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2,500 Years Of History And Gravity:
An Interview With Anders Nilsen


Anders Nilsen in his studio

Anders Nilsen has written three graphic novels, including Dogs & Water, which won an Ignatz Award, and a graphic memoir, Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow, and his comics have appeared in Mome, Kramers Ergot, and Best American Comics. The collected issues of his ongoing series Big Questions will be published later this month. Born in Minneapolis, he now lives in Chicago.

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Interviewer: I’ve read that Tintin was “what got you into comics.” What was it about Hergé’s work you found so captivating?

Nilsen: Well, I was five or so. So it was probably the bright colors and the fact that there was a cliffhanger at the bottom of each page.

But Hergé was an incredibly fluent and inventive and ambitious storyteller. I think there’s something about the utter blankness of Tintin, the character himself, that allows you as the reader to completely project yourself onto the action. Tintin books are funny; they’re exciting; they go all over the world; there’s political commentary, alcoholism, flying saucers, personal submarines shaped like sharks. Pirates. Everything you could possibly want in storytelling as a kid. Or as an adult, for that matter.

Plus I had a stepfather who read them to me and would do voices for the different characters.

Interviewer: Scott McCloud has written about that “blankness”:

“When two people interact, they usually look directly at one another, seeing their partner’s features in vivid detail. Each one also sustains a constant awareness of his or her own face, but this mind-picture is not nearly so vivid: just a sketchy arrangement… a sense of shape… a sense of general placement. Something as simple and as basic as a cartoon. Thus, when you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself… the cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled… an empty shell that we inhabit which enables us to travel in another realm. We don’t just observe the cartoon, we become it.”

Your own characters tend more toward blankness than detail—Tintins, in other words, rather than Captain Haddocks. Is that a conscious choice on your part, to create that “self” for the reader, as opposed to an “other”?

Dogs & Water
From Dogs & Water

Nilsen: I guess that’s fair to say. I can hang my general inability to draw faces on a nicely reasoned theoretical excuse like that.

Actually, I would say that the birds in Big Questions take that idea even a step further, in that they are indistinguishable from one another—all their various points of view become sort of blank slates on which the reader can project. It’s good for that, but not so good for telling a coherent story, where it’s important to be able to tell characters apart.

I do feel like I’m not the best at doing faces with a lot of simplified character. Chester Brown is super good at that. His faces are both super simple and super distinct, full of personality. Hergé excelled at that, too. Then there’s someone like Crumb, who does a lot more rendering, and has a tendency to hyper-accentuate an individual’s idiosyncrasy—bulging eyes, veins popping, moronic beaming smile, etc. But even when he’s not doing that—caricature, really—he is amazing at individual faces. Looking at his recent treatment of the entire Book of Genesis, if you look at the “begats,” where he’s just drawing one face after another, say twenty on a page, all people who have no bearing in the story and don’t ever appear again, they are nevertheless all completely individual, totally unique and convincing faces. Pretty phenomenal.

Interviewer: Scribble Face (maybe you have a name for him, but that’s what I’ve always called him) from your Monologues for the Coming Plague and Monologues for Calculating the Density of Black Holes is an interesting case. Do you see Scribble Face as creating that same sort of blankness for the reader—a “self” as opposed to an “other”—or do the scribbles create a different sort of blankness, something deliberately inaccessible?

Nilsen: I think it probably does the latter. If simplification of the face encourages identification, obliteration is sort of alienating. When I first created that character I was drawing little gag/dialogues between two generic figures, and I got the head wrong somehow and scribbled it out and then found that it was suddenly more interesting. Immediately the character felt in some way privileged over the other one, because his features were hidden.

Interviewer: Did your stepfather read comics?

Nilsen: Only to me. But he also took me to a comic shop and bought me my first American comic, an issue of Ghost Rider in which Ghost Rider fights a guy whose head is a giant eye.

Tintin originally came my way via a friend of my dad, though. My parents had been in a commune in San Francisco, and before that in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia with some friends. One of them, in his travels, had discovered Tintin and Asterix, and then had his interest in comics bolstered by the underground scene in San Francisco. He had a copy of a cookbook that Crumb illustrated that I found at age six or seven. I remember being fascinated and slightly disturbed.

Interviewer: Were you already drawing at this point, or did that come later?

Nilsen: I was drawing as far back as I can remember. It preceded any awareness of comics, certainly. My dad was an artist at that point, so I may have picked it up in part from him.

Interviewer: Had your dad turned art into a career, or was it a hobby for him?

Nilsen: He never made any money from it. He’s a mason, though—he designs and builds Scandinavian-style fireplaces—so he just figured out a more utilitarian way to continue to be creative.

Interviewer: Did he teach you how to draw and paint, or were you mostly self-taught?

