Dialogue: Anders Nilsen - Design Bureau

Self-portrait sketches by Anders Nilsen

Scenes from Big Questions, published by Drawn & Quarterly

Dialogue: Anders Nilsen

Monday, November 21st, 2011

by Sarah Handelman

Over the years, award-winning artist Anders Nilsen has continually pushed the limits and canon of comics, carving a niche for his own kind of story to thrive. Big Questions, Nilsen’s latest book, evidences the Chicagoan’s dedication to comics and his drive to cultivate new ideas from within the medium. When Nilsen set out to write the book, he had no idea the series would turn out so, well, big. Twelve years and nearly 600 pages later, what started as a small comic is now an epic story about uncertainty, mortality, and relationships. Through a pitch-perfect mix of ominous queries and subtle humor, Nilsen doesn’t attempt to provide answers. He instead uses his innate ability as a cartoonist and storyteller to create oddly relatable characters and moods that envelope anyone who picks up the weighty tome. We caught up with Nilsen at London’s Gosh during the European leg of his book tour, where he talked about the process of making Big Questions and pined for a dry place to skate.

How does audience factor into your work? 

I started doing comics partly because of a sort of odd search for an audience. Art-making is always a conversation, or should be. The painting and installation work I was doing before I started venturing seriously into comics wasn't really finding that other half. With comics, I could just photocopy stuff out of my sketchbooks, make a little book, and hand it out to friends, family, or take it to the local comic shop. There's something inherently more communicative about comics than paintings, I think. It has none of the mystique of "self-expression" that has been built around fine art. It's about making jokes and entertaining. Even if you are interested in getting comics to do more than that, that history is hard to escape. As I worked on Big Questions, I also found that there was always an element of wanting to share this world I'd discovered. Which was part of the reason that, even though I was working on it for more than 12 years, it never felt stale or got tiresome. It felt a bit like I was privy to this funny little story, these curious little characters, and I wanted to show people. 

Would you say your process is more of a discovery than a creation?

It feels a little absurd to say, but, yeah, it feels more like a discovery to me. And I'm just doing my best to record it as accurately as possible.

"There's something inherently more communicative about comics than paintings, I think. It has none of the mystique of 'self-expression' that has been built around fine art."

How does design play into your process of telling — or discovering — a story?

In general, I don't think of laying out the comics page as a design problem, exactly. It's a reading problem. Reading a comics page is necessarily sequential, while other design, such as book cover design, isn’t so much. Yes, there's a sense of hierarchy, but in a comics page, you have to create clarity of sequential action. You want the reader to fluently read the action, without stumbling or questioning. I try not to get wrapped up in how beautiful a page is. I have a natural tendency to want to make a page a beautiful drawing, and often my favorite pages are the ones I think of as being the most attractive. But all of that really needs to be secondary to readability.

Big Questions is filled with silent moments — frames and pages filled with images but no text. The feeling we get when "reading" these silences isn't something that could necessarily have been achieved if you had used prose. It’s immersive. Why is creating a mood important for you?

Well, that's sort of the whole thing, isn't it? Hopefully in making art you can get someone out of their heads and get them to feel something. It's something I have on occasion been jealous of with musicians. Music seems to get there so much more directly. But I think stories and pictures can do it too. And yes, I am interested in the way telling stories with pictures is different than telling them with words. I think the silent parts are a good window into that difference. Hopefully they do something text cannot.

Is humor a necessary part of cartooning, or is it part of your own authorial voice?

Both, I think. There are great comics that aren't really about being funny, but humor is a huge part of comics’ history — it's something that the medium seems to excel at — whereas horror and suspense, I would say, not so much. I'm definitely interested in tapping into that strength and history of the medium. But I’m also drawn to trying to put humor and the deadly serious side by side to see what they have to say to one another. It seems to almost always be a fruitful conversation.

Anything lately that has made you look twice?

I went to Versailles when I was in Paris. Mostly, it was sort of horrible and over-the-top, with gaudy displays of wealth piled on top of itself. But the silk embroideries lining Marie Antoinette's bedroom were kind of amazing. 

Best place to get things done:

Waiting rooms, airplanes.  

Worst place to get things done:

The Internet. 

What was the most memorable part of the book tour?

All the incredible people I got to hang out with. And how insanely tired I was at the end.

Did you manage an hour to skate?

Alas, no. There were a bunch of really great looking benches I walked by in Newcastle, though. Might have to wander back sometime... 

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