The work of Anders Nilsen can be cryptic, daunting. But his comics are as raw and primal as they are poetic, and their philosophical scope and artistic magnitude have never been clearer than in the Big Questions anthology. I have to admit that I was afraid to pick up the brick of a collection. Then I attended the Epic Literary Adventures panel at the San Diego Comic-Con, where the Chicago artist admitted to Drawn and Quarterly’s creative director Tom Devlin that even he had to draw a map so that the sprawling volumes wouldn’t contradict each other. It turns out he’s a regular guy who just happened to write and draw an ambitious, inspiring, and thought-provoking 600-page comic book about birds, snakes, and a plane crash.
MW: You’re in the midst of a reading tour to promote the Big Questions anthology. How’s that going? How do you structure your events?
AN: I just finished the first leg, going up the West Coast. I leave again in a week for Toronto and Minneapolis. It’s been great so far. People are coming out and I’m having great conversations. Most of the stops were basically just me signing books for a while, doing a slide show, talking about the book, and doing some readings from it, a bit of Q&A, signing a few more books… and then going out for a beer.
MW: The book is massive. Did you prefer long, epic comic book stories as a kid? The Kree-Skrull War? The introduction of the Inhumans?
AN: Yeah, totally. The X-Men battling the Brood, Elfquest, The Dark Knight–all that stuff.
MW: Tintin is often cited as an influence on your development as a comic-book creator, but do you like Moebius as well? I got to see a display of his work in Paris last year, and some of it reminded me of your work.
AN: Absolutely. He’s amazing and his drawing is a huge influence. I’ve never been super into his stories, but all those thin lines and stippling blow me away.
MW: Not all illustrators can write and not all writers can draw–especially well–but you do all of the above. Is there a balance to maintain? Or perhaps they are one and the same.
AN: I don’t know. It’s funny, I don’t think of them as separate. People will sometimes tell me they like my writing, and I never quite know what they mean. The dialogue? The story? For me, the story grows out of the visuals. I usually start with an image that is somehow compelling and feels like it could lead somewhere. And if it does, I get a story. It’s sort of mysterious, really.
MW: Self-editing is quite difficult, too. Can you tell me about that process? Did you call out for or even accept suggestions from others?
AN: Just a bit. It’s hard, though, because you don’t want to show someone your work until you have it pretty much just right and then, at that point, with comics, it can be pretty hard to do much substantive editing. But for myself, I am continually making changes, cutting stuff, adding new panels to get the rhythm right, the timing. You can see a lot of changes from the thumbnails to the originals and then more in Photoshop. More still between the comics and the final collection. I can’t help myself. I’m continually trying to refine.
MW: Do you think the experience loses anything when going from installments to a larger piece? Like the difference between 7″ singles and an LP, for instance?
AN: It does change. But it’s a change for the better. It becomes more coherent, and more recognizable as a single story with multiple threads. I didn’t mind that people thought of the issues as disparate, standalone little collections of short pieces, but for me it’s always been a single story with a single arc. I think being collected between two covers helps emphasize that.
MW: At the panel with Jeff Smith and Brian Ralph, you mentioned that you wrote the first four issues of Big Questions in a vacuum, and then got more involved with Kramer’s Ergot contributors and other comic book creators later on. How did that affect your work?
AN: The main thing it did, I guess, is help me to refine the way I think about my work and the different kinds of stories and drawing I want to employ. It pushed me both to play and experiment on one hand, and to refine and focus on the other. It helped me see broader possibilities for what comics–and my own work in particular–could be. I might never have done the Monologues books had I not gone on the Kramer’s 4 book tour.
MW: Sometimes you reference skateboarding in your blog. Do you wear wristbands, etc., to protect your drawing hand?
AN: Um. Yeah. That would probably be a good idea, huh? Gabrielle Bell drew a comic with her left hand a couple of years ago. Might just have to channel her if something bad happens.
For information on Midwest, East Coast, Canadian, and European tour stops, photos of Jumbo Machinders, and other rad stuff, visit Anders’ blog: The Monologuist.