Nilsen: He never actually sat down to teach me, though he did occasionally sit me and my sister down and draw us. His wife, my stepmother from the age of four or five, was also an artist, and now teaches art, and I do remember her actually getting us to do little drawing exercises—drawing the negative space of a chair, for example. My mom also enrolled me in art classes when I was a kid. So I can’t really claim to be self-taught, though I feel like the main thing that kind of encouragement and immersion did was help me take the whole business seriously. If I’m actually good at drawing, it’s because I enjoyed it and did it all the time, not because I got good pointers on perspective.

Big Questions #8
Big Questions #8

Interviewer: What did you draw when you were younger? Were you drawing similar characters and in a similar style to Big Questions and your Monologues?

Nilsen: No, not really. I did all kinds of stuff. I remember in fifth grade a whole group of kids in my class, inspired mainly by the Smurfs, each invented our own little races of small cartoon people. I used to read this magazine called CARtoons, which inspired a lot of drawings of Z-28 Camaros and hot rods with giant engines. I had a friend across the street in Minneapolis when I was a kid, and we used to cover his bedroom wall with taped-together sheets of typing paper and draw huge stick figure battle scenes—often with dinosaurs or large Godzilla-type monsters, underground tunnels, people falling off cliffs, giant explosions, tanks, helicopters, etc. I drew a lot of skateboarders, invented superheroes. Dungeons & Dragons characters…

Interviewer: Were you reading DC and Marvel superhero comics at that time as well?

Nilsen: Definitely. Mostly X-Men-related titles, but also what Alan Moore and Frank Miller were doing then, the original black-and-white Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and all their imitators. I’m sure that stuff influenced me as much as anything else.

A lot of the comics I’m interested in now are the fringiest, least coherently narrative art comics—Christopher Forgues and the other Providence artists, the comics in Kramers Ergot, comics that are as much about the visuals as anything. And there’s a part of me that would probably be very happy in going in that kind of direction. But something about the superhero comics and Tintin that has rubbed off on me is a desire for really engaging, long-ranging story and character. I want to be sucked in and carried along. I do little single-panel gags, too, but as often as not they threaten to evolve into longer stories.

Interviewer: Did you try out any other storytelling forms? Or were you naturally attracted to the comics medium?

Nilsen: I’ve tried a little of everything, I think. I even did a disastrous performance art thing my last year in undergrad. I sang in a punk band. I made little Claymation movies when I was a kid.

Really I feel like comics is just the most useful category to drop me into. I don’t feel like I’m wedded to comics as a medium. I draw, and I usually sort of tell stories, but I do make standalone drawings and paintings, and I do make stuff that is probably closer to poetry than comics. I’ve made books before that aren’t really comics—just a series of pictures, or diagrams, or whatever. Even Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow—it won an Ignatz as a “graphic novel,” but there’s really only 12 or 13 pages of actual comics in it, out of like 90 pages. The way I thought about that book came out of the zines I made in college, where it was a little bit of everything you do: photographs, journal entries, a letter I wrote to someone, sketchbook pages, drawings. I feel like comics is just one of the many things I do. It happens to be the thing that seems to have caught on and found an audience, and somehow pays for itself, but it’s just part of a bigger picture. So to speak.

Monologues for the Coming Plague
Monologues for the Coming Plague
From Monologues for the Coming Plague

Interviewer: What’s your process like when you’re working on a comic?

Nilsen: It depends on what I’m working on. The process of doing the Monologues books, for example, is very different from working on Big Questions. With something like Big Questions, which is what I’m working on mainly right now, my general intent is to get a page done a day. Which is impossible. But I sort of shoot for that and then when I end up at the end of the week with three or four, I can feel like I’m making progress. I get up in the morning, sweep the kitchen or do the dishes, eat breakfast and have my coffee and get to work. And somewhere between doing email and packing a print up that I sold I get something done. I didn’t pencil at all for years, but I’ve lately figured out that the more work you do—as in thumbnailing and penciling—the less work you have to do. It’s like magic. I didn’t pencil for a long time, because I felt like the line I got when I just started drawing was more direct and thoughtful than if I penciled first, in which case I would just end up sort of tracing the existing pencil line. I think over the years I’ve just gotten better at drawing and don’t rely so much on the pencil. And so that means I use a lot less white ink and have to start all over less. Which seems to work.

With the Monologues and with the sketchbook strips, I usually work on those outside of my studio. Being in an airplane, for example, seems to be conducive to those. Or waiting for someone while sitting in a car.

Interviewer: When you’re working on Big Questions, does the writing come first or the drawing? Do you write out a script, or does the story just emerge as you’re drawing panel to panel?

Big Questions
From Big Questions

Nilsen: When I started Big Questions I would just draw the next page as I saw it. At that point it was still very much image-based, where I was just kind of generating these iconic images—the house with the shadow of the airplane cast over it, the birds pecking the bomb, the plane crashing into the house, the pilot falling out of the plane confronted by the birds—and then thinking about how to connect them. But it didn’t take very long for the basic plot points to crystallize. As it got more complicated, with more characters to follow and more intertwining of the strings, I ended up making plot diagrams, eventually actually sitting down to write a script, thumbnailing the entire story.

