, on the other hand, is a saltbath of a comic. I can only speak with certainty regarding #7, the first to be published by Drawn and Quarterly, as the preceding six self-published issues are now out of print. But on the basis of what I have read, I can recommend Big Questions to anyone seeking something that seems separate from other comics.

In terms of immediate presentation, not only is it shorter than most comics, it's also wider, skewing the ratios. It's squarer than traditional comic size, rather than just being smaller. There's thicker paper stock and still weightier covers. There's a certain heft to it. The cover art, I think, is done in colored pencil. It looks and feels different almost immediately, and this doesn't go away once you open the book.

It doesn't scan as comics, flipping through the pages. There's a frequent lack of panel borders, and a lot of drawing the same character in different spots in the same panel, from different perspectives as the eye moves from left to right. That said, upon reading it, it's pretty obvious that this is comics -- it's not like the artier Kramer's Ergot side of things, the Paper Rodeo side, devolving into chaos. This approach just feels more open, sparser. Quieter.

Part of this is due to Nilsen's drawing style, which employs a delicate line-weight and large amounts of white. It's pure black and white, with no shades of gray. The line-weight doesn't seem to make any major shifts -- It's pretty thin throughout. Chris Butcher, speaking on his blog, said Nilsen draws like Frank Quitely if Quitely wasn't compelled to put muscles on everyone. That's pretty appropriate. There's not a lot of power at work here, just beauty. There's a lot of drawings of trees, pockmarked with dashes to give the impression of texture and bark.

There are moments where there are panel borders -- there's a sequence set in a cave, for example, where the gutters are all white, but inside the panel, the backgrounds are black. This takes away from the feeling of openness, because it's not an open moment -- it adds a feeling of menace, even though no action occurs.

Or, alternately, there's the first page of the comic. There are panels here which help bring you into the world of the comic, as opening in the free-floating world found in the majority of the comic could be a bit more difficult. It eases you into it, with panels and a tightly measured rhythm. A bird lands on a tree, and then starts pecking at it. The moments of pecking throw in lettering, "taktataktaktaktaktaktak" going across the panel diagonally, filling the background space. On the next page, the bird leaves the tree, a human walks up to it, and then the panel borders are gone, and we've zoomed out on a greater image of the forest.

There's this certain vibe at work in Big Questions that all these things -- the art, the pacing, the lettering -- help get across. There's a feeling of calm at work here that brings to mind new Asian cinema. The overall emotional affect it would seem to be going for is one of transcendence. Kind of a hard thing to achieve, and I'm not even certain it's what Anders is working towards. But that's the feeling I get, reading this book. There's a peacefulness of spirit.

This is not to say it's a dull book, or one without moments of tension.

I should perhaps talk of the subject matter: In the issues so far, the ones I haven't read, a plane has crashed. I believe into a house, possibly in the woods. Perhaps a house in the middle of the woods. Some people have died. There's also a bomb, which birds identified as an egg. It has since exploded. There's a human talking around this issue, although he doesn't talk. It's not a silent comic, though -- there are snakes that talk, and birds.

It's a comic from the perspective of birds, so yes, it's faintly twee. They talk to one another and refer to human clothing as feathers. The snake in the book seems to care about the bird he talks to. It's a gentle book, although one where the state of gentleness seems earned only from the violent traumas in the book's past, which seem to loom over everything.

I don't know where the book has been. I don't know where it's going. Because of this lack of a map, I'm unsure as to whether anything happens in this issue, if anything goes anywhere. But there's a mood at work here, a feeling, and it's a peculiar one. That is what I'm recommending, that feeling and the formal innovation that comes with it.

It's a book with a sense of wonder to it, and a sense of dawning revelation. The way it's formatted and presented gives it this feeling of being a singularity. The paper is so white, but not slick, it's got a natural texture to it. It's a book for all seasons -- not an all-year comic, free from nature's cycles as read indoors, but to be read in any weather. This is a book for autumn, a book for winter. It would also work for spring's rebirth and summer slowness. It's a pure work, free from any kind of larger business context. It can't fit into any larger political discussion of comics, it's its own entity, completely by itself. It doesn't read like comics. It reads like fresh air.

-- Brian Nicholson
 
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