Sunday, 22 January 2012

Transformative Cycles - Anna Bongiovanni's 'The Offering'

I first stumbled across Anna Bongiovanni's work in 2D Cloud’s ‘Good Minnesotan 4’ anthology. Her short allegorical strip ‘Onion Mama’, was by far my favourite of the anthology and it haunted me for days after I first read it. ‘Onion Mama’ tells the story of a family who unexpectedly lose their mother, emphasising the burden of responsibility that passes to the eldest daughter. In Bongiovanni’s story these dramatic changes take the form of a literal metamorphosis whereby the child ages forty years in an instant; becoming the mirror image of her dead mother as she solemnly assumes her new role as matriarch. I remember being deeply impressed by Bongiovanni’s ability to cut so deeply with a mere five pages.

Her latest mini comic ‘The Offering’ shares many of the same qualities that made her 'Good Minnesotan' contribution so rewarding. Much like ‘Onion Mama’, this is a tightly coiled piece of fiction, trimmed of all the fat you might find in less mature work. ‘The Offering’ is a short but rich piece of sequential story telling, stuffed to bursting with visual information, all told in Bongiovanni’s beautifully expressive clear line style.

The story unfurls like a bleak fairy tale, laced with mystical dread and foreboding. We’re witness to the misadventures of two sisters who sneak out into the woods in the dead of night to partake in a bizarre woodland ritual. What at first seems like innocent revelry, soon turns sinister when the assembled throng calls for a blood sacrifice. In an act of blind devotion, the elder sister offers her own life to resurrect an otherworldly looking infant who bares a striking resemblance to the Greek God Pan. When the sacrifice has been made, her grief stricken younger sister seeks assistance from a witch to bring her sibling back to life. As you might imagine, things do not go at all according to plan.

Broadly speaking, Bongiovanni’s focus seems to be on the cycle of life and death; bringing her story to a close with an unexpected transformation. Thematically ‘The Offering’ feels like a companion piece to ‘Onion Mama’; exploring a similar line of thought but from another angle. There’s a strong sense of the natural world running through the comic, and I would hazard a guess that the verdant setting is far from incidental. Nature is represented here as it truly is, both alive and flourishing but also cruel and brutal with little concern for human suffering. The ongoing cycle of creation and destruction continues unimpeded and those caught in its wake are left to pick up the pieces.

With her deceptively simple tale of woodland rituals, magic and transformation, Bongiovanni has grappled with those most personal and profound of losses that we’re never quite prepared for.

Review by Matthew Dick.

Quick Links:

Anna Bongiovanni Official Site
Soft and Fleshy (Anna's blog for sketches, updates and gag strips)
2D Cloud (Good Minnesotan 4 is well worth picking up...)

Saturday, 31 December 2011

Top Ten Comics of 2011

Wow, it's hard to believe it's that time again. I'm always astounded when yet another year has passed and I've got to pull something together that vaguely resembles a Top Ten list. As per usual there were masses of great comics published this year, so slimming that veritable cornucopia of choice down to a mere ten favourites was a hard thing to do.

There were plenty of books I loved that have been omitted from my final list. In this case, it's what I'd call the 'obvious stuff' that didn't make the cut, by which I mean new relases by cartoonists like Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Chester Brown and Craig Thompson. I've left some of the big names out in the cold because, quite frankly, you have the rest of the internet to tell you how good they are. Many of the comics that comprise the top ten came to me via old friends or, in the case of something like Anders Nilsen's 'Big Questions', have been on my radar for a long long time.

What I've always aimed to do here at Exquisite Things is to push those artists who aren't yet household names, but very much deserve to be. Our number one slot this year goes to Tom Neely, who has been a favourite of mine since he blew me away with 'The Blot'. His latest offering 'The Wolf' made just as much of an impression, but threw in a few stylistic curve balls I hadn't expected, so the enjoyment was there anew. There'll be more about 'The Wolf' in January when I post a long form interview with Tom on his 'painted novel'.

For anyone that reads this blog regularly, most of the choices will be fairly self explanatory, but I should mention that Kate Beaton's 'Hark! A Vagrant!' made me laugh until I felt sick. Any comic that does that should be considered a godsend. The out of the blue surprise of the year goes to Chris & Sarah Browning's 'On the Hadron', a gorgeous little comic about the life and times of the mysterious small beasties known as 'Hadrons'. It's funny, endearing stuff that sits just the right side of cute. Fun fact - I used to work with Chris in a particularly drab office job about seven years ago, and only recently reconnected with him. Little did I know he was making such wonderful comics.

'One Soul' by Ray Fawkes, I picked up purely on the basis of its concept. Fawkes uses two nine panel grids on double page spreads to tell eighteen concurrent stories, following eighteen separate individuals from birth to death. It's one of the most inventive uses of the medium I've seen in ages and is so beautifully executed.

So, without further ado, lets move on to 2011's Top Ten Comics!

