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Big Questions

by Anders Nilsen

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating

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Big Questions by Anders Nilsen
© Drawn & Quarterly
Drawn and Quarterly, September 2011

It's been twelve years and fifteen issues since Anders Nilsen's first installment of Big Questions was published as a Xeroxed, staple-bound comic book. At long last, Drawn and Quarterly has compiled the entire run of Big Questions into a beautiful omnibus edition that allows Nilsen's story to flow uninterrupted from start to finish. Seeing Big Questions in its entirety will dazzle readers with its progression. Nilsen's story doesn't just flow: it blooms. In the twelve years it took to complete Big Questions, Nilsen's creative skills have blossomed exponentially and readers will marvel at the transformation that takes place between the book's covers. In just 650 pages, we see Nilsen grow from a cartoonist to a true artist and watch his story slowly become what just might be the acme of the comics-as-literature movement.

The first issue of Big Questions featured crudely drawn birds and people, both species in equal states of existential crisis. "I hate the world and everything in it", one bird thinks to itself, unable to find the means to convert this sentiment into words. "Shit, seeds again", another bird says in a different strip, as his flock proceeds to peck away in silence. At first, these seem like short gag comics, but through Nilsen's impeccable pacing and frequent use of silence in his frames, even the simplest scenes find a way to distill a world of philosophical complexity into just a few lines.
After the first few issues of Big Questions, Nilsen shifted his spotlight entirely onto his philosophical flock. Although they all look identical, his birds are given names and they begin to take on new roles as representatives of the many intellectual facets and ideas that Nilsen grapples with in his story. Leroy is the unchained philosopher, prone to unwelcome monologues, and can be found early in the book trying to discuss his ideas with another bird named Zwingly. "If we change our behavior and try to direct our actions in a positive way, could we influence the course of world history?" he asks, "and yet, even if we could make such a difference, how would we know where to start?" A bird named Betty leans more towards the spiritual side of things with her beliefs, and is visited by the boney ghosts of passed birds (including the recently-killed Leroy, who "sought advice on philosophical matters from an owl"). Algernon leads another thread of Big Questions as he searches for his missing mate Thelma. Algernon is kidnapped by a snake and kept in a cave that allegorically will make any Plato buff proud.

Eventually, humans are introduced in Big Questions by way of an old woman and her mute, mentally unsound grandson. "The Idiot" (as he's referred to in Nilsen's dramatis personae) sees the world differently, from a mind stuck somewhere between that of birds and humans. The Idiot's curiosity and peculiarities manage to attract a bird named Bayle, who eventually becomes a devoted follower and almost a disciple of the man. Some of the finest scenes in Big Questions are with Bayle and The Idiot as they wander through the forest together in search of some kind of unknown connection.
Although Big Questions deals heavily with ideas and philosophy, some of the most exciting and awe-inspiring aspects of the story are two major plot points that further explore the relationship between man and nature. When a bomb drops near the birds' tree and remains undetonated, the birds are forced to reconfigure their simple world-view to include this new, metallic egg and its unclear origin. Later, hinting lightly at a large-scale political subtext, a plane crashes into The Idiot's house, killing his grandmother and completely leveling their home. The pilot survives and provides Big Questions with a much-needed and well-voiced human element as he struggles to regain his composure after his near-fatal accident.

Big Questions is an astonishing achievement and the many years that Nilsen spent with this story will shimmer through to his readers. This book has enormous potential to appeal across its medium; Big Questions's outstanding text and artwork should be capable of drawing in even the most comic-phobic lover of literature. Like Algernon's cave, Big Questions is more expansive the deeper you go. Multiple readings will surely lead to new discoveries and will keep readers captivated until Nilsen's next masterpiece, whenever that may land.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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