Wing-To-Wing Combat: Big Questions #12

Posted by on March 15th, 2010 at 5:48 AM

Rob reviews the 12th issue of Anders Nilsen’s BIG QUESTIONS series, subtitled A YOUNG CROW’S GUIDE TO HUNTING (Drawn & Quarterly).

Started in 1999, Anders Nilsen’s BIG QUESTIONS has proven to be the most ambitious of many ambitious projects for this interesting cartoonist.  Known perhaps for his bleakly funny, existentialist stick-figure stand-up routines in his MONOLOGUES series for Fantagraphics, BIG QUESTIONS is all about still moments, a feathery line and a strategic use of stippling and other more naturalistic styles of art.  The series is currently winding down, with #14 complete and due to be published later this year and with #15 as the series finale.  In brief, it’s the story of how a plane crash affects the lives of a group of birds and other fauna in their community.  The story took an apocalyptic turn when a bomb from the plane (which they interpreted to be an egg) exploded, leaving many in the community to try and figure out what it all meant.

Issue #11 was one of great stillness, as one wounded bird slowly crawled his way to the bomb crater site and another bird tried to deal with feeding his wife amidst the death of their children.  Unlike past issues, filled with conversations between the birds, this issue was most notable for one mute panel after another, punctuated only by a sneering crow informing one bird that he had just become a carnivore

If issue #11 was about mourning and survivor’s guilt, then #12 was about the survival instinct and how that can blast through melancholy.  Focusing tightly in on three birds in the crater site, this issue was all about movement, flight and combat.  One of the birds was only alive because she flew away from the bomb site at a time when she was supposed to be watching it.  The issue quickly turns from that sort of guilt to a rumination on different kinds of communities on how they view each other.  There are three crows looking for food, and they decide to set upon the birds as weak prey, teaching a young crow the pros and cons of hunting.

What follows is some of the most fluid and kinetic cartooning I’ve ever seen from Nilsen, who depicts the watcher bird (Betty) flying in and out of trouble, attacking and then getting pinned down by a crow.  The wounded bird does some damage of his own, until finally a formerly cowardly bird does just enough damage to convince the crows to look elsewhere.  The fight, despite its very deadly potential consequences, had a slapstick quality to it that one rarely sees in Nilsen’s work.  The kvetching of the crows, who are simply trying to get a meal off of some birds that they view as slightly pathetic, was a particular highlight of the issue.  Nilsen gave them more weight and power by slightly thickening his line when he drew them, as opposed to the more delicate and wispy line he reserved for the other birds.

The overall effect of this chapter, for the reader, felt like a palate cleanser.  The dreamy and meditative previous chapters were set aside in favor of visceral, life-or-death combat that nonetheless carried a life-affirming quality.  The wider focus of the prior issues, where Nilsen looked in on the many other characters in the series (if only for a moment), was narrowed down to this conflict and its resolution.  It was a refreshing issue that looks like a final rest stop for the conclusion of the series.

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