Created by: Anders Nilsen
Published by: Drawn & Quarterly
ISBN: 1770460470 (Amazon)
Anders Nilsen wrote what I consider to be the worst comic I’ve ever read. Or mostly read. I didn’t actually finish Monologues for the Coming Plague. Somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of the way through I ragequit, angered by my own dogged tenacity in pursuing a book that clearly wasn’t going to be worth my time. This never happens. There are large numbers of books that I haven’t finished due to apathy or dislike, but always the motivation for abandonment lies in the realm of disinterest rather than ire. Monologues carries the unique distinction* of being the only book to piss me off into retiring it. I don’t believe in hipsterism (thinking it only a way for people to denigrate that which they fear might be more highbrow than they’re comfortable with), but if I was prone to point at things being pretentious and obscure for the sake of being obscurely cool, Monologues would make that cut.** I don’t plan to ever pick it up again. Despite the fact that Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions is one of the best books I’ve read in 2011.
Soured by my experience with Monologues, it took some cajoling to bring me to the point at which I’d consider reading Big Questions. And by cajoling, I mean reading nearly everyone rolling over themselves with praise for the book — even if they didn’t understand it. (Not understanding Big Questions and being forthright about its comprehension barrier seems to be a requirement for reviewing it.) The book made numerous end-of-year lists, and upon reading, it’s easy to see why. Nilsen’s very large book is that rambling, haphazard kind of meditation on meaning and purpose that seems tailor-made for Critical Praise. Inexplicable things happen. Some of it might even be symbolic. Ideologies are stoked, questioned, and burned in some neo-pagan, nihilistic frenzy. Big Questions is the song that never ends. It just goes on and on my friend. And critics and high school lit classes eat that stuff up.
If it sounds like I’m being a bit wry here, I blame the still-lingering aftertaste of Monologues. I’m still mad about it, apparently, and it’s threatening to infect my read of what even by my standards is a very good book. Okay, I’ll try to stop now.
Big Questions is a curious animal of a book. Its method of gradual production threatens the sense that Nilsen knew what he was doing all along or that the book can be read as a single cohesive work. Nilsen, as he explains in the book’s backmatter, began collecting the occasional one-page scraps of talking-bird cartoons he’d been producing for years. Almost accidentally, it seemed, a narrative began to form around these sometimes thoughtful finches. And then at last, the addition of arbitrary violence from the American military machine set in motion a grand tale spanning a milieu approximately the size of a sprawling backyard.
Still, Nilsen’s production here shines even while it remains unclear how much stock we’re meant to place in the book’s place as single multi-threaded narrative (vs. that of intersecting anthology of incidents and stories).*** Despite the book’s leisurely stroll through its story parts and Nilsen’s often sparse storytelling, Big Questions ends up feeling a very full meal. There’s a lot to think about and Nilsen’s penchant for leaving his Big Questions often unanswered lends to its position as a Thoughtful Comic. (If it weren’t for the book’s $45 price tag, it’d almost certainly become a regular subject of graphic-novel–leaning book clubs.)
While there is a plot to Big Questions, plot doesn’t necessarily drive the work. There are things that happen to prompt the characters to their various means and ends, but those events and the motivational vectors they produce are always secondary to the discussions (verbal and otherwise) they generate. Big Questions is a book about questions, a book about how to arrive at or depart from ideologies. Across the simple landscape of these birds and their simple lives, Nilsen draws out a number of parables to ask simple questions about our own existence. Sometimes the circumstances or questions might seem too simple, but even then, the opportunity for thoughtfulness blossoms.
One of the unique attributes of a book crafted over the span of a decade is that readers will have a chance to chart the progress of the artist’s abilities as cartographer of the world presented. We see this a lot with webcomics, as amateur cartoonists ply their hobby into a trade and are more and more able to practice their craft. Comparing the early, middle, and current examples of Megatokyo, Questionable Content, and Penny Arcade**** provides readers with a sort of metacommentary over the creator’s ability to convey the story world — and the same thing occurs in Big Questions. Nilsen’s early work appears larval and unaccomplished, but some of the later pages are simply beautiful — works of patience and attention. Even his birds, which remain simple throughout, are more readable and empathetic in the end than they were at the start. Not everyone will appreciate the evolution, but from an archaeological standpoint, the identifiable shift is rather charming.
Finally, I would suggest that potential readers give Big Questions their attention. It’s a big book and a good book and one that, despite occasional clumsiness, provokes thoughtful critique and critical thought. What exactly Nilsen’s game is might not ever be made clear, but maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe some books are there less for what they say and more for what they ask.
* Note to pedants: redundance is a valid literary technique.
** In reality, I think it unfair to judge the motivations of a creator (especially if I didn’t take the time to finish or understand their work). Nilsen may have had any number of reasons driving his production of Monologues for the Coming Plague. I suspect he may have even anticipated the kind of antipathy readers like me would hold over the work. In the end, the book simply felt pretentiously wrought and was deeply overpriced.
*** Plus this adds to the delicious challenge of interpretation.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
3 Stars = Good
2 Stars = Ok
1 Star = Bad
I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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