Published last year, graphic novelist Anders Nilsen's Big Questions (a 600-page tome about a flock of birds ruminating on life, love and death) is an exceptionally neat and meticulously detailed feat of illustration. Careful pen strokes render every leaf, blade of grass, and grain of wood with a precision that imbues Nilsen's rudimentary birds with a lofty presence. No detail has been glossed over: everything is exactly as it should be. This precision makes the philosophical aspects of Big Questions all the more engaging: while there may not be one "Big Answer," it seems Nilsen's exposed all its pieces, plainly, beautifully visible.
But what happens when this foundation breaks, when a hand becomes too shaky for a neat, clean line? In 2005, Nilsen endured the loss of his fiancée Cheryl Weaver, a tragedy that fractally shattered the artist's interest in careful composition. Two cartoonists emerged from his loss: the Nilsen who maintained writing Big Questions up through its conclusion in 2010, and one more interested in abstraction, minimalism and the deatomization of the comic book form.
The End was originally published in a staple bound format in 2007 under Fantagrpahics's Ignatz imprint and has been expanded and re-released. With only 80 pages, The End is a quick read but it is hardly fleeting: these pages come from such a raw emotional place that they'll reverberate like an echo from a well.
There are three types of minimalist storytelling in The End and each represents a stage of grieving and overcoming that loss. Initially, the book is composed of sketchbook pages that will look most familiar to those readers who know Nilsen for his work like Big Questions and 2005's Dogs and Water. A chapter called "Since You've Been Gone I Can Do Whatever I Want All The Time" features floating cartoons of "me crying while doing the dishes," "me watering your plants," and "me talking to you though you're not even there," among many other lonely moments. Fascinatingly, the line work in these single-frame cartoons grows more confident as the pages go on. Nilsen removes the captions as the figure in the panels grows more used to his solitude. In just a few pages, absence becomes a routine. It's not uplifting, but it's progress.
"Why do you keep calling me? You've had a lot of time to think about all of this. You need to stop calling. And get on with it. You need to get over the whole thing. You need to stop putting it all on other people. …What if I give you twenty bucks? If I give you twenty bucks will you get over it and stop calling me? You aren't going to answer me are you. God I find this so irritating. Aren't you bothered by it too? Don't you want to move on? God you piss me off sometimes."
Nilsen moves from this aggressive self-reflection to something even more abstract: later (and in a similar, minimal format), the figure approaches a female silhouette, a vessel for his late fiancée. "Can we talk?" he asks, and it's possibly the biggest question the author's ever posited. Their discussion runs quickly through shared memories, uncertainty of the past as well as the future. "I still have a lot of questions," he asks. "If I fall in love, will you haunt me?" "I will always haunt you, no matter what," she replies, and he makes her promise.
The third format in The End doesn't actually end the book, but it provides some of the most uplifting closure in its attempt to inspire a continued, fulfilling life despite the tragedies endured. "How Can I Prepare You For What's To Follow" was originally screen printed in poster-format, and features a faceless figure illustrated over found imagery of beautiful landscapes and vintage photography. This section functions like an abstract Terrence Malick film, running quickly through worldly imagery while a faceless figure delivers an inspiring conclusory speech. "You get to eat whatever you want a sleep and dream and be warm, to comfort and be comforted," he says, screen printed over a distant view of Machu Picchu. He reminds the reader, standing over what might be the French Riviera, that "you have a small, fragile heart, the same as all of us." It's a message we've heard before, but its majestic delivery and the difficult path that led to this revelation make The End all the more exceptional.
Read our 2006 interview with Anders Nilsen.