But it’s still the case that new ideas and images bubble up as I am doing the actual drawing for each issue. And to the extent that they work, I include them. The giant swan erupting out of the earth in Big Questions #11 is an example of that.

Interviewer: What’s your working environment like?

Nilsen: I have an espresso machine. That helps. I generally listen to music or to audiobooks or NPR while I work. If I flag a bit in the afternoon I’ll take a short nap.

My working environment at the moment is the second bedroom in the house I live in. It’s small and is crammed with books and sketchbooks and flat files, but there are windows facing south and east. Good light and a view of the sky helps. As I finish pages of Big Questions I pin them up on the wall. Just a couple of weeks ago, after finishing Big Questions #14, I took the whole wall of them down, and I am now slowly replacing them with Big Questions #15. The other walls in the studio are filled with little fragments of found images that interest me, lists of things to do, a couple of maps of the areas where Big Questions takes place, a handmade calendar, and bits and pieces of various half-finished projects.

Interviewer: Does living in Chicago have any influence on your work?

Nilsen: I’d probably be telling the same stories wherever I lived. I think the upper Midwest might be conducive to certain kinds of art-making, in that it’s far from the art markets and the collectors of the coasts; making giant paintings isn’t really as viable in a place like this. There just aren’t as many people and institutions willing to shell out multiple thousands for something to put over their couch, or to stick in their warehouse while they wait for it to appreciate.

So more personal work, like the comics Chicago’s become known for—and things, like comics, that anyone can afford—might be more likely to bubble up here. Still, I think part of the reason I’m here and not trying to compete in a place like New York is that it fits my temperament—I’m more comfortable in my studio drawing, not fighting ten thousand painters to get P.S. 1 to come do a studio visit. That’s also part of the reason I ended up doing comics as my primary medium.

Interviewer: Did you study art formally?

Nilsen: I got a BFA from the University of New Mexico. I studied mostly painting, but I did installations the last year or so for my thesis. I also did some narrative/books/comics kinds of things, including the material that I later published with a grant from the Xeric Foundation as The Ballad of the Two-Headed Boy.

After taking a couple of years off I went to the School of the Art Institute in Chicago to do graduate study, but I ended up dropping out after a year to do comics.

Interviewer: Were you studying painting at SAIC as well?

Nilsen: I was in the painting program there. I graduated from undergrad in 1996, took some time off, moving to San Francisco for a year and then back to Minneapolis. I was still painting and doing work related to my thesis, the installation stuff—I still am, actually,I just had a commission this month for related work—but was also doing more work that strayed into the territory of comics. I did a children’s book for my sister, and was doing short, rough strips in my sketchbooks, many of which ultimately became Big Questions #1 and #2. I applied to grad school while I was in San Francisco, still feeling committed to painting and installation work. But I deferred for a year, and in that intervening time, I became more serious about comics. At SAIC it soon became clear that there were no faculty there that could talk about comics in an informed or enlightening way. The faculty I dealt with were supportive, but they just had nothing but generic encouragement to offer. It also became clear that the debt I was going into wasn’t gaining me much. I could use the same money to pay for printing for my books instead.

I felt pretty out of place there, too. For one thing, I expected, in a grad program in art, that there would be pretty vigorous, robust conversation about art—what it’s good for, what the point is, whether the work we students were making was worth the time and trouble. But I felt instead like people, for the most part, were more interested in patting one another on the back.

Art school certainly has its place. It allows someone who is serious about making art the space and time to devote to work and a forum for feedback about what they are doing. That is potentially invaluable. But in practice art school can be a waystation to house directionless people with vague creative instincts whose families have disposable wealth. It can be a self-sustaining institution that protects people from having to think about what they are doing rather than encouraging them to do so. The oft-repeated statistic that only 10% of graduate students are still making art ten years on is telling. If a medical school was racking up such statistics, it would go out of business.

Interviewer: Do you think the academic community as a whole is ill-equipped to talk about comics, or do you see that as more just a condition of SAIC?

Nilsen: I think that was true almost everywhere ten years ago, but now at SAIC there are three people on the faculty with real comics interest and experience. I think that’s more and more true at art schools and art departments all over: Paul Hornschemeier and Ivan Brunetti are at Columbia. So it’s a different environment. There’s a demand for comics among students that any art school is going to have to respond to. I’m still not sure I’d have stuck around, but it’s different.

Interviewer: In 1985 Will Eisner wrote, “For reasons having much to do with usage and subject matter Sequential Art has been generally ignored as a form worthy of scholarly discussion. While each of the major integral elements, such as design, drawing, caricature and writing, have separately found academic consideration, this unique combination has received a very minor place (if any) in either the literary or art curriculum.”

What do you think is creating this new demand? What’s changed in the past twenty-five years?

