Anders Nilsen‘s comics series, Big Questions, began 15 years ago as a simple xeroxed sheet passed along to friends. Since then, as the Chicago-based cartoonist puts it, “I’ve lived in four different cities, in eight different houses, and had seven different day jobs. I’ve been engaged twice, married once, divorced, and weathered a death.” (Jessica Hopper wrote a Reader story, “Grief Made Graphic.” about Nilsen and his reaction to the death of his fiancee, Cheryl Weaver.) Through all those changes there’s been Big Questions, and through all the Big Questions there’s been a single consistent theme: what’s it all about?
The main questioners are a group of birds with a philosophical bent. While going about their birdy lives, they discuss metaphysical matters such as life and death, why terrible things happen, the nature of snakes, and the best things to eat. Contrasted to them is a murder of caustic crows who eat anything (other birds, putrid corpses) and seem to take pride in their dark nature. In one narrative thread a pilot crashes his bomber in a desolate landscape. The birds see an unexploded bomb as a giant egg—virtually an object of worship—and attempt to care for the pilot, whom they regard as the plane’s “hatchling.” It doesn’t go well.
The overall mood of the work can seem bleak—a feeling enhanced by Nilsen’s simple, clean, black-and-white line drawings. But there’s a ray of hope, or at least a rationale. We “can’t ever really know the outcome of our actions,” a character says, “but if we act earnestly, and do our best, everything will turn out right in the end.”
The series has been collected into a thick, gorgeous volume called Big Questions, printed by Montreal-based publisher Drawn & Quarterly.(Sorry, Kindle users, your devices won’t do this book justice.) The deluxe hardcover edition has 600-plus pages and weighs in at a feather under five pounds. Quimby’s is cosponsoring a book release event. Tue 8/30, 7 PM, Lula Cafe, 2537 N. Kedzie, 773-489-9554. F