Anders Nilsen, creator of cartoons both terrifying and meaningful
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Anders Nilsen, a Minneapolis-born artist currently living in Chicago, doesn’t want to blow your mind with his work, but definitely might, at least in terms of the vacuum between innocence and tragedy. Nilsen has completed five graphic novels—including Dogs And Water, Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow, and The End—some of which have won awards, most of which have been nominated, and all of which have set the bar high for how touching, terrifying, and meaningful cartoons can be. He most recently completed Big Questions, a 15-year-long marathon of talking birds, nuclear eggs, nightmares, and wandering. The A.V. Club recently caught up with Nilsen, who will be in town this weekend for the Minneapolis Indie Xpo, about his favorite comic books, the art of panel usage, and what it’s like to share deep secrets with the world.
The A.V. Club: Tell us a little about your favorite comic books.
Anders Nilsen: Of all time, you’re talking about, right? I don’t know if for the rest of my life I could hew to five, but if I was going to give you five, Ed The Happy Clown would definitely be there. It’s by Chester Brown, who’s more well known for Louis Riel. He just put out a book called Paying For It, which is about his experience as a “john,” which he’s gotten quite a bit of press for. I’m not honestly that excited about the last couple of things he’s done, but I think Ed The Happy Clown, which was sort of his first longish piece that he did in the ’80s, is just completely amazing and one of the best comics ever for sure.
AVC: When artists change their style and the direction they’re headed, does that bother or surprise you?
AN: Oh no, I would be the last person to make any claims to consistency. No, I think that’s potentially admirable. It bothers me more when people stick to a style or stick to a formula, even when the sort of passion or engagement has emptied out. I don’t have a problem with him changing stuff. I think his earlier work felt more sort of warm. A lot of it was sort of creepy and disturbing, but it also had this human warmth to it, and just really finely observed human psychology and sort of absurdism, and that’s something that I don’t find in his work so much anymore.
AVC: That’s funny, because you’d think that a whole book about your life as a john would be really fertile ground for that sort of thing.
AN: [Laughs.] Yeah, you would think that. So, I don’t know. I think it has to do with who he is as a person, and sort of what he wants to talk about as an artist. He’s become much more of a political person. He’s a Libertarian, and I think that his comics aren’t super—well, I guess they are pretty explicit about that, actually. So, it feels like he has an agenda and a little less like he’s exploring the human condition.
AVC: So, what else?
AN: Anything by Hergé—the TinTin books. If we’re just going to grab one at random, then I guess, TinTin In Tibet. It’s the easiest one for me to kind of talk about and cite influence.
AVC: Are you excited about the upcoming movie?
AN: I actually just saw it in Paris. I ended up being in Paris for tragically one day longer than I meant to be in Paris. So, to kill the time that night, I went and saw [The Adventures of] TinTin. And I was fully prepared to be horrified and depressed and very unhappy about it, and I actually thought it was really good, and super fun, and basically—I mean, I did have small issues with what they did, but basically I think it’s kind of a really good adventure story, and it does something nice where it feels like more or less realistic, but it has a cartooniness to the action and stuff, which is really fun. They managed to make it really funny in parts, which I think is super, super important; they sort of stay true to Hergé’s slap-stickiness.
AVC: So, would you say that it’s the best comic movie to come out in the past five years?
AN: I don’t know if I would say that. I didn’t think it was like a great movie. It was totally entertaining and totally fun and not offensive at all. The best comic movie to come out? I don’t know. I would have to think about that a little bit. I don’t even know that I’ve seen that many comic movies. I thought the first Iron Man was pretty good. I remember sort of liking that.
AVC: All right, so a third?
AN: Something by Jason Lutes. I could say either Jar Of Fools or Berlin. I guess I would say Berlin more. Berlin is kind of amazing. I should probably choose some superhero things. I would choose, like, maybe Miracleman, or um… yeah, Miracleman [by Alan Moore]. Something by Alan Moore would have to be in there.
AVC: That’s fair. He’s a big one.
AN: There’s a French comic called Three by… I can’t even think of the guy’s name off-hand. I don’t know if I have it. It’s called Three. It’s by some French person whose first name begins with an M. Like, Maribal or something. It’s all totally silent and it’s this kind of weird, slightly surrealistic chase scene, where there’s these weird private agents chasing this weird person who then turns into a giant fish and they have to kill him. I really love that thing. I had no idea about this person or what this book was or anything. I just discovered it a couple years ago and was just kind of blown away and amazed.
AVC: Do you like that silent sort of quality of books? In your works, there are times where panels and panels go by without many exchanges.
AN: Yeah, when it’s done well, I think it’s really great. I don’t know if you’ve read Gon. It’s this Japanese manga that’s all silent, and it’s about this dinosaur—this child Tyrannosaurus Rex character—that is exploring the world and having adventures. It’s all silent and it’s really well told and incredible. I don’t know. I think of it as being a really hard thing to do well [laughs], and obviously I try to do the best that I can. And I’m not so interested in doing that for it’s own sake—it doesn’t interest me to do a whole book that’s all silent, cause I feel that as an artist I’m trying to represent the world, and discuss the world, and the world has sound in it, and conversation and dialogue, so that feels to me like it should be part of the mix. But I feel like the way that we experience the world is sometimes silent, and the way images work and the way images sort of convey meaning is different and distinct from the way text does, and so I want to use that, too.