1. The Wolf by Tom Neely (I Will Destroy You)
2. Big Questions (collected) by Anders Nilsen (Drawn & Quarterly)
3. Pornhounds 2 by Sharon Lintz and various artists (Self Published)
4. Hark! A Vagrant! by Kate Beaton (Jonathan Cape)
5. One Soul by Ray Fawkes (Oni Press)
6. Pope Hats 2 by by Ethan Rilly (AdHouse Books)
7. Finder: Voice by Carla Speed McNeil (Dark Horse Comics)
8. Lose by Michael Deforge (Koyama Press)
9. On the Hadron by Chris & Sarah Browning (Self Published)
10. You Can't Be Here by Nicholas Breutzman (Self Published)

Monday, 26 December 2011

Expect the Unexpected - Pornhounds #2

Before I write a single word on Sharon Lintz’s 'Pornhounds #2', it’s probably worth getting the obvious out of the way first. Judged purely on its title, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a full on 'tits and ass' comic, so it’s perhaps worth taking a moment to clarify that this isn’t a porn comic. Admittedly, the book does have its fair share of adult content as Lintz's aim was to document her tenure as a copy writer for a porn publication. So, yes, there’s plenty in the way of smut, but it’s all in the service of a very personal autobiographical work whose backdrop just happens to be the adult entertainment industry. Much like the recently reviewed 'Paying for it' by Chester Brown, Lintz isn't out to titillate, she's out to educate.

The comic kicks off with a clever little visual trick that serves as a signifier of what lies ahead. In the book's opening panels we’re led to believe the narrator is a man buying a porn magazine, only to discover a few panels later that the narrative voice is in fact that of Lintz herself. It’s a wonderful double bluff, one that proves to be of particular thematic significance as the comic unfolds. As a narrator, Lintz is constantly one step removed from her experiences. First as a ghost writer for Cytherea, the nubile cover star of her employer’s magazine, then as an omniscient observer to her own life when she’s diagnosed with breast cancer. Viewed in the wider context of the comic, shock revelations and all, this brief narrative disconnect suddenly becomes something far more poignant.

The first thirty or so pages of the comic are a relatively light read, unfolding with a welcoming mix of observational humour and gonzo reporting. As we're introduced to Lintz's work environment and co-workers, she teases out all the inherent oddness of the adult industry. There are mind numbing photo review meetings, heated editorial debates on the grammatical correctness of tag lines like 'The island of Dr. More Ho's', and some surprisingly affecting reader's letters. A number of pages are given over to fan letters, reproducing verbatim a selection which range from polite and sensitive to downright dirty. They’re all absolutely fascinating, and this small selection reads like confessional poetry culled from every imaginable walk of life. Very little is held back and reading these letters is, as Lintz puts it, ‘like staring directly into someone's soul’.

'Pornhounds #2' covers topics that you'd rightfully expect to be gritty and depressing, but there's a strong streak of absurdist humour running through the book that keeps things well balanced. During her time at the magazine Lintz churns out reams of erotic fiction that become increasingly ludicrous as time passes. When the boredom and monotony of writing erotic prose sets in, Lintz draws on her love of sci-fi, swiping plot lines wholesale from her favourite films and franchises. We’re treated to horny Psylons, a porn version of 'The Parallax view' and a racy rendition of Alan Moore’s ‘The Courtyard’. The results are quite frankly hilarious and Lintz may have inadvertently penned some of the funniest, not to mention bluest, Battlestar Galactica fanfic you’ll ever lay eyes on.

When news of Lintz's breast cancer diagnosis does come, it marks a significant change in tone for the comic, and as jarring as this is for the reader, I suspect it barely conveys the raw sense of shock felt by Lintz when she first received the news. When the call comes, Lintz finds herself in freefall - her cartoon likeness floating against foreboding blacked out panels. Her childhood comes rushing back in one short sharp flash, as memories of her father’s debilitating illness come flooding back. Her own mortality is suddenly brought sharply into focus as she stares down an uncertain future. This revelation hits with the force of an articulated truck, as the comic veers sharply off the motorway of black humour, through the crash railings and over the cliff edge - straight down into the choppy seas of personal trauma and fear. Anyone who has dealt with illness or loss in their family will find much to relate to, and all credit to Lintz as a writer for rendering it so vividly.

There are moments of sad reflective beauty to this latter section of the comic, but they’re always skilfully balanced by Lintz’s ever present sense of humour. On one page she’ll be clawing her way out from under the weight of her illness, and on the next she’ll be flippantly dismissing nipples as ‘overrated’ when she's about to undergo a double biopsy. Unlike so many artists working in autobio comics, Lintz never once falls prey to the kind gushing self pity that seems so prevalent in the genre. Even when everything’s at its bleakest, she narrates her life with a bemused fascination, delighting in the absurdity of things as she suffers through surgery and chemotherapy. One of the shining strengths of Lintz’s writing is her ability to balance the profound and personal with wit and humour.

