Big Questions by Anders Nilsen
Published: August 24, 2011
By Anders Nilsen
Drawn and Quarterly, hardcover
For some reason, talking animals really lend themselves to the exploration of human issues. This isn’t a new concept of course; it wasn’t even new when Aesop was first telling his fables. But Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions is an excellent addition to a comics storytelling tradition that’s as varied as Walt Kelly’s Pogo and Chris Onstad’s Achewood.
Big Questions, collected here in a limited-edition 600-page volume that could double as a bludgeoning instrument, follows the lives of a group of finches who live around an old woman and her mentally disabled son. The birds are content until one day, a “giant metal bird” drops an “egg” and later crashes. The tragedy that ensues (the “egg” is an unexploded bomb) forces the surviving animals to attempt, for the first time, to make sense of the world around them.
Nilsen’s strips are brilliant in that he manages to do so much with the limited palette he allows himself. Most strips maintain a simple, economical style, which in turn allows the moments of impressive detail (a strip titled “Anoesia and the Matrideicidic Theophany,” for instance, concludes with a stunning fold-out depiction of a plane crash) to be all the more powerful.
Through his animal cast, Nilsen not only captures the curiosity and mystery of the human experience, but the cruelty and pain that come along with it. The crows are bullies, a solitary owl is a remorseless killing machine, and even the finches themselves are often greedy or manipulative.
The book’s impressive emotional complexity can be seen in the relationship between a finch named Algernon and an aging snake. Algernon is wounded and desperate to search for his mate. The snake finds Algernon and takes him back to his lair. Instead of eating the bird, the predator tends to him while aiding in his search for his own answers. Their friendship begins and, eventually, ends with acts of pure, selfless kindness.
Big Questions should be lauded for the depth and breadth of its exploration. With its compelling cast of characters and evocative, often classical imagery, it exemplifies just how much can be accomplished creatively in the medium of comics.
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