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10/17/10

Anders Nilsen - Random cruelty, futility, ennui, and an implied assault on human complacency are the order of the day


Anders Nilsen, Monologues for Calculating the Density of Black Holes, Fantagraphics Books, 2009.

Monologues for Calculating the Density of Black Holes takes up where the artist’s first volume, Monologues for the Coming Plague, left off. Like Coming Plague, Density of Black Holes is a creatively experimental laboratory, comprising a collection of free flowing stream-of-consciousness gags, strips, and drawings that slowly coalesce into an unexpectedly compelling and complex narrative. The hints of story that came together in Coming Plague are extrapolated and expanded upon and grow to incorporate some of Nilsen's other outré strips from the anthology MOME, two of which are reprinted here in expanded form. The book is an audacious investigation into the rhythms of storytelling, the blurring of media, and an exercise in reconciling contrasts. It is playful, provocative and serious all at once — another tour de force by Anders Nilsen, impeccably and uniquely designed, in monochrome and full color.”

“The scribble-headed guy returns from Monologues for the Coming Plague (2006) and eventually interacts with a faceless guy who, first seen solo, immediately discards hair, collar, and the under-the-shirt pillow that initially made him look tubby. “I’m not me,” he says, “I’m someone else. I’m just masquerading as me.” A clean-up guy comes in, vacuums up faceless’ castoffs, and leaves. Faceless talks about a credit-card statement, watching reality shows, his psychologist and masseuse, going on Oprah, a note from his mother, getting locked in the bathroom by burglars, and digging a tunnel to a neighbor’s apartment with a soap dish. He digs in his pockets for the note. But, “Wait. This cartoon should have ended pages and pages ago.” He calls scribble-head for an explanation. There are 360 more pages of this, 31 of them mounting faceless on full-color aerial photos and maps. Other characters drop in, sometimes taking over for pages. The note is never completely forgotten. The only famous artworks that fascinate like Nilsen’s stream-of-consciousness, existential farces are Samuel Beckett’s absurdist comedies.” – Booklist

“Anders Nilsen's comics have the rare power to generate queasy laughter... Random cruelty, futility, ennui, and an implied assault on human complacency are the order of the day. When Nilsen wants you to feel his boredom, or taunt you for your own, he's merciless... Nilsen is a relentlessly interesting comics creator. ...I'm looking forward to his next performance in the wasteland.” - Byron Kerman

“Anders Nilsen has placed himself alongside other young comic luminaries like Kevin Huizenga and Sammy Harkham... His beautiful meditations on grief and life after loss, have made his name one that readers can rely on for work that in not only good but also meaningful... definitely one of the more rewarding reading experiences of this very young year.” - Bryan Hood

“Anders Nilsen is a weird dude… [Monologues] help[s] cement his odd sensibilities and fantastic art… It’s a wild, gorgeous sketched ride from one of the more prominent members of the graphic novel elite.” - Jason Schueppert

“Anders Nilsen’s deceptively ordinary drawings are used here at first to depict the common theme of isolation, loneliness, dejection and alienation—all in a seemingly unremarkable narrative set of light pencil drawings and straightforward narrative device…the book stops talking with words, and shows pure graphic simplicity the degradation of the human soul….a progression of grotesque images which convey the impossible maze of our own minds.” - Dig Comics

“With critically acclaimed books like Dogs and Water and The End, Anders Nilsen has placed himself alongside other young comic luminaries like Kevin Huizenga and Sammy Harkham. His beautiful meditations on grief and life after loss, have made his name one that readers can rely on for work that is not only good but also meaningful. His latest book from Fantagraphics, Monologues for Calculating the Density of Black Holes, proves that the artist’s reputation is well deserved.
A direct follow up to 2006’s Monologues for the Coming Plague, Black Holes features a series of stream-of-consciousness stories about―well―everything. Unlike his more focused recent work, Nilsen tackles a variety of subjects including: lost notes, media consumption, mysterious conspiracies, killer robots, and even finds time to answer critics of the first book (in a nice tongue-in-cheek manner). The immediate rush of stories and quick transitions feels like a mishmash at first, but Nilsen deftly maneuvers between each subject creating a unified narrative. What initially seems haphazard, gradually reveals itself to be contemplative and philosophical.
One thing that will stop some from giving Black Holes the attention it deserves is the sometimes crude artwork. Nilsen’s book looks nothing like the beautiful and detailed work seen in his comic series, Big Questions, or his entry in the latest issue of Kramers Ergot. Instead the artwork looks like the kind of quickly dashed off drawings found in the margins of a high school notebook, but it is actually much more sophisticated than that. While it may not dazzle, the art carries the story forward in a way that more intricate artwork would not. The art and text compliment each other perfectly, creating an idea that is easily absorbed before moving onto the next image. There are also some breathtaking images throughout the book. The simplicity of Nilsen’s figures work well pasted over full color nature photos and map images, giving those pages an far reaching feel not present in the rest of the book. The subtle coloring is also noteworthy. While it is easy to over look at first, but Nilsen utilizes line color to great effect. Each section has its own color, a move that segments the book in a way that only strengthens its narrative flow.
As some of the characters in its very pages state, Monologues for Calculating the Density of Black Holes may initially come off as a long art experiment, but it really is more that that. Nilsen has crafted a thought provoking book that begs to be reread. With each reading, more things show themselves, illustrating the book’s complexity. Its not the most accessible comic, but Monologues for Calculating the Density of Black Holes is definitely one of the more rewarding reading experiences of this very young year.” - Bryan Hood