Nilsen: That’s a complicated question. The comics code in the 1950’s forced comics to become a strictly juvenile medium for several decades. The underground in the 60’s and 70’s started the medium on a path back into artistically interesting (and adult) territory, but without access to the mainstream it never got a real foothold in terms of offering thoughtful writers and artists, who didn’t want to write for kids, a viable career. Now with the proliferation of manga and graphic novels that’s changing somewhat.

But also there’s been an explosion of, for lack of a better term, the “middlebrow”—culture that isn’t “low” in the usual sense, but isn’t “high” in the usual sense of that term either. Media like television has begun producing what most critics would term serious literary storytelling, and experimenting with form. Pop music is the same way. But it can’t really be thought of as high art, because it’s not really the province of just cultural elites—that is, rich people. With the help of technology like the photocopier in the eighties and ultimately the internet in this last decade, mass culture has paradoxically spawned a prolific, empowered do-it-yourself-ness that really can’t be jammed back into the can.

Comics are one part of that. Kids in art schools don’t care that their professors—who came of age in the 70’s—still think R. Crumb and Spiegelman are just artistic curiosities in a dead-end medium. They want to make comics, because it’s a medium they relate to more than they do to painting or video or whatever. It’s a weird moment, though, because the Art School, capital A capital S, is really a product of an earlier, more rarefied time, when the borders between high and low were easier to chart. I’m sure there’s a sense on the part of art students, too, that comics is somewhat more open. It hasn’t all been done, and it hasn’t already been theorized to death.

Interviewer: I’ve read that you got your start self-publishing. A number of other comics artists have gotten started that way too. Do you think self-publishing will ever become the end goal (or, in other words, profitable)? Or will it always be a stepping stone to the publishing companies?

Nilsen: I think self-publishing is potentially viable. Chris Ware does it, I believe, in a way that is a little like what Radiohead has done—now that he’s got a following, he’s been able to shed the middleman of a publisher. Drawn and Quarterly distributes for him, but he’s self-publishing. I can imagine doing it myself in a way, but it’s just so much work. Filling orders, soliciting orders, sending out review copies… just drawing and writing is a full-time job. Dave Sim made it work. John Porcellino still does King Cat himself; Drawn and Quarterly just does the collections.

And there will always be the weird artsy stuff that is just unpublishable—whether because it’s hand-sewn or made out of wallpaper or whatever. I did a mini-comic last fall on found paper with a bunch of postcards, and that just couldn’t have been done the same way and have been published. So I think self-publishing has a very important place in comics and in culture. I doubt it will ever entirely vanish. I hope not.

Interviewer: Then there are artists like Blu, who self-publishes on walls and sidewalks, using graffiti as his medium for comics and animation.

Nilsen: Exactly. I hope art that is unmarketable never goes away.

Interviewer: Your own work incorporates a variety of mediums. Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow, for example, is made from scanned-in letters, drawings, Polaroids, postcards, and so on.

Don't Go Where I Can't Follow
From Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow

Nilsen: I actually don’t think of Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow as comics, or as a graphic novel, really, despite that it won the Ignatz in that category. I think it was put in that category because I happen to do comics, and the comics community accepts my work, so even when I go outside the medium, people are willing to expand the circle to include what I’m doing. If they like it. Which is not to say I have a problem with it being seen that way, necessarily; I just think it’s interesting. I actually connect Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow more to the zines I did in college, which also had a little of everything: photos, drawings, comics and writing. It’s just storytelling with pictures. And in the case of that book and the story that I wanted to tell, the multiple media turned out to be what was needed to tell it right. To tell it in the most direct way. Because it was a true story, it seemed obvious to use imagery of actual artifacts from the story, because that’s one step closer to reality than a drawing of those artifacts would be, or than a literary description would be.

Also that book was made more as a memorial. It only became a published book because I couldn’t realize it in color otherwise. So immediacy, and collapsing the distance between the events described in the book and the audience, was important to me.

But really I approach all my work in that way: what’s the best form to get this idea across? I suppose that, in theory, if I needed to use some photographs to get across what I have in mind for Big Questions, I would be willing to do so; it just happens that that story doesn’t require it. It’s more a story that lends itself to being told through drawings and word balloons.

Interviewer: Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow is a short volume, and a spare one. How did you decide what to include—and what to leave out—of your memorial to Cheryl? It must have been particularly difficult, considering the content involved.

Nilsen: I already had had the idea of doing some sort of book/document of our trip to France, and had taken the pictures there partly with that idea in mind. I’d also thought about doing something with the camping story.

I guess it became clear fairly quickly what material would contribute to a sense of the relationship and of Cheryl. Also the theme of travel emerged fairly quickly, and became something of an organizing principal. The only new material, other than the text I added to the pictures, is the memorial strip at the end. The book was conceived as a memorial and a document, not really as literature or an art object, so the closing strip was added really just for closure and as a way to tie the whole thing together. The process of putting the book together was difficult in a way—I was in the middle of grieving—but it was necessary and hugely helpful, too—for the same reason, actually.

