The new Big Questions collection from Drawn & Quarterly is a rather staggering thing. It’s a 658 page hardcover, 2.6-inch thick culmination 15 single issues drawn over the course of a decade. The series, which was born in the pages of Anders Nilsen’s art school sketchbook, centers around the journey of tiny talking birds, set against minimalist landscapes.
The series, along with the Ignatz-winning Dogs and Water, the Xeric-winning The Ballad of the Two-Headed Boy, and appearances in anthologies like Kramers Ergot and Mome, have helped earn Nilsen a place as one of the most respected names in cartooning circles. The new sweeping Big Questions collection is likely to land him a fair amount of notice outside our often claustrophobic world.
Whatever the case, Nilsen has already moved onto other things, beginning work on a new story, and getting ready to board a plane to France the day after we spoke.
Where are you heading out to, this weekend?
This Saturday I’m getting on a plane and flying to France. I’m doing a residency there for a week. Zak Sally and Sarah Glidden are going—they’re the two North Americans, and then there are a bunch of French cartoonists. I’m going there for a week, and then they arranged a short tour of some French cities and Brussels, and then I’m gong to the UK. I’m doing six cities there.
That sounds like a pretty sweet deal.
It is. The residency is awesome. The reason I’m doing the UK part is that the residency is paid for. I figure I was already over there, so I might as well go see the UK, which I’ve weirdly never been to.
You’ve been to France before.
I’ve been to Angouleme twice.
The French seem to take to your work?
They’ve invited you back.
Yeah, so they must. Dogs and Water was translated into French. It looks like Drawn & Quarterly has just sound Big Questions to a French publisher, so I guess we’ll find out.
There are some stretches in there without dialog. That should translate fairly well.
Yeah, and hopefully somebody will make the words work.
Big Questions began in your sketchbook.
Yeah. The first few strips were all done in sketchbooks in mid-90s. It was me playing around, sort of making fun of myself and my own philosophical and artistic pretensions. I was playing around. It was a bit of an alternative to the other kind of work that I was doing, which was much larger scale and heavier and more serious.
A bit ironic that it was an alternative to the larger scale stuff and yet it turned out to be a 650 page book.
Yeah, I seem to not be able to keep things small and simple. It’s not one of my strengths.
So there was no plan to make this a giant opus?
No. Once I started working on the material for number three, I started thinking of it as a longer story. But I sort of thought it would be 100 or 200 pages. I had a general idea of what the plot would be and where the story was going to go. But I just didn’t realize how long it was going to take for me to get there.
How far in advance do you tend to plan?
Ideally with a long story, I try to start it without knowing where it’s going. I have an idea for my next longer story, what the characters re and some basic idea to get it started. I’ve had it in mind for years and years, but I try not to think about it and where it will go. I want it to be fresh and still interesting to me when I get to it.
But once I’m into a book—with Big Questions, the basic outline crystallized pretty quickly. Dogs and Water was a little different. I went one direction and then changed my mind, halfway through.
Did Big Question have a definitive ending for you? Are you definitely done with it?
Yeah, it’s definitely over. No more little birds. At least not as main characters. Though the next story has a goose as a main character, so I guess big birds are still okay.
Is it easier to write animals than it is people?
I wouldn’t say it is. Once they become characters, they’re just characters.
They might as well be people at that point.
Yeah. They’re easier maybe to draw. The birds definitely are. The facial expressions—they have them, but they’re easier to play around with. They’re a little more generic.
I’m not great with human faces, actually. Human faces or more complicated faces, the subtleties can do more than you mean them to.
Do people project the same sort of emotion on more simple drawn faces?
Yeah, and I think there is something more relateable about really simple stuff. That’s the power of traditional cartooning, you can get a lot across without very many marks.
[Continued in Part Two]