Big Questions 10 reviewed by Silver Bullet Comics

“Big Questions #10” / Silver Bullet Comics / Robert Murray / October 29, 2007

EDITOR’S NOTE: The tenth issue of Big Questions will appear in stores this Wednesday, October 31.

To fully describe this issue of Big Questions, like the other installments, would do this comic no justice. Here’s the story: Two men are marooned near a fighter plane crash. One looks like he just escaped from a mental hospital, while the other is obviously the pilot of the downed plane. While these men scrounge for food and other survival essentials, crows watch as tensions build among a group of smaller birds. Mainly, the tension is a result of a pile of doughnuts, over which hunger and loyalty is tested. Ultimately, violence erupts among the birds.

You probably won’t be clamoring toward the comic shop after that less-than-thrilling description. But Anders Nilsen’s work is more about the fragile nature and minor details of life versus some exciting story. Like a Beckett two-act, Big Questions #10 (also titled “The Hand That Feeds”) has only one setting, changing only once from day to night. Anytime you have this kind of minimalist background, you know subconsciously that the main point of this work is thorough examination of the characters and interactions on a static playing field. That’s exactly what Nilsen is up to here, though many mainstream comic readers will have a hard time picking up on the cues (I know I did!). Regardless of your understanding of “The Hand That Feeds”, you can’t deny you’re reading something deep, something so much more introspective than anything you’re used to. Also, the reader can’t help but notice that Nilsen is a major talent in the independent comic world, one that deserves to be recognized by the larger reading public.

I think the most interesting parts of this sparse 41-page story regard the clan of smaller birds who, oddly enough, speak most of the dialogue. Plus, they are an introspective bunch of birds to boot! The first interesting bird is named Bayle, who instantly captures your attention because he roosts on the shaved head of the apparent mental patient. When a bird attacks the man for trying to eat one of their doughnuts, Bayle fights him off, sending the other birds to the rescue in a rare slapstick moment. Later, when the man is asleep, the other birds approach Bayle to ask him about his decision to defend the human. Bayle explains a strange covenant between him and the man, similar in many ways to a Christian baptism. The man killed Bayle by holding him underwater, but then he brought him back to life. Bayle doesn’t explain any further than this, but the symbolism is pretty clear: the bald man is Bayle’s messiah, granting him a baptism that has shown him the way, the truth, and the life. However, what this enlightenment is, Bayle won’t divulge for his fellow birds or for the reader. This revelation gives the earlier attack more meaning as well, particularly in the context of the title ‘The Hand That Feeds.’ The bird who attacks the man pecks him on the hand, which instantly sets Bayle into defensive resistance. After the fight, the man looks at his hand, which has a single stream of blood pouring toward his wrist. Bayle looks at the blood, than glares at the group of birds defending the doughnuts (the squinting eyes of Bayle are a nice touch). Bayle has been nourished spiritually by this strange man, who has given him a new outlook on life. How could another bird bite his hand?

The other bird I found interesting was in the section (yes, there are sections) of this comic titled “The Analogy of the Hole in the Tree”. Here, one of the birds waxes philosophic on issues that humans grapple with every day, particularly the issue of objectivity. I think Nilsen is playfully presenting the point of this comic to his readers: “Limited interpretations are all we have,” in this world, particularly in reference to our art. The bird, of course, goes on to tell a story of the limited perspectives of the world a bird has from the hollow of a tree, detailing how shadows could be confused for the real world. In Big Questions #10, Nilsen’s minimalist story is presenting us a no-frills textbook on sequential fiction. Comics only show us what the author wants us to see. It’s the “Hand That Feeds” once again, as the artist controls how much or how little of the story is given to us. The rest is left up to the readers imagination or experiences, creating a symbiotic relationship that is so much more intimate than anything that could come from a force-feeding of television. Nilsen details in his subtle ways just how powerful and emotional the medium of comics can be.

This is a complex tale hidden within the apparent minimalism of each page. But, don’t let the simple lines and settings fool you: the panel constructions are well thought out and superbly executed, and the moments of quiet tension will have you clenching in anticipation. If you’re up for it, it is an intensely rewarding piece of fiction that will make you ponder long after you have read it. Actually, I had one question that I was never able to figure out, and it may have something to do with my earlier reading of Nilsen’s Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow, his excellent and heartbreaking tale of his girlfriend’s losing battle with cancer. The shaved ‘man’ never reveals any of his body features, as his upper body is always covered. With Nilsen’s style, you can’t really tell if the face is that of a man or a woman. Also, early in the story, the crows are guarding something that looks like a wig, and one of the crows says, “It tastes like you smell.” Could this character be some sort of approximation of Nilsen’s girlfriend? I don’t know, and I wouldn’t think Nilsen would expect readers to pick this up, but it is an interesting thought... Regardless, you don’t have to read any of Nilsen’s other work to truly appreciate the level of thoughtfulness and artistic bravado it takes to create a comic like this. Big Questions #10 is a must have for anyone who appreciates the power and appeal of comic books.

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