In visual terms, 'Pornhounds #2' offers up an even wider palette of moods and styles. Not being artistically inclined herself, Lintz has chosen to call on the skills of a handful of talented artists to illustrate her work. As a result, every chapter has its own distinctive look, which adds real definition to the various chapters. Chandler Wood opens the comic in stylish fashion with art that sits somewhere between photo-realistism and classic clear line art, making a strong visual impression as Lintz sets the scene. Emanuele Simonelli follows this seamlessly, with flowing impressionistic line work that weaves its way around reproductions of the aforementioned reader's letters.

Next up is Nicholas Breutzman, who turns in some of his best work yet, expanding on his darkly vivid style with some inventive layouts that fit the tone of the comic perfectly. Likewise, Nathan Screiber aptly renders the shock and confusion that follows Lintz's cancer diagnosis, using open space to dramatic affect.

Joan Riley's loose, flowing pen work does a great job of charting the transitory stages of Lintz recovery as she reflects on the near deserted Ballardian sprawl of Southern Florida. Ellen Linder provides a refreshingly different cartoonish style that see Lintz grapple with chemotherapy treatment by way of Battlestar Galactica outakes.

As the comic comes full circle, American Splendour veteran Ed Piskor turns in some gorgeously detailed work, which sees Lintz once again stepping outside herself. Pornhound's titualr narrator takes a step back from the world, and sitting in bumper to bumper traffic she stares death square in the face.

Only then does the realisation come that she is not trapped by it, but strangely liberated.

Having read 'Pornhounds #2' in one intensely focused sitting, I came away with as much admiration for Lintz as a person, as I did for her work as a writer. Those in search of autobiographical comics with little time for self pity should seek out Lintz's 'Pornhounds' post haste, because alongside Chester Brown’s ‘Paying for It’ and Tom Neely’s nightmarish metaphorical love ballad ‘The Wolf’, this is easily one of the most enjoyable autobiographical efforts I’ve laid eyes on this year.

Quick Links:

Pornhounds website (with extra added exclusive material!)

Monday, 5 December 2011

Drawing the Future - The Decadence Comics Interview

Decadence are an independent UK based comics collective formed by Dave Lander and Stathis Tsemberlidis in 2003. Since their inception they’ve self published eight issues of their distinctive ‘Decadence’ anthology, as well as a clutch striking single issue comics.

The Decadence aesthetic is a heady blend of science fiction, Ballardian near future musings and psychedelic altered states. Their work recalls the best of early European sci-fi comics, whilst maintaining a strong identity of their own. Decadence, by virtue of their approach, influences and interests, are a highgly unique entity on the UK underground comics circuit. Their comics map the outer reaches of sci-fi, tracing out the contours of some strange cosmic zone that only a handful of intrepid travelers have dared stray into.

I spoke to Dave and Stathis about their comics, ideals and aspirations.

Exquisite Things: Dave, Stathis, thanks for taking the time out to talk to me. To get us started, can I ask when was Decadence founded, and what was the impetus to start your own independent publishing imprint?

Stathis: It was 2003, around the time of the invasion of Iraq. I remember David and I having long conversations about how the new western elites were increasingly imposing their will on the world. I believe Decadence came about as a reaction to what we were seeing around us. Everything seemed fictional to me; our societies were turning into selfish entities, with power being taken away from the individual and given over to monstrous corporations seeking new forms of power. Solidarity was long gone in the western world, which made way for an immoral consumerist society, one that completely ignored the importance of living and acting in the present. We were lost in a bubble, a hyper-real world. Decadence is deeply connected with the decay of the old world.

Dave: That year was a real eye opener for me. I ended up knocking about with Stathis (from Greece) and another dude from Portugal. It was a total culture shock. They were getting to grips with London’s hectic and alienated culture, and meanwhile the government was building towards the invasion of Iraq. There seemed to be an atmosphere of complete apathy towards what was going on in the wider world. I was in Athens with Stathis when the invasion did finally take place, with every detail of it covered live on the news. Everyone I spoke to wanted to know what my take on it was, when back in the UK most people didn't seem to give a fuck. The West was knee deep in hyper-consumerism, and had little concern for long term problems in other parts of the world.

Both of us also shared and interest in sci-fi and a strong desire to do some radical shit that tackled these issues. I think that was, and still is what defines Decadence.

Exquisite Things: As you already mentioned, your comics are firmly rooted in science fiction, what was it that first attracted you to the genre?

Stathis: The use of science has brought us so much in terms of progress and development and with it a new set of challenges for society at large. Science fiction, with its dystopias and utopias, depicts a future we’d like to imagine. I think sci-fi, for me, has always been a way to understand the present by imagining the future. When portraying the future in fiction, writers have a duty to examine how we live and act in the present. Fiction, in contrast to science, gives us the perfect arena to explore new ways of understanding and using technology. That’s what appeals to me about sci-fi.

Dave: I agree with what Stathis says, but to begin with it was all about the escapism and adventure that sci-fi offered, that’s what drew me to it. The real world is small and banal, but the cosmos is vast with infinite possibilities!

Exquisite Things
: Speaking of the wider world, I couldn’t help but notice that your art has a very European vibe to it. Moebius seems like an obvious touchstone, but I see a whole host of influences in there. How did you arrive at your style and what shaped your visual approach as it developed?

