Big Questions

by on Apr.19, 2011, under Comics

Let’s say we think of Chris Ware as the comic book medium’s James Joyce. Like Ulysses, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth used a pathetic Everyman as a focal point for wildly disparate formal pastiches drawn from its medium’s whole history. Joyce reenacted the history of Western prose; Ware combined elements of old magazines and comics—everything from Little Nemo in Dreamland to the ads in Silver Age comic books—to reflect his middle-aged hero, stuck in the present day but fantasizing imaginary pasts and futures. Jimmy Corrigan even delves into many of the same themes as Ulysses: fatherhood and the lack thereof, alienation, the disconnect between desire and reality…

That makes modern-day Chicago the equivalent of Joyce’s Ireland, and Anders Nilsen comics’ Samuel Beckett. A writer who joined a literary scene that already had a reigning Joyce and ran full-tilt in the opposite direction.

Like Jimmy Corrigan, Nilsen’s long-running series Big Questions had a small, independent origin. The first Jimmy Corrigan pages were published in Newcity, the Chicago alternative weekly, and Nilsen self-published early issues of Big Questions cheaply, using grant funds from the City of Chicago and the Illinois Arts Council. He switched to Drawn & Quarterly with issue #7 and his popularity has slowly grown, but it’s been limited by the fact that you couldn’t read the first part of the story unless you could somehow get your hands on those early issues. (I have most of them, but I’ve never even seen #1 and #2.)

At last, though, Nilsen has wrapped things up, more than a decade after he started. The final issue just came out and a full collection will be published in July, giving readers who aren’t obsessive collectors the chance to appreciate the whole sweep of the thing.

And like I said, what we get to see is his bid to be comics’ Beckett. Where Ware elaborated, Nilsen strips away: Big Questions is drawn in black and white, with scarcely any shading. Its backgrounds consist of a few trees, or some debris, or a blast crater. Quite often, especially in later issues, he does away with panel borders, leaving his figures afloat in a sea of white. He likes to show long sequences of repeated motion broken down to simple snapshots, which can have the same comedic effect as, say, the sucking-stones sequence in Molloy.

He follows Beckett, too, in reducing characters from Joyce/Ware’s full people in a complex world to simplified, stunted beings in a world of limited possibilities. Think of the distance from Stephen Dedalus and Leo Bloom to Didi and Gogo, or Hamm. The main characters in Big Questions are mostly finches, living in a forest that could be anywhere and trying to come to terms with inexplicable disruptions in their lives. An airplane drops a bomb that fails to explode. The birds gather around it and some believe it’s a magical egg. They stand guard over it and it explodes, killing many of them. The same airplane crashes into a farmhouse and the pilot emerges. Now there’s a schism among the finches; some worship the giant bird and its mysterious human chick, while others, a minority, follow the idiot boy who used to live in that farmhouse.

The themes are, indeed, the Big Questions: the nature of existence as apprehended by beings of limited knowledge. Just as the finches struggle to make sense of the giant bird and its lethal egg, so, by implication, do humans struggle to make sense of their world and its creator, if it has one. One of the birds even conceives a finchly version of Plato’s Cave to drive home the parallel. God could be an idiot, wandering the forest eating bugs. He could be as unhinged as the pilot, who can’t tell reality from his dreams. Or He could be a pair of swans who appear in the dreams of all creatures and welcome them to death. Some react to these possibilities with false certainty and rigid faith, others with skepticism, or with bewilderment and guilt, or with simple hedonism, or with a search for ecstatic transcendence.

Think Beckett meets Beatrix Potter, adorable little creatures on a bleak, featureless plain, staring into the abyss—but hopeful nonetheless, in its own way. “We can’t ever really know the outcome of our actions,” one of them concludes, “but if we act earnestly, and do our best, everything will turn out right in the end.” Of course the bird saying that happens to be responsible for the deaths of many others. And dead herself.

The complete Big Questions will be available in July from Drawn & Quarterly. Download a PDF preview here.

UPDATE: The collected Big Questions is here. Buy it.

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