ANDERS NILSEN in the Chicago Tribune

“The shock of Anders Nilsen” / Chicago Tribune / Julia Keller / September 9, 2007

Clarity is for wimps.

If you want a book that answers every question, a book that's easy and straightforward and simple to summarize -- run just as fast as you can from the work of Anders Nilsen, because you won't be able to handle it. You'll get confused. Unnerved. Maybe a bit exasperated.

If, on the other hand, you're tough enough to enjoy a little confusion, if you find confusion to be challenging, even exhilarating, then Nilsen is your guy.

With books that are strange and stark, containing images that are as bare and elemental as a scrimshaw, the 33-year-old Chicago-based artist has been carving out a small but important niche within the evolving world of graphic novels -- although he doesn't much like the phrase "graphic novel."

"It feels like a label that somebody came up with to make it more palatable," Nilsen says. "It feels external to what I do, which is drawing pictures and telling stories. Even the long-form stories I'm telling are allegories. Fairy tales. It's not really novels that I'm writing." He prefers the term "comics."

Nilsen is sitting in the living room of his West Side apartment. His hair is cut drill-sergeant short; the cheekbones in his thin, angular face give him a somewhat haunted expression. His feet are tucked up under his wiry, black-clad body. He speaks thoughtfully, deliberately, as if each sentence were a chess move. Nilsen talks the ways he draws: There's nothing glib or superficial about the man or his art. Pinned on or stacked against the walls around him are sketches from works in progress -- delicate drawings of ordinary people who look small and rather furtive, as if trying to hide from circumstance.

"I like what I do, and feel incredibly lucky to do it full time," he says. After graduating from the University of New Mexico, Nilsen, who grew up in Minneapolis, moved to Chicago eight years ago to attend the School of the Art Institute. His interest in comics, though, didn't seem compatible with the school's focus, so he dropped out. A series of jobs -- mainly as a cook or a waiter -- paid the bills while he made his art.

Then his stories became increasingly popular, and for the past year, Nilsen has worked full time at the drawing table set up in his living room. "Sometimes," he admits, "I have to tear myself away and remind myself to have a life."

Nilsen's most recent publication is an updating of his 2004 book, "Dogs & Water" (Drawn and Quarterly, 2007), an odd, mysterious tale about a kid traveling down a road with a teddy bear strapped on his back. He meets a pack of dogs, and stumbles across an oil pipeline and a crashed helicopter. Not much is explained -- but the emotional impact of the book is staggering. It's as if a time-release kind of loneliness has been sewn into the binding and seeps out on the page whenever it wants to.

In 2006, Nilsen published his most personal book: "Don't Go Where I Can't Follow" (Drawn and Quarterly). So personal that the reader might fear arrest for emotional voyeurism, it tells the true story of his travels with Cheryl Weaver, his fiance, who died of cancer two years ago. "It was a book I had to do, " he says. Nilsen includes snapshots, letters, drawings; it's a hodgepodge of love and loss, as if somebody had dumped out a drawer marked "Sorrow" onto the kitchen floor, looked at it and then added the contents of a drawer marked "Joy."

He has several projects going at once, including the 10th installment of his series called "Big Questions," which is scheduled for November publication. (It's available at local comics stores or at He'd like to make a film someday. He collects objects that he finds on the streets around his apartment; a toy gun that he scavenged hangs on his wall. "Almost everything I find," he says, "is broken or messed up in some way."

His seriousness, Nilsen believes, might derive from his Norwegian ancestry. "There's a certain aesthetic that's in my blood -- a certain kind of seriousness, a quiet severity."

His happiest times? When he's working. "I feel like I'm never done. I could do it forever. As long as I can hold a pen."

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