Interviewer: Even after writing Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow, you seem to have still had some grieving you needed to get out onto paper. Do you see The End as a companion to Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow? Or as something different?

Nilsen: Whereas Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow I see as a memorial and a document, The End I see as “art,” in the sense of making images and telling a story to try to understand and communicate a sense of an intense, complicated human experience. The distinction might seem arbitrary from the outside, but it’s meaningful to me. Also, The End isn’t really about Cheryl at all, it’s about me and about the process of going through loss and looking towards a resolution. Also, to sharpen the distinction, I should say that Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow only got published because that was the only way for me to do it in the way I wanted it to exist—in color, a hundred pages, etc. Originally my intent was just to print ten or fifteen copies on my own printer for friends and family—people who knew her, who knew us—but as I worked on it and it got longer, I realized it was going to be unwieldy. So I asked Chris Oliveros at Drawn and Quarterly if he’d be interested in publishing it. And he was. Or at least he couldn’t face telling me no—I kind of put him in a tough position, I suppose. Fortunately the book was very well received.

But really it was meant for a very small, very specific audience. The strip at the end was really meant just for Cheryl herself. Which was awkward, since she was dead. But I think that contributed to the intensity of the piece. It really was extremely raw. It’s sort of difficult for me to go back and read it—it makes me cringe. It’s like realizing you’ve been walking around naked for three days and nobody told you. Which is basically why I asked Chris not to reprint it. On the other hand, I am proud of it in a way, too; it’s hard as an artist to know you have work that you like and are proud of but aren’t comfortable having out in the world. I’m perpetually on the fence about whether, and how, to do a second printing. I guess I’m waiting to see if distance makes a difference.

Interviewer: A lot of your work seems to deal with lostness and wandering: Dogs & Water in particular, Big Questions, and in a certain sense even the Monologues.

Nilsen: I guess I just find it to be a compelling metaphor for life. If you strip away all of our conventions and assumptions and really let yourself question everything, take nothing for granted, you’re sort of lost. And that’s a very interesting, fertile place to start telling stories. It’s fun to play around with how different characters replace the lost markers. How do people—or the birds in Big Questions, or God in the Monologues, if that’s what you mean—locate themselves and the world around them if the former markers are gone? Or prove untrustworthy? Most drama deals with extremity of human experience; if I keep coming back to “lostness” it’s because it’s a variety of extremity I continue to find productive and compelling.

Interviewer: Neil Gaiman has said, “For me… comics are much more interesting than prose, at least as a creator. One has greater control of how the information is received in comics than you do in prose—whether it’s keeping control of the reader’s eye to stop them skipping ahead, or simply making sure that they see the same character in their heads that you do in yours. And comics have the joy that you never see in prose: the joy of being able to enjoy your own stuff. I can’t enjoy a prose story I wrote, but I can enjoy what Dave McKean or Charles Vess or John Jay Muth or P. Craig Russell does to one of my stories.” Do you enjoy reading your own comics?

Nilsen: Neil Gaiman has the advantage of having someone else drawing his stuff—collaborating, reinterpreting. So when he sees it, it really is new. When I read my own stuff I am very often unable to see past the mistakes, the stuff that doesn’t quite work, the places where I was a little lazy. In general it gets better as time passes and I get more distance from it, and occasionally I really can get some pleasure or power out of it. But when that first box of books arrives from the printer I usually can’t even open it for a couple of weeks, let alone read it.

Interviewer: Your illustrations in the Monologues are drawn in a very different style than your work in Big Questions, Dogs & Water, and Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow. Why did you decide to draw in that style for the Monologues?

Nilsen: It was less a conscious decision, more me just messing around with stream of consciousness cartooning and finding that it actually went somewhere. Working quickly with a bare minimum of care for the drawing allowed the ideas to move faster. I started doing what ended up as the first Monologues book after a couple of years where I’d stopped working much in my sketchbook; I’d been spending more time and care on Big Questions and Dogs & Water. I had just been on a book tour for Kramers Ergot #4 and been in a van and doing signings with all these other artists, all constantly drawing, and it sort of reminded me of the value of just screwing around on paper. Inventing and playing around with stuff that you don’t know what it’s going to be. Since then I’ve continued to try to have my hand in both ways of working.

Interviewer: Penguin has been hiring comics artists to illustrate the covers of the books in their Classics Deluxe Edition Series: Daniel Clowes for the cover of Frankenstein, Frank Miller for Gravity’s Rainbow, Charles Burns for The Jungle, Michael Cho for White Noise, Chris Ware for Candide. How did you end up doing the illustrations for Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales?

Nilsen: The project was brought to me. I was delighted, for a couple of reasons: I can’t think of a classic I would rather do the cover for. I hadn’t read any of the stories since I was a kid, and they were a revelation. Amazing, sad, complicated, haunting, disturbing. Someday I would love to illustrate the whole collection. But it was also really something to be put in the list of that first batch of cartoonists. I was the single unknown, in the company of Ware, Spiegelman, Chester, Miller, Burns… it was a complete honor.