Dave: I think Stathis probably had a lot of these Euro comics available to him growing up in Athens, but for me ‘Heavy Metal’ was not very common as opposed to ‘2000AD’, but I never really could get into that or be bothered to buy it weekly. I read war comics (which I kinda cringe at now) and some Aliens comics, but the first thing to really blow my mind and embody exactly what I wanted to do in the medium was Akira. I read Akira as it was serialised in the pulp anthology ‘Manga Mania’ along with other sci-fi manga artist like Masmune Shirow. It was so perfect in style and content and I remember waiting impatiently every month for the next issue to drop.

As a kid I also read Tintin and Asterix in the library, but that’s all I’d really come across in terms of European comics. I think some French animated TV shows also had an early influence. I was aware of Moebius but didn’t have access to any of it, till much later. Some of my favorite Otomo short stories that I read were probably influenced directly by the Metal Hurlant vibe that was going on in the late 70’s to early 80’s.

Exquisite Things: What about literature? Reading through your comics, I’m reminded quite strongly of the much missed British author J G Ballard, more specifically his tendency towards depicting worlds overtaken by natural forces; whereby nature once again gains the upper hand over the modern world we’ve built. Are you interested in that same inversion?

Dave: Yeah, I love Ballard's work! The idea of slipping away from the modern world is very powerful. Increasingly, it seems like we're all governed by a complex system of ownership and toll booths for everything now. The natural world is receding and there's a price on everything; time is money. There doesn’t seem to be any escaping this, but Ballard's characters do manage to find a way out, either via some kind of cataclysmic world changing event or by achieving a very different kind of consciousness. Sometimes his ideas feel like they could offer an answer to the problems humanity faces today.

Exquisite Things: Whilst we’re on the topic of science fiction authors? Are there any particular writers you both admire, in terms of prose and comics?

Dave: There are so many good sci-fi authors from the postwar period that I dig. J. G. Ballard, Arthur C Clarke, Philip K Dick. All of those guys wrote short stories in magazines which I also find really inspiring. I like the idea of Decadence providing artists with a platform to present short sci-fi stories like that. I don’t really read any writer / artist comics, except ‘The Incal’ by Jodorowsky and Moebius. That shit's dope!

Stathis: For me, The Nikopol trilogy from Enki Bilal was a big influence, as well as the Incal, which Dave already mentioned. Caza was also an early influence, Tanino LIberatore and Philippe Druillet too. In terms of novels I enjoy Philip k Dick, Aldous Huxley, Stanislaw Lem, J. G. Ballard and Arthur C. Clarke. We both share that love of great sci-fi.

Exquisite Things: As Stathis already mentioned, good sci-fi is often concerned with commenting on the present. In both your own comics and the Decadence anthologies, I picked up on a definite desire to address the current social order and political status quo. You touch on warfare, state surveillance and the need to escape from the constraints of society. To what extend do you see your work as politically charged?

Dave: I don’t know, I wouldn’t say I’m politically charged. For me, it’s more about the human condition. The spectacle of politics has never really interested me. Huge and important issues are skipped over and it’s all about money and small concessions. Things like war and environmental collapse are still ongoing, and there's a complete lack of long term planning around to tackle that.

I try to tackle that very issue in my work. We live in a violent society, but we don’t see the direct result of that in the present; it's abstracted. We consume and buy shit we don’t need, we pay taxes to fund wars and weapons programs. The human race is on some Industrial Nihilism shit and I’m interested in confronting that.

In my ‘Untranslated’ comics I create an alternative reality, but it’s essentially about what’s going on now, and has gone on throughout history. It’s about mainstream news sources giving us a skewed version of reality. I’m just trying to view it from a different perspective by using aliens and untranslated languages. It’s a more distant, alien picture of the same situations we face. The viewer has to figure out what’s going on rather than by following a conventional narrative.

Exquisite Things: Stathis, I get an entirely different vibe from your comics, which read like surreal cosmic dream sequences. Space, in your comics is represented as brutal and unforgiving but also as something that can serve as a transformative force. Your characters often meet their end in the cold void of space, but death seems to represent something more; perhaps a gateway to transcendence or rebirth? In all of your work, I felt that you were constantly alluding to something beyond the physical realm. Is there a strong spiritual aspect to your comics?

Stathis: Yes, symbolism and mysticism play big roles in my work. In most of my comics there's a continuous transformative power that originates from the functions of the cosmos. In many of my stories, the present is constantly challenged in favor of a more circular movement, like a spiral that has its own continuum. Life and death are part of that continuum, and rebirth is the driving force that propels things forwards into the future. What I'm trying to do is offer up a more complex and dynamic interpretation of reality through my stories. I have an interest in things like alchemy, advances in modern physics, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the writings of Rick Strassman on the use of psychedelics. I'm interested in different levels of consciousness; the space that exists between the conscious and the subconscious mind.

Exquisite Things: Sure, that makes a whole lot of sense. There is a certain hallucinatory quality to your comics, and I constantly found myself thinking of film makers like Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kubrick. Whilst I appreciate that comics and film are very different mediums, has your work had been informed by film at all?