“It's an interesting exercise to try to wrap one's head around Anders Nilsen's MONOLOGUES FOR CALCULATING THE DENSITY OF BLACK HOLES, which is apparently the second in a series. Nilsen is well known for his exacting work in his BIG QUESTIONS series, which is one of the few comics I read these days that has a lot of stippling to go along with its other detail. DOGS AND WATER was another book with opaque themes and a painstaking line that demanded a high level of scrutiny from its readers to tease out its meaning. That's why it caught many readers off guard when he started submitting scratched-out, stick-figure comics for MOME and for his first Fantagraphics book, MONOLOGUES FOR THE COMING PLAGUE. A number of readers were frankly baffled or even angered by that comic, given its bulging page count and slapped-off drawings. Those readers will likely want to avoid BLACK HOLES, since the style is the same.
So what is Nilsen's goal here? Like many artists whose masterwork takes years to complete, it seems as though Nilsen wanted to spend time on a project that was utterly different from his other work. Thus, the MONOLOGUES: spare and scratchy where his other work was detailed; loose and spontaneous where his other work was considered; and funny where his other work was melancholy. It's interesting to see the many influences that inform MONOLOGUES; there's a bit of absurdists like Ionesco, elements of Tom Stoppard's wit and philosophical musings, stream of consciousness dada in the style of Tristan Tzara, and oblique New Yorker type gags with the scratchy looseness of James Thurber and Saul Steinberg. Clocking in at over 400 pages, what MONOLOGUES winds up most of all as is a really good shaggy dog joke.
We meet a man who tells us about his day, where an increasingly absurd number of weird events has happened to him. He goes on Oprah, gets kidnapped by the CIA, and has all of his possessions shrink to nothing--or so he tells us. The central idea behind the book is "I'm not me", so he's able to talk about these events as though they were happening to someone else. We then meet the man in charge of his fate, with a scribbled-out head. The fact that Nilsen does not correct his scribbles is obviously quite deliberate: the omnipotent creator makes mistakes, but the characters are forced to deal with them. Immediacy and spontaneity are what he's going for above all else, not pausing to correct because he's quickly changing a punchline.
It's a risky approach because even comics with loose & scratchy art rarely include errors, and it's a big reason why so many readers have reacted so viscerally against these books. I actually see the scratch-outs as part of the joke: it's a form of erasure, leaving behind meaning even though we can't see the meaning. We can't see it as readers or know Nilsen's intent before he scratched out a word. Of course, we can only guess at what he really means even when we do see the words, which is part of the point. The spontaneity of the page makes for a deconstructive reading experience, where Nilsen forces the reader to break down each image and word.
Nilsen mockingly addresses his critics in the middle of the book, one of many tangents and side-trips in the book. Nilsen jokes that the drawing isn't crude--it took him his whole life to learn how to draw this badly, after drawing well for so many years. When the criticism is brought to his attention that he isn't funny, he simply replies "Fuck you. I don't think you are funny either." When another person notes that it's "random and incoherent", he smirks (with his blank-faced character), "Ah, my audience is finally beginning to understand me." These strips are random after a fashion, given the level of improvisation seen here, but it's not automatic writing. There are definitely story and concept threads that bind the book together.
One of the monologues is about a god-like figure looking over his creation and doubting his own decisions, while wearing handcuffs. The existence or non-existence of such concepts as god, empirical proof, knowledge and even doubt itself is discussed and then immediately lightened by a gag or an attack by killer robots. At its heart, this is a book about doubt and the ways in which it is punished and discouraged. Certitude even about doubt comes under fire in this book, as Nilsen mocks nihilism as much as he does the smugness of scientists. Nilsen lampoons science and faith alike, goes off on a tangent where he posits absurd fights ("who do you think would win--cows or pigs?"), and later has a bunch of single-page gags about masked burglars. The answers to profound philosophical questions are often solved by consulting a calculator, while the search for a note from his mother seems to be crucial to the ontological foundation for the main character. My favorite thing in the book are his absurd floorplans, where the rooms are labeled with people and things along with places (like salt pork, or machine guns).
An important note about the book is that it needs to be read in as close as one sitting as possible. There are recurring jokes as well as admonitions to pay attention to the main plot, even if nothing seemed to be happening. While there are plenty of gags, it's the shaggy dog nature of the book that form's the book's foundation, stringing the reader along as characters talk to us about what seems to be nonsense, until the end. Reading the book in smaller chunks robs the reader of that immersive experience and blunts the overall effectiveness of the joke. A second reading of the book helps remove some of that initial confusion, even allowing one to understand the bigger picture while taking in the small details a bit more closely.
MONOLOGUES FOR CALCULATING THE DENSITY OF BLACK HOLES is a lark that allows Nilsen to ask a few fundamental questions without taking it all very seriously. It's best read quickly at first, never lingering too long on a particular image (again, a deliberate move by Nilsen). Instead, one should pay attention to the rhythm of the dialogue (and monologues) as it builds and gets crazier and crazier. The experience is akin to going to a small theater with bare walls, watching an absurdist play unfold. Even the pages where the character's backgrounds are mountains or maps feel like an overhead projector clumsily creating a background instead of a more organically constructed scene. We're thrust directly into the experience with no warning or context. It's best not to have any expectations; even the author chides his assistant for claiming that the book will all make sense in the end. While there is a conclusion of sorts to the narrative, it's really just another series of blackout gags as the main character drowns himself in paper in search of the one note that will ground him in reality and gets cleaned up in a quite literal manner. It's one of a surprising number of visual gags in this comic, as Nilsen isn't just shoving words down our throats but instead uses images as the workhorse for many of his jokes. Nilsen may have been trained in art school, but he has always had the instincts of a cartoonist and appreciation for the entire depth and breadth of its history. In this book, those instincts play out in an unorthodox fashion.” - Rob Clough

