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Big Questions s/c

Big Questions s/c back

Anders Nilsen


Page 45 Review by Dominique

"... that's nonsense. It's some sort of house - like a human nest, sort of. They can't fly themselves so they figured out a way to build a house that can. I mean, it only makes sense, if you couldn't fly on your own, you'd have to figure out something."

What a beautiful book! I read many individual issues of this story over the years, but to see them put together like this is something else entirely.

I don't know about you but the reason I like to read is to take myself off into another life for a bit. Stories give access to a whole different world that you can live in for a while, that stays in your head after you have stopped reading. A place where you can think about things in a different light, similar to a dream but more defined. When people make books, if they do it right, they give us a whole other place to wander about in and that is certainly what Anders Nilsen has achieved here with his expressive little birds and expansive, supernaturally serene landscapes.

Drawn over the course of 15 years (!) these little strips in sometimes contrasting styles have somehow been put together to make one arcing, engaging whole. A light-hearted beginning leads us nicely into the story, introducing all the elements, dipping in and out of different parts, lulling us and drawing us into the worlds of the different players. We start to meet the birds, animals and humans who live on this patch of land and as we do we start to note the little differences in the personalities of the birds; curious, philosophical, nervous, distinctly average, self-important, each bird has their own take on things. And as we meet the birds we start to see our own world reflected in theirs.

When a plane drops an unexploded bomb and it lands with a thud in their territory, to some the answer is simple: it is hard, so it must be an egg, hence we should look after it until it hatches. To others it is just a big heavy thing that fell to earth and almost squished them; it is dangerous and should be left well alone. Like humans arguing over whether the earth is round or flat the birds are limited by their frame of reference: bird, egg, hatchling, predator, food. Almost immediately each one sets themselves a position and sticks to it, the narrow-minded and self-important taking it upon themselves to declare the "egg" a Gift and Sacred Responsibility, the argumentative and disdainful declaring that to be nonsense. And in the middle, the thoughtful and open-minded asking questions to which no-one will give them a straight answer, thus stranding them in a powerless no-mans land.

This is repeated when the pilot crash lands his plane (a featherless bird? a flying nest which malfunctioned?) and sets up camp. Is he dangerous, special or uninteresting? Should we bring him food or ignore him and eat it ourselves? And what of the plane? Why is it that as soon as someone takes it upon themselves to guard the wreck they feel they have the right to give orders, set up hierarchies, start with the "if you are not for us you are against us" speeches? Why is curiosity and investigation so frowned upon? The birds who set themselves up in roles slowly become defined by them: Charlotte the Evangelist, Betty the guilty gatherer of bones, Bayle, obsessed by the idea of being grasped by human hands, Algernon, haunted by the loss of his mate, searching. Even the dead stick around: skeletal birds who describe death as similar to life, just a bit "less".

So now we can see what the title is all about: big questions. It's a heavy-sounding one which contrasts gloriously with the inherent lightness I found the book to have. Yes the space is deep and wide, but Nilsen has made it so easy to travel, so engaging and beautiful. The word I keep coming back to is pleasurable; it is a pleasure to read and a joy to look at, full of air and light and room. Plot-wise I have barely touched on many aspects of the story; I made pages and pages of notes as I read and a list of the themes (the inscrutable swans) and nuances (the shadow of the plane overhead) could go on for paragraphs. But I fear saying too much in my enthusiasm; I don't want to suck the life out of such a vibrant work with my interpretations, I want you to read it for yourself because I could never do it justice in a review.

But what I can wax lyrical about it the art, the production values and the sheer gorgeousness of the book! At just shy of 600 pages it is massive. Little fold-out flaps inside the front and back covers show portraits and profiles of all the main players, bomb and plane included. Full-page title panels abound, as do white-on-black spirograph patterns (remember spirograph?!) adding to the sense of space and acting like little rest stops along the journey, pacing the book beautifully. Art-wise the inevitable comparison is with John Porcellino, so simple and naive are many of Nilsen's strips. However, other parts of the book are more detailed, some fine-art-esque. Here is a guy who definitely "can draw" and just chooses to do so in different ways at different times. This helps to keep the book fresh and lively and works wonderfully with the different arcs and themes of the story. There's some Chris Ware in there too in some of the layouts and title pages and in some of the landscapes and more spacious panels I saw elements of Jiro Taniguchi. Being from Drawn & Quarterly the production values are great, of course: the cover and spine matte white, embossed and delicately coloured, the pages crisp black and white; there's even a fold-out page part way through; just lovely.

So yeah, when I read a book I like it to absorb me and to stay with me for a time. I recently read a couple of prose books, hefty things by acclaimed authors and pretty good they were too. They engaged me, they stayed with me, but with this book I was able to wander; to sink into it and to want to go back. To have not just words but images and landscapes floating about my head long after I put the book aside; to have a simple line drawing of a worm express as much to me about life and loss as a paragraph of words. I suppose there we have it: the beauty of comics.