Tag: Big Questions

The Best Comics of 2011

by on Dec.13, 2011, under Comics

The annual exercise. Please to begin the arguing.

#7 Amir, Zahra’s Paradise

Zahra’s Paradise begins on June 16, 2009, the day after one of the earliest and largest election protests in Freedom Square. Mehdi, a nineteen-year-old university student, was at that protest and hasn’t come home. His mother Zahra and his brother, the unnamed narrator, are worried about him and try to find out what’s happened. That’s it, but that basic motivation allows Amir and his artist collaborator Khalil to create a full portrait of the horror of daily life in Tehran during the repression that followed the protests.

#6 Fred Van Lente, Comic Book Comics

For a comic book buff it’s fascinating to read tidbits like the series of events that led from the Frankfurt School, to Fredric Wertham’s testimony before Congress, to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, to the death of EC Comics, to the birth of Mad magazine. Or how the increasing crackdown on drug paraphernalia in the early 1970s put head shops out of business and thereby killed the distribution network for underground comix artists like Robert Crumb. Issue #5 even manages to make interesting reading out of nothing but the many intellectual property ripoffs and lawsuits that have plagued the medium since its birth.

#5 Ted McKeever, Meta 4

I think (and this was never my strong-suit philosopher so I’m not sure, but I think) that Ted McKeever has written a Heideggerian allegory in comic-book form. Now available in a trade collection.

#4 Phil Hester, Golly vol. 1: Catching Hell

Golly feels as if someone took Garth Ennis’s Preacher and drained out all the meanspiritedness, sadistic jokes, and sexism. Golly Munhollen grabs the circus strongwoman’s ass one day, she knocks him out, and he’s visited by an angel who informs him that the Apocalypse has been postponed indefinitely due to lack of interest, and in the meanwhile he’s been appointed the clean-up squad for all those demons left running around the world. When Golly asks the logical question—why me and not someone smarter—the angel tells him that from a heavenly perspective the difference between him and a genius is negligible. “It would be like asking you to look into a puddle and select the smartest amoeba,” it says. “You will do.”

#3 Charles Soule, 27 (Twenty-Seven)

Will Garland has a repetitive stress injury in his playing hand, and in trying to cure himself accidentally makes a Faustian bargain that leaves him with a console implanted in his chest. Every time he activates it he gains a miraculous ability for three hours, but after the 27th time he does so, he will die. The ending is unexpected yet perfect. Now available in a trade paperback.

#2 Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá, Daytripper

Every issue of Daytripper tells an episode in the life of the protagonist, Brás, at a different age. Brás starts his working life as an obituary writer, then becomes a novelist in his thirties; at the end of each issue he dies and we read the opening lines of his obituary. Though the episodes are told out of order, we realize very quickly that we are to read each one as if none of the preceding deaths happened, but everything else we’ve read about did. Brás has many loves in his life—a girlfriend, a wife, a best friend, a father, a mother, a son, a dog—and there are episodes touching on each of them. Brás is built up as the sum of these many loves and remembered in relation to them in each of his obituaries, in an extended meditation on loving in the face of death.


#1 Anders Nilsen, Big Questions

If Chris Ware is the comic book medium’s James Joyce, Anders Nilsen is its Samuel Beckett. 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. Now available in collected form.

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Big Questions Collected Graphic Novel

by on Sep.21, 2011, under Comics

Just a quick hit to note that the new graphic novel collection of Big Questions is finally here. I reviewed the whole series back in April when the final issue came out. It’s one of the best comics of the last ten years and one of the few collections of this year you really must buy.

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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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