Monologues for Calculating the Density of Black Holes is the second in what will eventually be a trilogy, as you noted at your blog. Did you set out wanting to create a trilogy when you embarked on Monologues for the Coming Plague?
- When I started the first book I just thought I was doing some experiments in my sketchbook. Playing around. But once I had finished the material that comprises the first book I had started to see the potential for a more expanded form–the narrative had started to come together, characters develop, etc. I started thinking about it as a trilogy then.
In lettering the stories, you cross out text at certain points.What freedom do you enjoy by approaching these books as improvisational sketchbooks?
- Just the ability to get the ideas and the progress of the narrative down quickly. It’s a way to get ideas out before your internal critic can get ahold of them. Of course, sometimes they end up being stupid or go off in unproductive directions. So there is editing that happens. I want the end result to be readable and engaging. But preserving some of the untidiness of the process–the scribbled out bits–makes it clear (hopefully) that the process is in some way improvisational.
And why did you scratch out some text–while doing the freedom of information style black box on other excised text? One of the recurring characters has a scratched out face–did you ever consider giving the character a blacked out box for a face?
- The difference is in where the decision happens…on the page or in photoshop after the page is scanned in. And I like the randomness and variety of the difference.
Throughout the book you utilize maps and large landscape photos as backgrounds for certain scenes. Where did you find these photos, and what motivated you to use them in such a manner? Were those pages some of the hardest to produce in the book?
- Yeah, prepress-wise those pages are somewhat more complicated to make happen. To get the lines crisp on the color background. Many of the photographs are ones I took myself. Others I find. I collect old postcards or other imagery of landscapes. I’m drawn to the genre–the fine lines between a boring image and a majestic one, and how the way we interpret them changes over time. Also the arbitrary ways the character in the foreground may interact with what’s going on behind him, the symbolism that’s created and undermined at the same time.
Could you have done this book in black and white–and if not, given the minimalism of several pages, why do you opt to do those pages in color?
- I’m interested in separating the sections visually, and also just making them a little more visually interesting. Again, by doing the changes in color between sections you are cuing the reader that there is some change in content. There may or may not actually be any, but it sets up an expectation. Which is fun to manipulate.
Given your affinity for stream-of-consciousness work, what creators that pursue work in a similar vein seem to inform your approach, if anyone?
- The person I keep going back to is Chester Brown in Ed the Happy Clown. It’s really great to see his mind working and his ambition expanding over the course of that story. Someone introduced me to David Shrigley‘s work after MFTCP came out and I really like the surprising, improvisational nature of his stuff.
At a weighty 400+ plus pages, was there anything you edited out for space? Granted there is intentionally limited editing on this book, but did you edit yourself or have someone edit it for you?
- I edited it. I had a few people look at it and give me feedback. There was a lot of material that didn’t make it in, there was also stuff added after a couple of re-readings. I did a significant re-write after the book was already solicited at 400 pages and ended up adding a bunch of stuff, and having to squeeze it in. This book has a lot more two, three and four panel pages than the first one, partly because of that. The flexibility of not having a panel structure is helpful.
Do you expect the average reader to get the gist of your message on a first read–or is Monologues for Calculating the Density of Black Holes a work that you think demands that the consumer read it multiple times to get the full impact of your work?
- I don’t know. I suppose I would hope with most of my work that people are compelled, because they are interested enough, to reread it, and that they find something they didn’t see before that makes it worth the effort. But if someone finds it to be confusing nonesense and decides to throw it into the swimming pool that’s okay, too. Probably some of it won’t make sense until the story is wrapped up in the third book.
With two books in the trilogy under your belt, have you developed an affinity for certain characters more than others?
- I like them all. I think I’ve gotten slightly less interested in the guy with the face, the guy looking for a job. Which is a problem because I think he’s sort of important.” – Interview with Tim O'Shea
Anders Nilsen, Monologues for the Coming Plague, Fantagraphics Books, 2006.