Stathis: I believe that film and comics share a lot of the same visual language. My stories are heavily influenced by film, especially filmmakers like Jodorowsky and Kubrick. My background is in animation, which I've been doing since 2007. It got me involved in making short films, so I always see connections between the two mediums.

Exquisite Things: Coming back to you Dave… When I look at Decadence as a whole, I see a slight leaning towards graffiti art, especially when it comes to the logos and lettering on the covers of your comics. Has graffiti culture been an influence on your work?

Dave: I’ve been into Graffiti for a while, but I’ve never really been a prolific writer. I think the coded language and the retaking of public space is really interesting. People get so angry about it, “It’s like dogs pissing to mark their territory”, is something I hear a lot, but the same people are happy to be bombarded with billboards and advertising all day long.

Every time I do a new cover, I try to do something different with the lettering. Most of all, I try to keep things simple. I don't run a contents page or anything that would require me to be more formal with it. I had a lot of fun coming up with the letterforms for the ‘Untranslated’ comics, and it ties in with the idea of using a coded language; of different cultures not understanding each other. I didn’t want it be really recognizable as graffiti, but the ideas are similar.

Exquisite Things: You recently did an animated video for Sole and the Skyrider band. It’s a really beautiful piece, how long did it take you and what was involved in the process of putting it together?

Dave: Thanks man, it took me 8-9 months to finish the video. It involved a lot of drawing every day and into the night. I then photographed those drawings and made them transparent to overlay on background drawings using software. I’m still recovering from that one to be honest! It felt weird to be away from comics and I’m looking forward to be getting some new books finished.

Exquisite Things: Did you have any influence on the choice of track, and considering the chosen song’s themes of immortality and post-humanity is the track particularly significant to you?

Sole sent me a couple of tracks to choose from. I had read a bit about trans-humanism and post-humanity. I’d wanted to do a story about it for a while, so the ‘Immortality’ track was the perfect chance to do that. I watched a documentary that described these hypothetical near future situations such as a ‘grey goo’ scenario, which is where self replicating nano robots could suddenly take over the world if we weren't able to regulate them. This was accompanied by some cheap cgi animation. I thought it would be cool to try and depict the same thing in a different way, using more traditional hand drawn animation techniques.

I listened to the track several times and sketched out a lot of ideas. At the beginning of the track, Sole makes a reference to ‘Gilgamesh’ which is an ancient epic that tells the story of a Sumerian King’s quest for immortality. I really liked the idea of involving ancient kings and gods, because if someone becomes immortal, you are effectively a God. Sole had also recently introduced me to a really dope set of lectures by the writer Ronald Wright called ‘A brief history of progress’ which looks at the rise and fall of various civilizations. One of the first civilizations came out of Sumer (which is now part of Iraq), which is where the Gilgamesh epic originated. I found the idea of cycles in history really interesting and it ended up inspiring a lot of the ideas and imagery in the final a short film. It’s pretty intense, but I think it fits the style of the song.

Exquisite Things: Is animation something you’ve always been interested in, do you plan on doing more of in the future?

Dave: Decadence was born while Stathis and I were studying animation and we’ve both been involved with various film and animated projects. Stathis is animating at the moment but it’s a really punishing discipline and sometimes it’s good to escape form it. That’s partly how the first issue of Decadence came about.

Having finished the Sole video I feel like I just got outta jail, and I don’t plan on re-offending for a while… but you never know!

Exquisite Things: So, what’s next for you both? Any projects on the horizon?

Stathis: At the moment I'm working on an animation that's going to be between 8-14 minutes. Over the past two years I've been working on a short sci-fi film but due to economic constraints, progress has been very slow. I think I'll need one more year to get that completed. Next year we are planning to release the ninth issue of decadence. Some time in the spring of 2012 I’m going to release a new anthology with some new stories.

Dave: I’m just finishing a new comic called ‘Olympic Games’. The title is inspired by a recent Sole track. The next part of my Island 3 story is a few pages short of a new installment and I plan on putting together a collection of my short stories about the collapse of civilization in the near future.

Exquisite Things: Cheers guys, thanks so much for your time.

Interview by Matthew Dick.

Quick links:

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Creation Myths - The Anders Nilsen Interview

In the days leading up to meeting Anders Nilsen, I spend most of my free moments trying to contextualise his latest 600 page opus ‘Big Questions’. As I flip through the weighty hardback, I begin to piece together my thoughts, scribbling questions and notes on a pad as they occur to me. I begin to construct a mental map of sorts, linking the birds in ‘Big Questions’ to my own experiences and surroundings, and as I do so I'm struck by the vivid memory of my daily walks to work when I used to live a stone's throw from the River Foss in York.

Every morning I would pass the river, whose grass verges would always be teeming with geese. Traversing the same route for two years, I'd become increasingly fascinated by these majestic creatures and never tired of watching them wreak havoc on the early morning traffic, as they crossed the road en masse in search of fresh grass. Over the years, as my familiarity grew, they became totems of sorts, like living sounding boards for my thoughts.