Big Questions
From Big Questions

Interviewer: How much of a role do you see mythology and fairy tales playing in your own work?

Nilsen: In a couple of ways. First, mythology and fairy tales were just a major formative influence. They were among my favorite kinds of stories as a kid. I just sucked them up, and they form a huge part of the foundation of how I understand stories and storytelling. Also, my mom was into Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell when I was a kid, so I was exposed to their ideas in a general way—specifically that mythology is worth taking seriously as a vehicle for playing with ideas and trying to figure out how the world works.

In a more direct way, I’ve plucked characters and types straight out of both genres (I would include the Bible in this category, by the way) to rearrange, recombine and play around with. The Bible and Greek mythology make up the foundational stories and images of Western culture, and they are still incredibly fertile sources. In a way, I wonder, why should I bother to invent new characters and situations when I can just steal from the masters and get 2,500 years of history and gravity thrown in for nothing? And the thing is, I’m as likely as not to be stealing from them accidentally anyway, so why not just surrender and accept my fate?

Interviewer: Are there any myths or Biblical stories you’re particularly drawn to?

Nilsen: I’ve come back to Isaac and Abraham a couple of times. I did a story about Sisyphus, which I’ve often thought about revisiting, and it also referenced or retold the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. There’s one storyline in Big Questions that references Orpheus, though I’ve actually never felt particularly drawn to that myth—I think stories about artists are usually not that interesting. In Monologues I’ve played around with the nature of God and the battle of good and evil. And my story in Kramers Ergot #7 sort of does the same thing, though not by referencing any particular story. I did a painting last year that was sort of an homage to Albrecht Durer’s images of Saint Jerome and the Lion; it sort of retells that story—or extends it and changes the ending. I have an Adam and Eve drawing in mind, though I probably won’t get to it until after Big Questions is done.

Interviewer: In one of the Monologues you write:

“God started talking to me when I did this. First, you need a clock. Then: Get a notebook or about 40 to 60 pieces of paper. Draw one of three things, an animal, a robot, or you mom’s boyfriend. Make it very simple. Stick figures are fine. Okay, now you have 60 seconds to think of something for it to say or do. When sixty seconds is up you have to turn the page and start on the next one. The next one is the next panel, and you only have 60 seconds to draw it, so think fast. If you can’t think of something for one panel, that’s okay. It’s just a pause in the action. In comics pauses are like anvils: they contribute a sense of gravity. You change every 60 seconds for an hour. When you are done you will be surprised. You will have starter material for your next 10 mini-comics.”

Is this a method you use often?

Nilsen: Technically, I only ever did that once. The summer before I finished undergrad I took a two-week artist retreat/workshop kind of thing at the D.H. Lawrence ranch in Northern New Mexico. We did a bunch of different exercises, one of which is what, more or less, I described there. It was actually a drawing exercise, not intended to apply to narrative, but we started with a single object and were instructed to draw it, then redraw it, then redraw it again, etc., for an hour. About halfway through I started treating the pages as panels in a comic. The rough little narrative that emerged was a very basic outline of what eventually became Big Questions: birds, a crashed airplane, a confused and distraught pilot. That summer I started doing the little comic strips about birds that eventually became Big Questions #1 and #2, and eventually it evolved into the story I’m still working on now, 14 years later.

I’ve never sat down with a stopwatch since then, but the process of doing the Monologues is modelled on the same idea: try to generate ideas and story faster than your internal editor can censor or dismiss them. A lot of the Surrealist movement in art is uninteresting to me, but the analogy to what Andre Breton called “automatic writing” is pretty plain.

Dogs & Water
From Dogs & Water

Interviewer: After you’ve finished Big Questions, will you use that same method to start your next big project?

Nilsen: Probably not. I don’t know what my next project is going to be, but I have a few ideas already in mind and they are beyond that stage.

Interviewer: Do you write any prose?

Nilsen: I write in a journal. Mostly just hand-wringing about the state of my life. Nothing very interesting, or worth, say, publishing.

Interviewer: Will Eisner said, “There is a kind of privacy which the reader of a traditional prose work enjoys in the process of translating a descriptive passage into a visual image in the mind. This is a very personal thing and permits an involvement far more participatory than the voyeurism of examining a picture.” Is that your experience when writing/reading prose vs. writing/reading comics? That of participant vs. voyeur?

Nilsen: I don’t feel like the process of reading prose is more active, really. It seems like sort of a specious distinction, that comics are somehow voyeuristic or more passive because they have pictures. I feel like when I read prose the images—or the things described—just kind of bubble up; it’s not that I am in some way “active” or am doing a kind of “work” to interpret and visualize them. Say you run into a friend on the street and he tells you his boss is an asshole—you don’t pause and close your eyes and try to translate the words into pictures in your mind. Human language is much better and more subtle at transmitting meaning than that. If you read the words “he set the glass on the table” or if you see a picture depicting that same action, either one, set clearly and sensibly in context, will convey the basic meaning. They work in slightly different ways, but to say one is “far more participatory” seems quite a stretch.