AVC: In your books, like The End and Dogs And Water, it seems like there’s some rule-breaking with regards to the way panels work and are represented. How do you choose the moments to break those rules?
AN: Honestly, it’s kind of just intuitive, I guess. There’s an element to how much visual information or action has to be conveyed. So, if it’s just two birds talking for a while and the action isn’t that important or there’s not that much happening other than the two birds talking, then I can stick them in a really small panel and stick a whole bunch of those on the page. But, if there is more action or—like you said—a silent panel, there might be two big panels where almost nothing changes at all, but they need to be big panels because the lack of anything changing is sort of important. Like, maybe there’s some big action that needs to be represented dramatically, or maybe there’s some lack of action that needs to be communicated dramatically. I think size of a panel sort of indicates importance in a funny way. I think that’s not actually true, but that’s the way it feels when you’re reading. So like, splash pages are big because that’s where Captain America punched out The Red Skull or whatever, and that’s the end of the comic. So, it’s kind of interesting then to have two giant silent panels spread across two pages where all that’s happening is a couple swans are floating down the river, ’cause it sort of amplifies the importance and volume of that.
AVC: So, when you’re breaking these rules of typical comic structure, you feel good and rebellious about it?
AN: [Laughs.] No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I would say I’m breaking rules. I feel like I haven’t done anything that new with that stuff. Super hero comics did all kinds of crazy, crazy panel structure, and like people have done significant stories with no panel boarders. Chester Brown did some stuff in Yummy Fur with no panel borders. I mean, maybe doing a whole graphic novel with no panel borders at all was unusual, but to me, it was more like I had kind of stumbled on this strategy that seemed to do something interesting and also happened to save me a lot of work of, like, ruling out panel borders with a ruler and measuring pages and stuff, which I didn’t really enjoy doing. So it was just kind of like, “Cool, I’ll try this and see what happens.” Yeah, that’s not an instance where I was like, “I’m gonna blow minds here.” I mean, maybe in a small way. But I don’t have a big “I’ve got to redefine comics for the next generation” feeling about myself.
AVC: Speaking of blowing minds, you’re an artist, but behind all that, you’re just a regular dude. So, does it ever blow your mind that you have these works that are very important to you, and sometimes very personal, that people are reading them and possibly taking away information about the world and new ways to see it?
AN: Yeah, I feel like I’ve become a little bit more aware of that since Big Questions has come out, where, like, people I’ve met are commenting on it more, and I’m just realizing a little bit that people in school, like students, are studying my work. That’s kind of crazy. I don’t really know what to make of that, exactly. Like, it’s kind of important to me that I’m just a guy who draws pictures and tells stories and to not have too many pretensions about actually even having some important message for the world or something. I’m just trying to communicate what I think and what I observe.
AVC: So would you say, then, that the heavier parts of your books are you trying to suss the world out, and you’re taking the audience along for the ride?
AN: Yeah, the question of audience is a weird one. I feel like I am really aware of having an audience. There’s definitely an element of wanting to share this stuff with an audience. Part of what’s fun—like every time I went back to Big Questions, for example, I’d take a break to work on another book or whatever and then go back to Big Questions, and I think part of the reason I was always engaged with it is that I was interested in these characters and this weird story that I had sort of happened upon, and there was just something so fun about having access to this thing, and I want to show people. I want other people to see how cool it is.
AVC: Now that Big Questions is finished and you have this beautiful, big book that was essentially a 15-year relationship, are you going to miss it?
AN: That’s a good question. I think even a month ago I would have said no, I’m totally ready to be done with this thing that took so goddamn long. But, I think I do. I think I will kind of miss it, actually. Those birds were so cute and fun to play around with, and yeah, they were kind of my friends, or whatever. But, I’ve got plenty of other stuff to keep me busy. I think that what I kind of wonder is if I’ll be able to do that again. I’m pretty happy with that book, and I think it started out for sure with a certain beginner’s enthusiasm that I think was pretty important to it and to how it developed, and so I sort of wonder if that’s something I’m going to be able to replicate or come up with something else that’s just as good, or whatever.
AVC: So, while you were finishing up Big Questions, you didn’t have another large project looming in the distance?
AN: I do have several, and I do have a new graphic novel that I’ve actually been sort of thinking about for the last four or five years, at least that I will eventually start. I have a few smaller projects to get out of the way before I start that. But yeah, there is another project that will be a full-on graphic novel.
AVC: You were just here a few months ago signing books at Magers & Quinn. Why are you coming back?
AN: Well, I’m coming to Minneapolis this weekend because the Minneapolis Indie Xpo is happening, so I’m going to go and talk about rural comics in rural areas. Something like that. People said that the Xpo last year was kind of amazing, and I’ve got this book to plug, so why not go to my hometown and hang out for a little while and check out the people making comics there?