D&Q’s Comic Books III: Big Questions #15

Posted by on January 22nd, 2011 at 6:51 AM

Rob reviews the fifteenth and final issue of Anders Nilsen’s epic series Big Questions, in the last of three posts about recent comic books from Drawn & Quarterly.

One thing that’s not mentioned much with regard to Anders Nilsen is his playful, almost impertinent, sense of humor.  In a series known for long moments of silence punctuated by intense philosophical & religious debate amongst its bird protagonists, it’s not surprising to see Nilsen tweak both the reader and his characters by refusing to provide any easy answers.  Indeed, in the “Closing Arguments” segments of the last issue of Big Questions, two different sets of birds (one alive, one dead) try to sum up all they’ve experienced using the most hackneyed of platitudes (“try your best”, “don’t take things for granted”).  In a book intimately wrapped up not only with issues of doubt and belief (and black & white), was there any doubt that Nilsen would end the book in an oblique fashion?  Moreover, the story of the birds’ odyssey in dealing with a plane that fell out of the sky, the bomb that came out of it, and the pilot who emerged alive from the crash was all about being caught up in events that not only could not be comprehended by those experiencing them, but in fact had nothing to do with them.  The characters in Big Questions, with some exceptions, ascribe meaning to events that in reality have nothing to do with them.

The final joke is on the birds who viewed the pilot as a kind of messiah figure, going as far as to offer him worms as a form of sacrifice.  When their god opened fire on them, it was up to the mysterious snake (an underground figure, acting as an emissary of sorts between the lands of of the living and the dead) to strike him down.  In this issue, that left these birds with the mentally handicapped man as their new god, offering him worms a few scenes after he struggles to put on a pair of pants over the shoes he’s wearing.  It’s a bitterly hilarious scene, though the question at hand is: why not an idiot god, especially one that lacks malice?

I’ll be re-reading the entire series for review prior to its release in collected form, so I’ll save further comments on themes and ideas.  Instead, I prefer to marvel at the sheer beauty of his comic.  The pages where Nilsen coalesces his whirling stipple-marks into a black mess that pops into a pair of pants encapsulates both his sense of humor and his awareness of the physical qualities of the marks he makes on paper.  The intensity of his line and stippling has been omnipresent throughout the series, and it was funny to see reality bend a bit as the reader’s understanding of the comic’s physical environment collapsed.  The sequence where the swans came along to lead the pilot on his journey through the underworld was equally masterful, even if it was quite a bit more solemn.  Nilsen plays with black and white once last time to give the doomed pilot his final, blissful rest.  What I’ve missed in reading the book an issue at a time is the way each character’s narrative arc developed and resolved, and I’m most looking forward to recovering that in my re-read.  The characters who seemed to wind up happiest seemed to be those who were least concerned with those titular big questions, but we’ll see if that analysis holds up.

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