One day they'd be the ultimate embodiment of some unobtainable freedom. The next, they'd be arrogant and disdainful onlookers - sitting in judgement on river bank, pouring scorn on everything and everyone. They were whatever I wanted them to be, which is how I'd come to view the birds in Anders Nilsen's ‘Big Questions’ – as anthropomorphic extensions of the self. His philosophically inclined flock of birds seemed somehow closely related to my traffic disrupting feathered friends.

When, later that week, I finally meet Anders in a cafe in heart of York, he looks tired. He's been on the road for the best part of two weeks, touring Europe to promote his new book. Home has been other peoples' couches and living room floors. In spite of the obvious fatigue, Anders is friendly and enthusiastic. His manner is quiet and thoughtful, always taking his time to carefully chew over his words before he speaks.

With a cup of tea in hand, I begin to explain the thought process behind my opening question, recounting my journeys to work and my fondness for geese. I ask if he also thinks of the birds in ‘Big Questions’ in the same way. Are they like different facets of his own personality? A projection of his own experiences onto a cast of animal characters?

Anders smiles and ponders my words for a moment before launching into his answer.

Anders: I do get asked 'why birds' a fair amount, and I was telling somebody just yesterday that it's a question I actually don't have a good answer for. Part of the convoluted answer that I always end up giving has to do with the idea of the 'blank slate', especially in the way that I draw them. They're drawn really really simply and that allows the reader to project onto them.

Also, there's an element of what you mentioned. Each of the birds has a separate personality and they have very different takes on the situations that arise in the book. In that way they're like different facets of myself. I think of them less like different people and more like different ways of approaching the world. Any one person could go in any of those directions.

I wasn't particularly interested in birds before I starting doing ‘Big Questions’, but I do pay attention to them now, in a similar way to what you experienced walking to work. I used to live across from this giant urban park in Chicago and I would often take walks there after lunch, say, or when trying to figure out something I was working on. I just starting seeing them everywhere and began to notice how different they are, it's easy to project funny little personalities onto them.

Exquisite Things
: I think you can't help but do that, they can become something more than what they actually are. I think people tend to empathise with animals, sometimes more so than they would perhaps do with people.

Anders Nilsen: Yeah, I think that's part of why so much fiction, especially children's stories, use animals. It's so easy to associate with; to put yourself into an animal's mind.

Exquisite Things: One of the strong impressions I get from your work is that you're constantly breaking yourself down into all these disparate parts, then piecing everything back together. I see a lot of that in the ‘Monologues’ books, ‘The End’, as well as ‘Big Questions’... does that ring true for you?

Anders Nilsen: That's something I've specifically done work about, for sure. I'm interested in the question of 'what is a person?' In the Buddhist sense of asking questions like 'what is a soul? Is there such a thing a soul?' I think the basic Buddhist answer is that there isn't, if you take a person all the way apart there is no 'thing' there other than the material, and the chemicals in the brain.

That's what makes it endlessly fascinating, if there's no single core that's eternal, pure and true, what is a person? What happens if the brain chemistry is skewed just a bit? What if you get hit on the head in the wrong way and everything changes. In ‘The End’, for example, it's about the psychological aftermath of an intense experience. It really is just about me watching myself just totally change. You have to become a different person to deal with certain things, and part of that process is anticipating becoming yet another different person. What happened, in a way, was that I eventually came back to myself, I think.

Exquisite Things: In ‘Big Questions’, you use a lot of imagery that has close parallels to the Garden of Eden. The landscapes are very open and barren and there's a small cast of human characters exploring their immediate surroundings. Those human characters introduce god-like objects into the birds' world; the egg, or bomb depending on whose viewpoint you take, and the giant metal bird / crashed plane. It’s a lot like a creation myth... Are you interested in ancient myths and the theological? Did that feed into ‘Big Questions’?

Anders Nilsen: Yes, for sure... Hugely.

Exquisite Things: You mentioned Buddhism already... but I guess I'm coming at this from a very Western Christian point of view...

Anders Nilsen: My interest in theology does come from a very Western Christian point of view. I'm not religious at all, but I'm very interested in religion because I'm very interested in stories and telling stories. To me, that's what religion is; it's about people telling stories in order to make sense of the world. That's what ‘Big Questions’ is all about. You mentioned the Garden of Eden, in some ways the book is about this loss of innocence for the birds. There are these grandiose tragic events, and a confrontation with death.

Exquisite Things: Yes, you present some pretty opposing views of those events. On the one hand, you have Curtis who's the sceptic, he doesn't buy into the more colourful theories the birds come up with. On the other you have Charlotte, the evangelist... who treats it as a massive religious revelation.

Anders Nilsen: Yes, they both witness exactly the same thing happen but come to very different conclusions about it. That's what I find so interesting and wonderful about religion… even though I also happen to think that Christians are wrong! (Both laugh).

Of course, I know they think I'm wrong too.

Exqusite Things: But there's no reason that can't all still feed into your stories...

