Paste names BIG QUESTIONS ("rich and strange"), HARK! among best new comics of 2011

“The 20 Best Comic Books of 2011” / PASTE Magazine / Garrett Martin, Hillary Brown and Sean Edgar / December 4, 2011

4. Big Questions
by Anders Nilsen
Drawn & Quarterly

Don’t get me wrong. I love comics. But it’s rare that they rise to the level of real literature, even when they’re very good. Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions, on the other hand, should knock snobs like me on our posteriors. Harold Bloom writes that potentially canonical writing has “a strangeness that we either never altogether assimilate, or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncracies,” and Nilsen’s brick of a book starts out the first and ends up the second. The reader is both mystified by its story (an unexploded bomb and a plane crash into a rural area, where they are investigated by birds) and, almost against his or her will, captivated by it. Nilsen’s spare but beautiful drawings and that abiding strangeness create a sense of awe that is rarely produced by cultural efforts. Much of the book is not easily explicable, and rather than being frustrating, its willful obscurity instead suggests you need to submit to the artist’s vision, not fight the current. Nilsen is not going to lay out clear answers, as the title implies, but the questions, big as they are, don’t come with any sense of pomposity, and there is much in the way of both humor and tragedy contained within. Not since Bottomless Bellybutton have I read something so rich and strange. (HB)

2. Hark! A Vagrant
by Kate Beaton
Drawn & Quarterly

It’s not that Kate Beaton dances on the thin line between stupid and clever. Instead, she plays both sides of the net between them, often simultaneously. Her mostly three-panel strips (and she has an instinctive sense of the rhythm of that form) address classic literature, Canadian history and all manner of cultural highbrow whatnot, but they never make you feel as though you’re being forced to eat brussels sprouts. There is no “I should like this” as you flip pages or polite smirking as with many a New Yorker cartoon. Rather, Beaton zeroes in on the ridiculousness of all her subject matter and deftly gives Bram Stoker, the Bronte sisters, Shakespeare and Simon Bolivar a Wet Willie. Her drawings aren’t neat—the pen strokes scritch and scratch all over the place—but the faces and postures of her characters are fiercely expressive and hilarious. She also has an excellent grasp of what’s funny, using profanity, absurdism, sexism, racism, acknowledgment of sexism and racism, and pop culture to provoke laughs. You will probably laugh hard enough at this book to annoy anyone else in the room. I know I did. (HB)

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