Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: Anders Nilsen doesn’t hate poetry. Sure, the American cartoonist’s latest book is called Poetry Is Useless, but that title is meant to be taken ironically.
“I don’t have anything in particular against poetry,” the Minneapolis-based Nilsen tells the Straight in a telephone interview. “There’s good poetry and bad poetry, just like there’s good film and bad film .”
Nilsen, in fact, doesn’t shy away from “the P word” when describing his new book, which comes out next Tuesday (July 14) via Drawn & Quarterly. “I feel like this book is sort of like my poetry book,” he says. “It’s my poetry collection. It’s short pieces where the language is important, and the way I’m using words is important. A lot of the pieces sort of point at something but are not explicit about what the actual subject is.”
Poetry Is Useless is a collection of pages from Nilsen’s sketchbook, but this doesn’t mean it’s a peek behind the curtain; he says it was all created with an audience in mind. In fact, that audience is often addressed directly by a head-and-shoulders silhouette who reels off cryptic statements and questions like “People who believe in miracles haven’t read enough biology textbooks” and “If you were going to die by being hit by a car, what color would you want the car to be?”
Asked if this figure represents him, Nilsen responds with “yes and no”; it’s a snottier and more provocative version of himself, whose “winking antagonism” is a meta-commentary on the relationship between artist and audience. Between its personal anecdotes, moral quandaries, and portraits of friends and strangers (and the odd celebrity cartoonist, like Matt Groening and Lynda Barry), Poetry Is Useless doesn’t have a plot so much as a collection of thematic links.
IN CONTRAST, MARC BELL'S Stroppy is his most straightforward narrative to date. Bell, whom Drawn & Quarterly has paired with Nilsen in a short tour of (mostly) West Coast cities, has something to say about poetry, as well. When title character Stroppy loses his job, he “borrows” one of his friend Clancy’s poems and enters it in a song contest, hoping to win a cash prize, unaware that the competition has been rigged by the detestable Monsieur Moustache.
Narrative clarity has never been one of Bell’s signatures. Indeed, the Canadian cartoonist is known more for his psychotropic drawing style—which seems to owe as much to 1960s underground comix as it does to E.C. Segar’s Popeye strips of the ’30s—than for his storytelling. With Stroppy, he set out to change that.
“I was reading screenplay books, because I was getting sick of being the guy who makes no sense,” Bell says on the line from his Toronto home. “My goal was to be clearer. I know it’s a crazy story; a lot of things pile up, but I was trying to be clearer than normal. Easier to read.”
Not that Stroppy is a clean break with Bell’s past work. In fact, the graphic novel features familiar figures such as Kevin and Shrimpy, and Bell confirms that all of his work is set within a single fantastically trippy universe.
“It seems like it’s always expanding, but then I like when it sort of collapses in on itself, and there’s all these touchstones, like ‘Oh, I know that character,’” he says. “There’s a lot of time in between their use sometimes. Monsieur Moustache has been around since 1993 or earlier. It’s the same world, so I plan on making some more of these comics in this same world. The next one, for example, will be in the same world, but it will focus on a different character.”
Compared to previous forays into that world, Stroppy is downright epic. It is certainly the lengthiest story Bell has created to date.
“I guess the longest previous narrative would have been the story in Shrimpy and Paul called ‘The Mighty Kingdom of Shrimpy-Ub’,” he notes. “That was around 40 pages. And this is 60 or 61 pages, so it is the longest story. It’s funny, though—by graphic-novel standards it’s not terribly long at all, but there’s something about my work where it’s like, ‘Okay, that’s quite enough for now!’”
NILSEN IS NO STRANGER to the longform narrative. In 2011, Drawn & Quarterly published his Big Questions, which collected his previously serialized tale of a downed airplane, and the wild finches who are fascinated by its bemused pilot, into a volume that tipped the scales at 658 pages.
Big Questions is, like Nilsen’s previous Dogs and Water, haunting and beautiful, with spare lines and long stretches without dialogue. Much of Poetry Is Useless is the opposite of that, featuring sequences in which a faceless talking head baits the reader, followed by seemingly random sketches.
“They definitely are really different ways of working,” Nilsen says. “I’m just beginning a new graphic novel now, which is much more straightforward comics, the way Big Questions was, or the way Dogs and Water was. It’s super different. The material in Poetry Is Useless is much more about being provocative, and addressing the reader, and sort of playing with the idea of the relationship between the artist and the audience. Doing something like Big Questions, or like this comic I’m doing now, is a little more like taking the reader by the hand and leading them through a world that you’re creating.”
At first blush, that often-bleak world seems far removed from the whimsical sphere of Stroppy, but Nilsen says he feels a strong affinity for Bell’s work: “He’s been a super-big influence on me as an artist, and I think our approach and our sense of humour and our particular artistic voices are pretty similar and pretty complementary. There’s a certain amount of liking to play around with convention, or make fun of pretentiousness in art.”
BELL SAYS THAT'S precisely the function of Clancy the Poet. Writing verses for that character allows him to skewer highbrow sensibilities. Through the All-Star Schnauzer Band—a somewhat ridiculous rock ’n’ roll outfit complete with its own minigolf course—Bell also pokes fun at the corporatization of pop culture.
On that note, the Straight can’t let the veteran Canadian cartoonist go without asking him about the “villagers” in Stroppy. Those are diminutive, yellow, pill-shaped creatures who do the bidding of a malevolent master. And if that makes them sound like a certain group of characters from the Despicable Me film franchise, Bell doesn’t deny the similarities.
“This whole Minions thing came up the other day,” he acknowledges. “A friend said to me, ‘You better be careful; look.’ And then they showed me some images of the Minions, and I was like, ‘Whoa. That is not exactly it, but that is fairly close.’ And then I learned that the Minions work for this oppressive Russian tyrant [Felonius Gru], as opposed to an oppressive French tyrant like my little worker people. But, you know, I’ve been drawing these things since 1993. So I went ahead and I made a shirt design. I actually just got it back from the printer. It says, ‘Established 1993 in the Canadas by Marc Bell,’ and then there’s six of my Minion-like characters that were created in 1993. Then I thought it would be funny to put hashtags on the shirt—’cause it’s a T-shirt, after all—so it says #nottheMinions, #Stroppy, #DrawnandQuarterly, #bigbusiness.”