Anders Nilsen: Yeah, even though I disagree with Christianity, I'm still fascinated by the fact that they've invented these enduring traditions and amazing stories. As a storyteller, I almost feel that there's little point in trying to come up with new stories. Just messing around with existing stories is actually more interesting in a way.

Exquisite Things: Speaking of myths, I also noticed there's a strong allusion to the Orpheus myth in ‘Big Questions’. The search that Algernon undertakes, whereby he's determined to retrieve his partner from the underworld. This seemed like a very intense sequence to me, I know you experienced the loss of your fiance to cancer some years ago. I read that you’d drawn the sequence before she was diagnosed. Was that a very strange experience? To have your own work of fiction foreshadowing events in your life?

Anders Nilsen: Right, that sequence was written before she ever got sick, but I didn't get to the point of actually drawing it until some time after she died. So, there was this very weird moment where my life was following the work, as opposed to my life informing my work.

Exquisite Things
: What did you make of that?

Anders Nilsen: By nature, I'm not the kind of person who makes much of it. It's part of who I am – in the work that I do I deal with serious subject matter. Dealing with death, love and loss seems to come naturally to me. Obviously, these things happen in life all the time, so at some point it was bound to come around.

Exquisite Things: It's definitely an odd experience, did you find that you ended up pouring those experiences back into the sequence when you came to finish it? Did that add to the intensity of things?

Anders Nilsen: Honestly, I don't know. Of course, it's inevitable that your life experiences are reflected in your work. But with ‘Big Questions’, the story was already in place, it already existed independent of anything else. It really is just me trying to record the story as accurately and as faithfully as possible. All the things that happened in my life haven't really affected the story that much. Except maybe the flaws... which I blame myself for! (Both laugh)

Exquisite Things: Speaking of foreshadowing, one thing that interested me greatly was 'the snake' character in the book, primarily because the symbology attached to snakes is so historically rich. Many ancient cultures interpreted the snake’s unblinking, lidless eyes as a sign of great intelligence, and they were deemed to live by reason and not instinct. I think the most prominent signifier for me was the Snake as guardian of the Underworld or as a messenger between the upper and lower worlds. Your snake, like those in myth acts on reason and goes against the instincts you’d expect. Did these historical interpretations of the snake feed into the character and the purpose the snake serves?

Anders Nilsen: I remember reading that for many ancient cultures, the snake was seen as very wise because they were so close to the earth. I don't think I knew about them being seen as guardians of the underworld. But the pilot kills the snake...

Exquisite Things: and in turn meets his own demise fairly soon thereafter...

Anders Nilsen: Yeah... I'm not sure when exactly I devised that perfect little ending for both characters, but it was the ending that was necessary. I liked the circularity of it. Speaking of foreshadowing, the snake does talk about his own death before it happens; in a conversation with the owl. He knows his death is inevitable, but he also knows he's not just going to fade away. He has a purpose.

Exquisite Things
: Now, I may be reading into things here, but I couldn't help but think of Ouroboros, the symbol of the snake eating it's own tale. ‘Big Questions’ itself also come full circle as it concludes; and after much upheaval, death and loss in the human and avian world, we revert back to two birds discussing how great doughnut crumbs are. Bad things happen, the birds try and make sense of them, but life ultimately goes on...

Anders Nilsen: Right... the 'bad things' are life. I think of the book as having two endings, or two 'bird conversations' that wrap it up. There's the one you referred to, which is literally the last page, but there's also a conversation between Betty and Charlotte. Betty has moved on and the implication is that Betty is building a nest with Curtis. Basically, she hasn't completely reconciled all the horrible things that have happened or the guilt she felt, but life goes on. She's not really telling Charlotte 'you're wrong', but she just doesn't have time to deal with it any more. She's just getting on with things.

The story did evolve over time, and within a couple of years of starting it, I had the main plot points all figured out. But the idea of having that last conversation about the doughnut crumbs came to me very late on in the process. I decided I wanted to end the book in the same simple gag strip kind of style that I'd started it in.

Exquisite Things: Yeah, looking back at the really early strips that are reprinted in the back of ‘Big Questions’, I see a real affinity for gag strips. A lot of ‘Big Questions’ is quite visceral and serious but it's always balanced with the ridiculous. I loved that very early 'fuck you' bird strip in the appendix. Do you think it's important to maintain a sense of humour, to represent both dark and light?

Anders Nilsen: Oh yes, that's super important to me. There are a couple of ways I think about it, one is just to have an emotional range. The art that resonates with me most often is art that has a wide emotional range.

I mean, for example, I'm not even a huge Bob Dylan fan, but on some of his early records, and some of the bootleg connections, he'll do 'Bare Mountain Pick-nick', and that'll be immediately followed by the most heartbreaking song about a woman whose father is killed and she's forced to sleep with the Sheriff. That contrast multiplies the impact, I think. In my work, I really want both of those things to be able to coexist. I'm trying to make a serious comment on life, but I'm also really really interested in entertaining people. I think that's part of where my interest in the humour comes in.

