Review by Frank Plowright
In one sense Big Questions has a title that says it all. Starting by using birds as stand-ins for humans, Anders Nilsen poses some fundamental questions about life and purpose over a collection of ever longer chapters. The earliest were originally produced for a class assignment, but as he explains in the process material, he produced so many that eventually he could structure a narrative around them. The opening cartoons have a roughness, as if doodled while occupied with something else, but these coalesce into a more formal presentation. There’s still a scruffiness, but read strip after strip and there’s eventually a conceptual density comparable to Chris Ware. That’s partly because Nilsen extends his cast beyond the birds. Early on we look in on a couple who lead a harsh, spartan life, drawn in a densely crosshatched style contrasting the simplicity of strips featuring the birds, and squirrels are introduced as thugs threatening the birds. An early strip has them pinning a bird by a tree that’s recently been chopped down. Unable to grasp that concept, the squirrels only know the nuts they were anticipating are gone, and a bird is present by the site of this calamity, therefore a likely suspect. The parallels to our world are easily drawn.
Not that everything applies to our world. Sometimes Nilsen is only dealing out whimsy, but considerable allegory is present. There’s the idea of humanity fiddling with things they don’t entirely understand and the consequences of that, a desire to believe in something larger to make sense of the universe and a few doughnuts standing in for the unequal distribution of food to name just three. All feed into Nilsen making what the birds don’t understand matters that we do at a glance.
The sheer bulk of Big Questions, which clocks in at just under 600 story pages means it’s a book unlikely to be read in a single sitting, which is a shame as there’s a definite progression, both in terms of story and artistic construction, with the style becoming more formalised. The big questions are posed, but not answered, and as we come to know the flock of birds we’re drawn into their individual stories from the tormented Betty losing her faith to the timid Algernon on the run and ending up in the worst possible place. Like other Nilsen stories, events are restricted to an isolated place where intrusions are few, and therefore spectacular, the pilot of a crashed plane being one character who arrives. That marks a change of tone as the narrative circles around, the birds becoming ever more fanciful in their theories and fears, bringing to mind the confusion endured by the rockpool crabs annually featured in UK newspaper strip The Perishers.
Don’t be intimidated by the length. Nilsen primary inclination is to minimalism, meaning many, many panels of silent contemplation, making this a quicker read than anticipated. Because it’s designed that way, there’s a greater humanity to the creatures we meet than to the humans, and by posing questions without answers there’s a prolonged existential crisis over Big Questions, much of which is open to individual interpretation. Highly praised on release, Nilsen’s magnum opus has lost none of its power to provoke thought.