Rich Kreiner’s Yearlong Best of the Year: Big Questions by Anders Nilsen

Posted by on March 6th, 2010 at 1:00 PM

D&Q; 48pp.; $9.95 (ISBN: 9781770460157)

I came to Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions only after and only because of Dirk Deppey’s “Best of the Year: 2005” entry back in the Journal # 275. By then, the series was well under way and, as Deppy noted, exceptionally well begun.

My initial exposure to a subsequent issue suggested that the comic was immediately and sensually beguiling, crystal clear in its depicted action and, because of where I picked up the narrative, flummoxing in a broader sense. Over time, I faithfully followed the serialized comic, with its long breaks between issues, and, like Deppy, looked to the future. Him: “When completed, Big Questions will be one of the great graphic novels of the early 21st century.” Me: When it’s collected, I’ll be brought up to speed and made whole from tale’s beginning. Until that compilation, the dramatis personae included in the current issue, #13, offers a fine occasion to drop in.

The series takes place on a broad communal plain inhabited by several diverse biological species. Collectively, the different animals appear as distinct cultures, societies or tribes, going about their ways as their environment hosts catastrophe and opportunities. The cast reveals group sensibilities and concerns, as well as individual personalities and affinities through intra- and interrelationships. There are two humans as well as dogs, a snake and other creatures, but birds preoccupy.

The pace of the series is leisurely — uniquely so. The structure is of knit episodes through which characters identify themselves by disposition and role, identities further shored up thanks to issue #13. Nilsen doesn’t take pains to visually differentiate the finches from one another, so names help distinguish them.

The governing drama of Big Questions is life proceeding, or rather life proceeding in an aftermath. Pace and considered focus give the unfoldings an Eastern, meditative vibe, as if observing enhanced suchness in action. But instead of any abstracted yin/yang turning of the Wheel, the dichotomy that animates this ecosphere for readers — well, for me — is that of the profoundly mundane mixing it up with the distinctly weird, of notional design with biological imperatives, of consciousness with Other. The birds talk! They sing in burrows! They also hop around extensively, gather in unstable clusters and flit back and forth. And sleep. A lot. Certainly more than in any comic I’ve ever seen. A bird, Clay, crawls. Crawls! Algernon hitches a ride on the back of a snake. Somebody (I can’t tell who) expounds on the avian equivalent of Plato’s cave, during which several finches snooze away. Unsurprisingly, food looms large, whether it be defended doughnuts, worms arrayed as offering, human flesh for the taking or the tasty animals themselves. Through it all the series evolves as an expansive stage for small gestures, slight movements, discrete acts and subtle demonstrations, as well as rich, unforced funny bits and sudden moments of natural savagery.

Much to Nilsen’s credit and artistic resolve, the spell of the comic inevitably proves disorientation irrelevant. Weirdness becomes normal and normality exceptional. If you haven’t already considered it, lucky #13 can be the first Big Questions of the rest of your life.

All images ©2009 Anders Nilsen

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