Exquisite Things
: I think even your most harrowing material has a humorous side. ‘The End’ for instance, I found a really hard emotional read. It documents the fall out of you dealing with the death of your fiancĂ©. It's pretty serious stuff, and yet, there's something darkly funny about it.

Anders Nilsen: Yes, it's supposed to be funny. The strip 'I can do whatever I want all the time'. It's a totally absurd situation. When you're going through something like that, there's an element of you being detached and of you observing yourself going through it. You're doing the dishes and you break into tears. Part of you is upset, but part of you is also watching yourself and thinking 'huh. this is weird, I was doing the dishes, and now I've collapsed and I'm on the floor crying'.

Exquisite Things: ‘The End’ was a companion piece to ‘Don't go where I can't follow’, and I have to admit it's the only book I haven't read. For some reason I didn’t pick it up when it came out and now I can’t get hold of a copy. I read you chose not to opt for a second printing. Can I ask why? Was it too close to the bone?

Anders Nilsen: There's a couple of reasons for that, but let me first say that the book is actually going to get reprinted next year. When I first started the book, it wasn't intended for public consumption. It was done as a memorial to Cheryl, then it took on this character and I wanted to do it in colour, and I needed a certain number of copies. I couldn't do it myself, it was just too expensive. It was intended for family and friends, but was published by Drawm & Qiarterly because that's the only way I could afford to get it out there. I was never 100% settled about that, and I'm still not, perhaps I never will be... The book seemed to really resonate with people though, and I got more response for that book than I'd ever had for anything else.

So, at that time, I was very unsure about the reprint. I had been working on the book again with the intention of reprinting. At about that time an article was published about it, and I was beginning to see somebody new and it just felt like there was this thing in my life, that I was beginning to move away from was on my heels. Having the book out there seemed to be preventing me from moving on with my life, or at least, it made it complicated.

Now, I have moved on. At this point I don't think the book is going to define me. I think I can frame it for the readers in a way that won't colour how they read rest of my work. I have a new 600 page book out now… I don't think it will overshadow ‘Big Questions’.

Exquisite Things: Turning to some of your other work now, your two 'Monologues' books' are really very different. They're more loose, more 'stream of consciousness' in their approach. Even the corrections and mistakes are left in. There seems to be a conscious effort to maintain a sense of immediacy as opposed to the very detailed style of ‘Big Questions’ and Dogs and Water. How do those two sides of your creative approach differ?

Anders Nilsen: I think of them as very different, but the truth is they do actually feed into each other. I began the ‘Monologues’ stuff after I was deep into ‘Big Questions’ and ‘Dogs and Water’. So I was doing a lot of very deliberately paced, carefully drawn work. The thing is, ‘Big Questions’ itself actually started as these really rough drawings of little birds having weird conversations. I found that really compelling and it lead me into interesting territory. So I went back to working in that way, and that became ‘Monologues’, I wanted to see what would happen if I kept it rough and immediate. What has happened, is that like ‘Big Questions’ it has coalesced into a bigger story and has developed its own structure all by itself. I'm trying to keep that off-the-cuff feel and looseness.

Exquisite Things
: That's interesting, because I think like many cartoonists, you come from a 'fine arts' background and then subsequently found your calling in comics. Was it sense of fun that made you decide comics were for you?

Anders Nilsen: Totally, that's what was so refreshing about finding comics again. It's fun, it's entertaining, it's easy... Well, it can be easy... It can be horribly hard also. All art has to have a relationship with an audience, and that was one of things that really struck me about comics. I could make a little mini comic and give it to a bunch of friends and it was instantaneous, you make your own audience.

Comics are a form that's very much about your audience. To me, comics are about communication. Paintings are about communication too, but they're these static objects that get hung on the wall and get looked at. Where as with a book, it's something you can get sucked into. I've done a lot of installation work, and I feel books are a little like installation work in that way, it's something you can become enveloped in.

Exquisite Things: Definitely... For me, the great thing about comics has always been the focus on how they convey information, and how they differ to other mediums in that way. I often find myself coming back to Eisner's musing on how comics hang together in terms of form, rhythm and pacing. I mean, a reader’s perception of time and the flow of events can be changed by simply changing how you arrange panels on a page. To me, that's really potent stuff.

Anders Nilsen: Maybe that's part of it... the rhythm, how you panel things out and arrange things. Comics are created to be read, they're for the viewer. Over the history of painting, there has been this idea that's suffused painting; that it's almost pure and maybe the viewer is not necessary. It's pure art, it's just an image. It is what it is whether anybody's standing there or not. I do paintings too, but comics have a more direct, necessary relationship with your audience.

Exquisite Things: So, what's on the cards for the future?

Anders Nilsen: I think I've already started too many projects! I will start a new proper graphic novel, but probably not for a year or two. Before that I'm going to do a book of my sketchbook strips. I have a show of drawing and painting coming up next summer. There's a third and final ‘Monologues’ book that I plan to do. That's not even everything, but that covers it for now.

Interview by Matthew Dick.

Quick Links:

Anders Nilsen Official Website
The Monolinguist - Anders Nilsen's Blog
Drawn & Quarterly