Last fall my kids became obsessed with the Peanuts special It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. We watched it every weekend. “Aren’t kids cute and wacky?” I thought as Linus sat stubbornly in the pumpkin patch. My kids took it more seriously. To them, Linus’s insistence that the Great Pumpkin would arrive and bestow presents, if only kids believed enough to give up trick-or-treating, was a study of faith and madness.
My 5-year-old explained that Linus had been driven mad in retribution for his belief in false idols—he forsook Santa Claus. Thus he was separated from both the true and generous meaning of Christmas (presents from Santa) and the true and generous meaning of Halloween (sackfuls of candy). In other words, Linus was starring in a 1960s prime-time children’s version of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The true horror of hell is to be cast from the generosity of God/Santa.
My 7-year-old developed a rival theory that Linus’s single-mindedness and too-original beliefs had driven him to a madness of his own creation in which he was trapped by the faulty prisms of his own genius mind. Linus was Kurtz. He was Captain Ahab. He was an antihero with a security blanket and a bossy big sister.
As we watched week after week for the telltale new bit of evidence that would prove Linus’s actual fault, I was suddenly in touch with Charles Schulz’s Minnesotan-ness: the self-effacing “We don’t talk about big pretentious things around here” while in fact going right for the biggest things. Schulz, born in Minneapolis and raised in St. Paul, cloaked this aw-shucks gee-whiz approach to life’s biggest questions in the ironclad deniability that comes with doing it on the funny pages.
You’d think this was a once-in-a-universe Minnesotan trick, but I could not help but be reminded of Schulz’s melancholic, philosophic mirth in the pages of the graphic novels of Anders Nilsen. Nilsen is the author of Big Questions, a 2011 book that’s about house wrens and bombs and snakes and, you know, the inescapable limitations of humanity, chained to our own perspectives and prior thoughts but liberated by our kindness and good acts. It’s hard to explain. You should get a copy. A lot of people already have.
Big Questions was a notable book of the year for 2011 in The New York Times and about a million other places. It won all the big graphic novel awards, such as the Lynd Ward Graphic Novel prize and the Ignatz award. It’s been translated into French, Spanish, and German. Heck, Nilsen even has a font in German of his own handwriting.
“So you could be framed for a crime! In Germany!” I say upon learning this surprising news. He nods. “Or given a suicide note and murdered,” he answers, and we continue to discuss his possible murder in Germany and his childhood in Minneapolis over tacos at the Midtown Global Market.
Nilsen, who is 40, grew up near Powderhorn Park and drew his first comics as the well-read skateboarding son of a Hennepin County librarian attending South High. He made his name in the graphic arts world in Chicago but quietly moved back to south Minneapolis a few years ago to take a job at MCAD, which has one of the country’s only programs offering degrees in comic art. Nowadays he sketches in his south Minneapolis studio, travels internationally to festivals, and occasionally dons his skateboard helmet for ollies and kickflips at suburban skateparks.
His newest book, Rage of Poseidon, is a droll, deep, and glancingly mirthful look at all of myth—Greek gods, the Old Testament, and Paleolithic man included. Bacchus is in charge of Las Vegas. After the angel Gabriel intervenes with Abraham to stop the sacrifice of Isaac, video games are played. It’s absolutely charming and bears repeated readings. Poseidon’s view of a Wisconsin Dells water park with its curly slides and leaping swimmers is particularly funny.
Growing up, Nilsen’s librarian mom made sure he had a steady stream of ’zines and comics as well as classics to read. She worked in Hennepin County with Sanford Berman, founder of the Radical Cataloguing movement, which believed libraries should embrace modern printed materials (like ’zines) and modern terminology (“light bulbs” instead of “electric lamps, incandescent”). Nilsen’s father was an artist. His stepfather is a history teacher who taught him to question everything.
“It’s almost embarrassingly linear when I talk about it now,” Nilsen says. “Art meets history meets questioning meets the classics meets myths, superheroes, and a love of books.” He brings his hands together, knitting his fingers in example, over tacos. Oh, there was also a Lutheran minister grandfather in there, for the biblical references. And then there’s Charles Schulz. Wouldn’t you know that Jean Schulz, the widow of Charles, provided the grant that brought Nilsen home to teach?
Once back here Nilsen found it a congenial place to be an artist, with the MCAD community of recent comics grads coalescing into a blossoming scene and a group of comics-interested artists who call themselves Autoptic maturing into a national presence. Autoptic had its first festival last summer and hopes to have an internationally significant one in Minneapolis during the summer of 2015. Perhaps by then we’ll have a name for that blend of extremely high melancholic philosophy and rather low wry comedy that Minnesota seems to inspire.
“There’s not a good word for what comics are,” Nilsen says. “It’s not ‘cartooning’ exactly—that implies movement. It’s not ‘comics,’ because that connotes comedy. ‘Graphic novel’ is what the literary community accepts, but what if it’s not a novel? ‘Novel’ is a literary term, and comics function differently.
“It’s also a beautiful thing that it’s in flux. I’m interested in telling stories in pictures. And the question of whether comics are anything but an artifact of the culture, I’m interested in that.”
If the comic arts are a mere artifact of the culture, are comics artists a mere artifact as well? If so, the Minnesota culture that once produced easy sketches of the Great Pumpkin is now producing careful simplicities about philosophical wrens with the same nifty high-low trick of presenting the biggest questions, slyly, in innocent guise. In the sky, in the great radical library that hovers over our bit of lake-studded prairie, volumes are added.