Interviewer: Eisner has also said that “in comics, because the reader is in control of the acquisition, it is more difficult to surprise, shock or retain his interest… aside from unexpected turns in the thread of a story, surprising the reader on a visual level remains a major problem.”

Nilsen: Yeah, I think surprise and shock are something that comics just aren’t good at. I think it’s hard, maybe almost impossible to do a comic that is really truly scary the way writing and film can be. Horror comics are rarely very satisfying. There are little tricks, though. The cliffhanger is one. Also, talking about something visceral but not showing it (as is often effective in film). Every medium has its strengths, though, and surprise is not one of comics’.

There are different kinds of surprise, though. Four-panel gags, like Peanuts, for example, often work by setting up an expected pattern in the first three panels and throwing it off in the fourth. Maybe comics can do funny surprise better than scary. Actually, I guess that’s a lot of what I try to do to carry the reader along: set up a rhythm, often repeating panels with just small changes, then changing the view suddenly in the last one. Or setting up a conversation that seems to be going in one direction and then suddenly switching it in the middle to something unexpected.

Interviewer: What do you think are the strengths of the comics medium?

Nilsen: Caricature is one, a certain kind of exaggeration that comes naturally to drawing. A different but related strength is a certain kind of suspension of reality that comics allows. The superhero genre couldn’t have thrived in any other medium nearly as well. On film, without the massive special effects that have just become available in the last five or ten years, superheroes just look sort of sad and flat. Even with them they can be pretty stale. A real live person in a leotard just looks ridiculous. Comics are visual, and can have the immediacy and dynamism of pictures, but there is still a lot of room for the viewer to inject a sort of veneer of reality over the whole thing, a suspension of disbelief. That’s something that I definitely tap into in Big Questions, where cartoon birds have to co-exist with real people.

I guess I would say that comics allows a kind of idiosyncratic personal vision in a way that is distinct from other media, because of the way the drawing and narrative interact. For example, it’s sort of impossible to imagine Tintin drawn by any person other than Hergé. Or when I was a kid I collected The New Mutants, an X-Men spin-off. I loved the way it was drawn by Bill Sienkewicz, and when he left the series I completely lost interest. The atmosphere and craziness of the drawing actually made the story better—it elevated it. The way things are drawn—the “hand,” the “style”—informs the narrative and the content in ways words just couldn’t do, ways that are hard in film, too. The way we understand pictures, and the kinds of information they convey, are just different than text. Related to that is the fact that comics can be done by a single person, and they are hard to edit—both because of panel structure (to add a panel in the middle means shifting everything else forward one) and because it can be so much damn work. And so there is an inherent tendency for narratives to evolve and get complicated in a way where you can feel like you are really seeing through the creator’s eyes, discovering the story along with the creator.

Big Questions
Big Questions

Interviewer: You said that your own “hand” or “style” was influenced by Chester Brown and Jason Lutes. Are there any others?

Nilsen: I feel like influence is an almost impossible thing to trace, really, because there is so much of it. But if I was trying to trace just the way I draw I would say those old fairy-tale illustrations: Arthur Rackham-type stuff. Although I actually always liked the more generic ones most. N.C. Wyeth and a lot of other children’s book illustrators were big for me.

But in terms of comics: Hergé, Gorey, Crumb, Moebius, the Hernandez brothers. Phil Foglio, if anyone remembers him. Dave Gibbons, Mazzuchelli, and probably anyone who drew The X-Men in the eighties. And on and on. Alan Davis and Garry Leach, who drew the first few issues of Miracleman

Interviewer: Which children’s book illustrators, aside from Wyeth?

Nilsen: Maurice Sendak is amazing. I just got a big artbook of his stuff and it’s really phenomenal. Ron Barret, who drew the original Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, was awesome, absurd, yet poetic and loaded with portent. Alan Lee, who drew this big book about fairies, blew my mind. William Steig, Howard Pyle… I don’t know, really, as a kid those pictures sort of just wash over you. The names are secondary.

But the simple, straightforward, readable, evocative pictures I encountered as a kid probably form the foundation of the way I make pictures. I always responded less to illustrators with an obviously self-conscious “style.” Someone like Ezra Jack Keats, for example, who did A Snowy Day—I never liked that stuff as a kid. I can totally appreciate it, now; it’s beautiful. But as a kid I liked the more straightforward stuff.

Interviewer: Were you happy with the film version of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are? How well do you think they translated his illustrations onto the screen?