Monologues for the Coming Plague is the longest and most ambitious work to date by Anders Nilsen, the talented young cartoonist who has appeared in a variety of prominent comics anthologies over the past few years as well as in his own self-published comic, Big Questions, and has emerged as one of the most critically acclaimed cartoonists of his generation.
In 2003 Nilsen went on a signing tour with several other artists for the book Kramer's Ergot 4. The enthusiasm of his fellow artists for drawing in their sketchbooks proved infectious, and he decided to employ the same spontaneous method for a finished book.
"I've always worked in sketchbooks," said Nilsen, but I had lost the habit and my way of working had become very slow and deliberate. While waiting in the airport in New York, after the tour, I found myself absorbed in a series of one panel gags about a woman feeding a bird, brainstorming captions and watching ideas follow."
Taking a cue from the school of Automatic Writing, an aesthetic mode championed by Andre Breton at the beginning of the 19th century that became the foundation of the Surrealist Movement, Nilsen began work on Monologues for the Coming Plague. The process is born out of a stream of consciousness followed by limited editing and rearranging.
The book ranges playfully from riffs on the gag cartoon to paranoid soliloquies of a surrealistic apocalypse, with references to contemporary politics, pop culture, and religion, plays on language, and sequential abstractions. Stories intertwine, branch off, dead end and double back. These are experimental, absurdist art comics, but the book is a page-turner, and some of it is laugh-out-loud funny. Reading it is not so much like reading comics as it is watching the artist make connections between ideas, find patterns, and set down the story as it happens. It's a tour de force, beautifully and uniquely packaged, in black and white and color, by one of the most fascinating new cartoonists of the decade.”

“The latest offering by the author of the award-winning Dogs and Water is a long series of drawings—almost scribbles—simple enough to be stuck on Post-it notes. Don't let this fool you; these almost-doodles make a deeply funny and moving book. Whether it's a scribble-headed guy spouting poetry or a woman having a conversation with the bird she's feeding, the short, goofy captions provide a spectrum of nuanced and subtle social commentary. Nilsen goes on quiet feet where few pundits go. Topics include terrorism, semiotics, the eight-fold path and Tide laundry detergent, the last two combined. "Nothing ever happens here, yet the impending cataclysm is always right around the corner," says scribble-head. Later he pulls a dinosaur from his pocket, which eventually dismembers him. The bird and the woman also contribute to the discourse, ending with her final "Do you want the terrorist to win?" Nilsen takes the banal catchphrases of contemporary culture and strings them together like a master DJ. Pushing back the boundaries of comic art a second time, the results are hilarious, whimsical and heartbreakingly real.” - Publishers Weekly
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“Nilsen's rite-of-passage parable Dogs and Water (2005) obtained its power and mystery from austerity: no panel frames, and characters rendered with just enough detail to avoid cartooniness. This book is sketchier; indeed, it consists of sketchbook extracts; the lion's share, from one sketchbook, appears on gray stock, the rest on white. The principal figures are abstract humans, a bird, a dog, and a dinosaur. Backdrops, when present, are vestigial. So are the plots. A bird and a woman tossing crumbs discuss their relationship. Two men, one of whose heads is drawn as a big scribble, talk about semiotics and travel to Pittsburgh. Regular-head and a dog talk about the former's job search. Scribble-head tells us about being exiled, it seems from heaven, then counsels regular-head to shoot the Buddha if he sees him on the road. Regular-head does, gets sent up, escapes, and wreaks vengeance. Back to scribble-head musing, and eventually to him counseling the regular-head some more. Piquantly reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's existential absurdist theater, Nilsen's work is not as sad, perhaps.” - Ray Olson

