Anders Nilsen and the Philosophy of Birds

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About ten years have passed since I first stumbled upon Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions series in a little indie gift shop in Providence, Rhode Island. The comics were just these thin, xeroxed booklets back then, and the drawings could hardly have been more simple: two small birds in a panel, a curved line to mark the horizon.

Nilsen says he didn’t take drawing comics too seriously in those early days — saw them as more of a relief from the elaborate paintings and installation work he was doing at the time. Even so: I remember how eagerly I flipped through those first couple of volumes in the store, smitten with the juxtaposition between cute little birds and their strangely poignant existential musings. These were birds who were trying to figure shit out — about whether there was a higher purpose for their existence, whether it was really possible to connect with others in a meaningful way.

Maybe I dug the comics because, well, I was trying to figure a lot of the same shit out myself.

In the intervening years, I’ve spent more time than I care to mention scouring eBay for missing Big Questions back issues — collectors’ items and beautiful art objects, all of them. Fortunately, readers who are new to the series will be spared that aggravation.

Last year, more than a decade after Nilsen started Big Questions, he completed the 15th and final issue. And now, after months of furious editing, the artist has compiled all of the comics into one cohesive, 600-page book — his magnum opus — which he’ll be reading from and signing tonight at Downtown Berkeley’s Pegasus Books.

I’m not going to feign objectivity here: I think Nilsen’s work is brilliant. Dude’s been drawing little birds since way before they became a hipster cliché, and in this case the cuteness factor is balanced by the artist’s unflinchingly unromantic view of the natural world. Suffice it to say that birds in Big Questions get killed all the time — blown up, devoured, pecked at, crushed.

The book functions as a kind of dark allegory, then, though Nilsen, despite his admitted preoccupation with death and loss, doesn’t see himself as a pessimist: “I'm trying to see the world as it is as much as possible, including the kind of bad stuff that most of us in this day and age, in this country, are pretty well insulated from.”

And lest you get the wrong impression, Big Questions isn’t just a bunch of circuitous philosophizing. There is in fact a plot, one that’s tinged with sadness and occasionally surreal, centered on a developmentally disabled man, a downed pilot, a mysterious snake, a bomb and — yes — a whole host of little birds.

Amid all the carnage and angst, there are also hopeful elements — touching displays of loyalty, moments of unexpected compassion.

Oh, and the relative crudeness of the first few Big Questions minicomics belies what, for folks who follow indie comics, probably seems like an obvious point: Nilsen can flat-out draw. He’s known for his wonderfully intricate pen-and-ink renderings of tree roots, meteorites, engines and entrails — and that level of precision is evident in Big Questions, especially as the series progresses.

One of the interesting aspects of the compilation is that it allows readers to see the way that Nilsen’s approach to creating comics has evolved over the years, from the time when it was just a bunch of “weird jokes” and doodles in his sketchbook.

Nilsen says he liked the immediacy and the “sketchiness” of the early issues of Big Questions. But at a certain point he decided that he wanted the series to be a more carefully thought-out, well-drawn thing. In putting together the finished book, Nilsen said he tried to make improvements without tampering too much with the spirit of how he’d originally done each section.

“It’s the thing that I started doing comics with and that I learned how to do comics with, basically,” he explained. “So it's going to have to show the process of its own making. The first scripts are going to be real rough. And that’s fine.”

For tonight’s reading, Nilsen says he plans to do a kind of interactive slideshow, where he’ll introduce five or six characters from the book, as selected by the audience. Big Questions fans — who, I’m told, are legion — should come prepared to request their favorites.

Wednesday, July 27, 7:30 p.m.
Pegasus Books
2349 Shattuck Ave.

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