Nilsen: I thought the costumes and visuals were amazing. The story was fine, I thought the dynamics between the wild things was great, their characters and dialogue were awesome, but it nevertheless felt a little disconnected somehow. And the dynamic with the kid and his mom, the whole underlying psychology of the story felt a little generic. I think that’s an example of the potential differences between a picture book and a film. With film you really need to do a meticulous, coherent job of sewing the character together with the motivating psychology. With a picture book you have so much more room for the suspension of disbelief. I read that Sendak was uncomfortable with the fact that in the film they have Jack running out of the house to get to the land of the wild things, but that Spike Jones and Eggers were really insistent about it, that just having the bedroom transform wouldn’t really work cinematically. And that might be true, but that’s part of the problem of translation between media. In the book it’s enough that Jack is just a grumpy, bad kid. It doesn’t need any more motivation than that to get him into this whole fantasy world. In a movie that would feel too thin and arbitrary. Their solution was to hint at this after-school-special brand of divorce/friendlessness pop psychology. And you end up with a “moral” at the end. The book doesn’t have a moral; it’s just about this kid going through a catharsis. And that’s enough.

Interviewer: It’s been suggested that comics lends itself particularly well to translations to film. Do you think that’s the case? Or what are the problems with translating comics to film—what’s lost when you watch Sin City at the theater, or Persepolis, Ghost World, Watchmen, Surrogates?

Nilsen: Of the films you mention, I’ve only seen Ghost World, Persepolis, and Watchmen. And I think they all worked out sort of differently. Persepolis and Ghost World I actually liked better as films. It wasn’t clear to me that Persepolis needed to be a cartoon, but I thought it was pretty engaging. I guess it probably did something similar to what Maus did—that is, making something big and horrifying feel more approachable by turning it into drawings (whether that’s a desirable way to deal with things in the world that are big and horrifying is maybe a different question).

Ghost World seemed to me to benefit from a second look by the author. I liked the comic, too, but I felt like the film had more sympathetic, better developed characters and plot. I think a lot of times films adapted from literature leave you with a feeling that there was a lot more in the book, and you’re missing something. It’s hard to edit down a long complex narrative with multiple characters into a satisfying, concise two-hour movie. Which might mean that short stories, like Ghost World, hold up better in film. Because you can actually expand them and flesh them out a little bit. It’s worth noting that Clowes was involved in the project so he could amplify his original ideas, instead of some new writer trying to use another person’s story for some new end.

Watchmen clearly suffered from the opposite problem. The brilliance and genius of the book was its incredible richness and complexity: the interweaving of a bunch of fully developed, complicated stories and characters, and the different genres and modes of storytelling Moore used. To try to squeeze it all into a single film was just a fool’s errand. Maybe as a ten-hour miniseries for HBO it could work.

It was still enjoyable to me as a fan, and as nostalgia, but was not a great movie. It also suffered from that suspension of disbelief problem. Something like Rorschach’s escape from prison is just more believable in static pictures, where you’re filling in a lot of the detail and atmosphere in your mind. The “Big Figure” midget crime boss character for example: in the book he’s very iconic, and there is a very effective tension between him seeming ominous on the one hand and pathetic on the other. In the movie, maybe a great actor could have pulled it off, but he just seemed pathetic.

In comics the reader provides a lot of nuance of characterization, I think. Same with the burning-building rescue, or the mugging scene with the Night Owl and Silk Spectre. The whole superhero conceit of stumbling on a group of muggers in an alley who are about to accost a lone woman is just absurd. In comics you sort of fill in a caricature of what the surrounding world is like—you let it just wash over you. But in a film, the way it looks, with real people and real buildings, your mind wants realness. And the absurdity of the conceit just has nowhere to hide.

Interviewer: Gaiman has written that Will Eisner “was one of the very first people to run a studio making commercial comic-books, but while his contemporaries dreamed of getting out of the comics ghetto and into more lucrative and respectable places—advertising, perhaps, or illustration, or even fine art—Will had no desire to escape. He was trying to create an artform.” Going back to what we were talking about earlier—about how comics have changed in the past twenty-five years, and how art programs are becoming more adept at talking about comics, and so on—do you think the medium finally has been established as an artform? Or is a comics-are-for-kids stigma still attached to the medium?

Nilsen: The answer is probably yes and yes. It’ll be a while before comics-are-for-kids is really, completely expunged from the collective consciousness. Basically, the Baby Boom generation—which is the generation that grew up while that stigma was actually true in this country—have to die off and leave aside control of official art institutions.

But, yes, it’s more or less established as an artform. Chris Ware is as famous a visual artist as any other at this point. Museums in the U.S. are still a little confused, but they’re getting there. We’re not Europe yet, in that regard. But the direction of movement is pretty clear.

Interviewer: What’s your “desire”? Will comics be a lifelong pursuit for you, like it was for Eisner? Or are you interested in ultimately moving to other forms?

Nilsen: Both. I’m doing a giant wall installation right now. It’s a forty-foot long, ten-foot high wall that I’m covering in buttons, with images cut more or less randomly from the history of art and design and print-visual culture. It’s about as un-comics as I get.

Most of what I do has some narrative component. But if a good idea presents itself, regardless of the category it falls under, I’ll follow it if I can.

This interview originally appeared in Nashville Review in 2011