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Graphic Novel Friday: Must Read! Big Questions by Anders Nilsen

Readers looking for a comics epic after Craig Thompson’s Habibi will be happy to know that another hefty tome exists this fall: Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions. The page counts of both books top the 600-plus mark, but due to publisher Drawn and Quarterly’s choice in thick paper stock, Big Questions outsizes Habibi, not that it’s the weight that counts--but with Big Questions, Nilsen delivers a feast for even the most voracious of appetites.

Whereas Habibi rewards its readers with delicate intricacies and unfathomable details, Big Questions sprawls, stretching in wide open, full-page panels often populated by tiny birds and fields of grass and empty plains (or in pages full of white space, broken up by uneven, small panels). It’s with such birds that Nilsen opens the book, having them quip and peck over crumbs: “Sh_t. Seeds again,” one bird says, only to be met by another dropping in: “Oh great! Seeds. I love these.” Similar understated exchanges occur during the book’s first section--birds meeting over a meal to discuss a grand topic (“To what extent are we responsible for the fulfillment of our destinies?”), pausing (“munch, munch”), only to finish the scene with a deadpan response (“Uh…”). Such exchanges sustain for its first 20 or so pages, but then Nilsen’s ambitions expand along with his scope.

The world of these birds blossoms into complex relationships, including their fascination with an odd boy who lives nearby. When Nilsen opts to drop a literal bomb into the plot from an overhead plane, the plot takes flight. And then a plane crash-lands, crows appear to jeer and feast on any victims, a snake arrives to nurse an injured bird, a downed pilot emerges, wild dogs sniff out the carrion, bird factions are formed, the skeletons of dead birds return from the grave and have mundane conversations with the living, and so much, much more. There are quiet surprises at the turn of any page, laughs from the most unexpected sources (who knew crows excelled at gallows humor?), and cerebral turmoil stemming from something so simple as a bird walking across a plain.

In Douglas Wolk’s excellent, full-of-praise review in the New York Times, he notes and quotes:

But there’s also a palpable darkness to Nilsen’s anthropomorphic antics: birds and snakes have primally ingrained, symbolic values... And the food chain is never far from the surface of the story, as when a crow informs a finch named Philo that the doughnut crumbs they’ve been eating have rendered bits of animals in them: “You are what you eat, little bird. You’re not just seeds and mindless bugs anymore.” They pause for a couple of panels, while that sinks in. “Now you’re dead animal, like us: the walking, flying dead,” the crow says. 

It’s a testament to Nilsen’s narrative prowess that the lifecycle and plight of small birds could be so dramatic. Wolk is absolutely correct: there is darkness in Big Questions, particularly the stranded pilot, whose prophetic service to the mortality of one character plays out like a well-orchestrated chess move. Not to mention his later fever dreams that finish the book. It’s unsettling, fascinating work. I read the book over an entire weekend, from bed to couch, from desk to dinner table. For all its openness, the pages seemingly expand while the details develop (the project is over a decade in the making, and Nilsen’s artwork matures along with his storytelling). Big Questions initially released in paperback and a deluxe, limited hardcover edition in August, but it quickly went out of stock in both formats. This month, the paperback edition is finally available again (the hardcover, while certainly worth investigating--it includes approximately 50 pages of extras and a signed and numbered plate--is available in the third party marketplace).

Nilsen’s Big Questions is the sleeper of the season, not to be missed. It's an example of comics exceeding their premise, and the medium flourishing in format.

--Alex

P.S.  Douglas Wolk had a comics-filled summer, and he chronicled his experience at the San Diego Comic-Con in a Kindle Single, entitled Comic-Con Strikes Again.  For fans who could not attend the convention (self included), this is another must-read--full of both the esoteric and mainstream fascinations involved in the annual spectacle. Strikes Again readers will envy Wolk's attendance and welcome the opprtunity to read it without having to wade through the throngs of attendees.   

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