Monday, April 09, 2007

Graphic Lit: Anders Nilsen


The indie/art comics crowd has pretty much proved at this point that sequential art is capable of telling any sort of story, regardless of depth or genre.

Still, there seem to be a few weighty subjects — the death of a loved one, for example — that many cartoonists seem reluctant to explore, perhaps due to their relative youth.

Which brings me to Anders Nilsen. In the few years he’s been doing comics, Nilsen has shown a restless experimental streak in the pages of anthologies like “Mome” and “Kramers Ergot,” as well as his own stark, Beckett-like one-shot comic, “Dogs and Water.”

Now he’s come out with a pair of stunning books — “Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow” and “The End.” Taken together, they provide a stark, devastating examination of loss and grief.

The first book, “Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow,” chronicles the last year of Nilsen’s fiancé, Cheryl Weaver. Using letters, postcards, comics and other materials, Nilsen details ill-fated camping trips, vacations, silly declarations of love — the sort of things young couples looking forward to a lifetime together tend to do.

Then, within the space of a page, Weaver is ill with cancer. One page later and it’s spread to her liver. Then, just as suddenly, it’s her funeral, which Nilsen narrates to Weaver’s ghost (“I think you wouldn’t have liked this very much, to have been there. Everyone fussing over you.”).

Though slim, “Don’t Go” shows how our best-laid plans and expectations can be laid utterly to waste in no time at all.

“The End” (part of Fantagraphics Ignatz series) is a sequel of sorts to “Don’t Go,” though it’s a much more generalized book. Neither Weaver nor Nilsen is named outright, and the book often uses abstracted figures and images to tell its story. But it might be a more powerful and moving work for that very reason.

In one stark, overwhelming sequence, for example, Nilsen exclaims “Since you’ve been gone, I can do whatever I want, all the time,” and then shows himself “trying to hold it together on the train to France,” “crying while watching Letterman” and “screaming into a pillow.”

Later on, he provides a lengthy list of potential new roles for himself, as a silhouetted stick figure snakes out and forms a series of maze-like patterns.

“In my new life, I could be an electrician, a plumber, a financial analyst, a homeless ex-baseball player” he says, before concluding, “What I can’t be is me, with you.”

I’d like to tell you that you will never experience the sort of pain that Nilsen details in these books. But, of course, I would be lying. At some point you, dear reader, will be in the same situation, if you haven’t already.

And that is why Nilsen’s work is so rewarding and, ultimately, so life-affirming. It’s important that, when we are at our lowest and most despondent, we know we are not alone.

Other books by Nilsen

“Monologues for the Coming Plague” Fantagraphics Books, 260 pages, $18.95.

This is the sort of project that, upon description, sounds almost like a joke: A rambling, stream-of-consciousness series of loose sketches, each taking up a full page for almost $19? Yeah, right pal.

Yet “Monologues” is much more than a self-indulgent series of doodles. Funny, surreal and at times even disturbing, the book provides some new and original ways of thinking about comics. True, it might be for a small, select audience, but those readers will definitely get more out of it than a first glance would suggest.

“Big Questions” nine issues (so far), Drawn and Quarterly, $6.95 each.

This is Nilsen’s big, long-term project, centering on a group of birds that witness a plane crash and attempt to make sense of it. Was it a sign from God? Is the dazed pilot a friend or foe? What are we supposed to do now?

Though still uncompleted, the series is a surprisingly effective meditation on how we attempt to draw meaning from seemingly senseless events. You’ll certainly never look at birds the same way again.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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