Panorama: Big Questions #13

Posted by on March 17th, 2010 at 5:46 AM

Rob reviews Anders Nilsen’s BIG QUESTIONS #13 (Drawn & Quarterly).

With the thirteenth issue of BIG QUESTIONS, Anders Nilsen is clearly starting to bring a narrative and thematic conclusion to his sprawling series.  This is the first issue that I can recall that had a guide to the expansive cast of characters on the inside flaps, reminding the audience of who’s doing what and why.  There is a density to this comic packed into its 48 pages that we hadn’t seen in most of the recent issues that plays out in the way Nilsen depicts light and dark.  Above all else, BIG QUESTIONS has been about belief and doubt, and the ways in which things we can’t understand inform our belief systems.  The interplay between light and dark has been a reflection, at a basic level, of the ways in which various characters have approached existential conflict in the series.

That trend continued in the first story, “The Seat of the Soul”.  A number of the birds still worshiped the airplane that fell from the sky, and this densely cross-hatched story finds a number of birds sleeping on the plane at night.  One of them accidentally turns on the radio, which causes home base to try to talk to the (absent) pilot.  This scene is fascinating for several reasons: it’s a moment where the bird (Eusippius) is struck by both the fear of god and utter bafflement that the plane sounded like a person; it’s a moment of high slapstick as Eusippius frantically tries to shush the radio; and it’s a bit of an infodump from Nilsen as plot points start to get filled in as to whom the pilot is and why he crash-landed.

The long segment with the pilot forms the center of this issue’s structure, as the birds try to come to terms with the pilot’s nature.  Some view him as being hatched from the giant bird (the plane) and hence as a sort of messianic figure.  To his great bafflement, one bird even left him worms outside his tent as a form of obeisance.  Another bird reasoned, from a more narcissistic point of view, that the humans were jealous of the birds for not being able to fly, and that the “giant bird” was nothing more than a “flying house” built by the humans.  There’s a fluidity to these pages, as Nilsen crams up to 10 panels on a page yet doesn’t use panel borders.  That creates a continuity between each panel, playing up the stippled detail on the ground (as well as the rubble, which Nilsen loves to draw) and contrasting it with the panels where he zooms in either on the pilot or on one of the confused birds.

The final segment of the book swings between darkness and light, as Algernon, a bird nursed back to health by a snake with mysterious motives, finally decides to head back above ground after being tended to beneath a tree.  This has been the most interesting but vaguely defined relationship of the series, as a natural predator went against its instincts to help what should be its prey back into a robust state.  The mysteriousness of the snake is subtly portrayed by its blank eyes, reflective of its environment and in direct contrast to the black dots of Algernon’s eyes.

With the series ending after #15, this current issue felt like a series of set-ups for a final collection of confrontations.  What will be most interesting is to see how the physical confrontations will affect the spiritual and philosophical dilemmas that have formed the backbone of the series.  Are the belief systems so hardened that physical manifestations will have no impact on them, are they mutable enough to incorporate new information or are they brittle enough to fall to pieces if enough temporal evidence is amassed to smash them?  Those are the questions I’m most interested in seeing Nilsen answer as BIG QUESTIONS, one of my favorite series of the past decade, winds down.

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