Big Questions – an exquisite literary feast that reads like a literal dream
by Anders Nilsen
Drawn & Quarterly
2011, 658 pages, 7.6 x 9.3 x 2.5 inches
$62 Buy a copy on Amazon
The day my mail carrier plopped a review copy of this hefty, gorgeous tome inside my screen door (I have an uncanny ability to discern this faint but happy sound from anywhere in the house), I immediately cracked it open at random. Across the page spread were crude little lines drawings of two finches pecking away at stipple-dot seeds. One bird is nothing but complaints. He doesn’t like their dull daily rounds. He doesn’t like the hill they eat on. The fact that other birds eat worms and flies, and even other birds, while they eat only one kind of seed. And on and on he bitch-peeps. “Did you say one kind of seed?” the other bird asks. He tells him there are at least five different kinds of seeds on the ground before them. And raisins. And crumbs left over from a chocolate donut. “There is?” asks the whiny bird. “I thought those were clumps of dirt!” He begins to dive for these newfound delicacies. “My goodness! That’s exquisite!” he enthuses as the last frame shows the two pecking away, moaning with contentment. From this moment, I was hooked on Anders Nilsen’s epic-scaled postmodern comic fable, Big Questions.
And it was auspicious that those two pages were my first. For, like that bird’s profound dinner discovery, I soon discovered that what I thought was a simple meal of hip minimalist comic strips about a charm of finches pecking away at seeds, while pecking away at the grand existential questions referenced in the title, Big Questions is a far more refined and varied literary feast.
The 600-page story of Big Questions reads like a dream, a literal one. And that’s not by accident as author/artist Anders Nilsen based parts of the book on actual dreams. The story also expands and complexifies as it goes, starting with the simple, rather crude strips of pontificating birds and then matures, in artistic quality and storytelling (the book took 10 years to complete), until you find yourself deliriously deep inside a complex tale of the various bird characters, several strange and helpless humans, an aging snake, swans that live in a downed pilot’s dreams, and a murder of crows (that live up to the name of their bird grouping).
Big Questions opens with our charm of hapless finches and their rather mundane existence on an endless plane in an indeterminate world. That world is shattered when an unexploded bomb falls to the ground, followed by a devastating plane crash. Something of a cargo cult forms amongst the finches as they think the bomb is a divine egg and the plane a giant bird. The bomb explodes their world and sends the story off in many different directions as the birds and other animals and humans cope with the aftermath, heading off on various quests.
Minimal long-form comic books like Big Questions, with many sparse, full-bleed pages, frequently with little or no dialog, can create a very cinematic experience (The Invention of Hugo Cabret comes to mind). Nilsen does an amazing job of varying the pacing of his pages to manipulate the mood of the piece. He’s also a master of getting very potent expressions and emotional body language out of the simplest line drawings. I was frankly stunned by the profound impact that immersion in this book had on me. It was like a mind-altering substance, and hands down, one of the most impactful reading journeys I’ve been on in a long time. It’s no wonder that the book was chosen as a 2011 New York Times Notable Book, a rarity for a graphic novel.
One of the many unique and frankly puzzling effects of this book is how many associations and allusions it generated for me. The constant open questioning of the dialog and ambiguous story arcs (with little resolution), the trippy, open-ended landscape, the almost Zen-like mood, periodically punctuated by alarming violence and cruelty, all worked to create a kind of fugue state where I thought I caught glimpses of many other comics, from Peanuts to Chris Ware to David Lynch’s Angriest Dog in the World, along with similarities to Watership Down, Lord of the Rings, Lost, Journey to the Center of Earth, the story of Jonah and the whale, various fables and fairy tales, and references to Orpheus and other Greek mythologies, Plato’s Cave, and Oliver Sacks’ work with neurological conditions. The list goes on and on.
Some have criticized the pretensions of Big Questions and its lack of clear resolutions. There are plenty of big questions asked and few answers given. Frankly, I believe the questions the title refers to, and the asking of them by the finches throughout the book, is a clever misdirection, part of the overall mood alteration the book is trying to affect in the reader. It worked for me. In spades. My feelings when I finally finished Big Questions were the same as the “punchline” in those first pages I turned to: “My goodness! That’s exquisite!”
I got the hardbound limited edition (which contains 58 extra pages of background on the book, color reproductions of the original comic book covers, sketchbook pages, and more). A paperback version (without all this) is available on Amazon for $29.46. – Gareth Branwyn