“The latest offering by the author of the award-winning Dogs and Water is a long series of drawings almost scribbles simple enough to be stuck on Post-it notes. Don't let this fool you; these almost-doodles make a deeply funny and moving book. Whether it's a scribble-headed guy spouting poetry or a woman having a conversation with the bird she's feeding, the short, goofy captions provide a spectrum of nuanced and subtle social commentary. Nilsen goes on quiet feet where few pundits go. Topics include terrorism, semiotics, the eight-fold path and Tide laundry detergent, the last two combined. "Nothing ever happens here, yet the impending cataclysm is always right around the corner," says scribble-head. Later he pulls a dinosaur from his pocket, which eventually dismembers him. The bird and the woman also contribute to the discourse, ending with her final "Do you want the terrorist to win?" Nilsen takes the banal catchphrases of contemporary culture and strings them together like a master DJ. Pushing back the boundaries of comic art a second time, the results are hilarious, whimsical and heartbreakingly real.” - Publishers Weekly

Monologues for the Coming Plague - I'll be damned if I can tell you what to make of Anders Nilsen's comics. There are times, such as a lot of his stuff in Mome - when I find myself staring at it incomprehendingly and flip past it hoping something "better" - read, "more comprehensible" - is next. I can remember standing in The Beguiling last year and being a bit stunned to hear Christopher Butcher tell me he thinks Nilsen's stuff is genius. Respecting Butcher's opinion as I did (and do), I figured I was just being dense and missing the forest for the trees, and besides, the specific book Butcher was talking about (Dogs and Water), I still have not read.
I did read the next issue of Nilsen's Big Questions that came out after that conversation, though, and if I understood not everything I read (BQ is an ongoing narrative, apparently much of it from the point of view of birds, which Nilsen seems to adore drawing), at least I came away from it with a respect for Nilsen's aesthetic sensibility -- spare, gentle, bewildering.
"Bewildering" is a good word for Monologues for the Coming Plague, which from the outside seems deliberately designed to look like something you'd be assigned to read in your sophomore Literature class. "Deliberate design" is a concept I thought about a lot while reading Monologues -- did Nilsen deliberately design the book so the spine must be cracked while reading it? A note at the end confirms Nilsen had a deliberate purpose in using two different paper stocks over the course of the book. He seems to think a lot about design and the tactile nature of reading a book, which, while common in artcomix (at least the ones I like), is always an added pleasure, given how little thought goes into the presentation and quality of most entertainment, from movies and music to comics, books and everything else.
What about the comics? Sloppy, strange, mannered, elegant, brilliant? I'm not altogether convinced you couldn't have drawn any picture in the book. And yet, you haven't, and Nilsen has, and there's an undeniable net effect akin to awe. Awe that his brain works in this way, awe that Fantagraphics finds this worth publishing, awe that I enjoyed it all the way through. Awe, perhaps, that I don't ever enjoy reading Nilsen's stuff as much I think I should, but always more than I think I will.
Nilsen raises big questions about narrative, art, philosophy ("Yeah, I have a philosophy, but I'm not sure what it is.") and existence. He doesn't seem to answer any of them in his comics, but I hope one of his punchlines here will also describe this review for you:
"Thank you, that was actually very helpful." - Alan David Doane

“I’ve been following Anders Nielsen’s work since the very first issue of Big Questions. I’ve witnessed, therefore, the slow-paced but steadily outstanding growth of one of the most refined author of comics of the last years.
Perhaps we’re too close to his work, especially the recent Monologues for the Coming Plague, to fully acknowledge the importance of Nielsen’s oeuvre. But why pull any punches? Nielsen is a master of the understatement.
As one flips the pages of Monologues, there are two things happening: speed and backlash.
Speed because the one-illustration-per-page makes its reading, while a physical act, quite fast-paced. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, in a very weird manner, taking in account the apparent simplicity of Nielsen’s drawings and short sentences, it echoes the proverbial “times in which we live in”.
Backlash because only as an after-effect we get the full force of what’s at stake.
It’s only to be expected that people will deal with this book with a certain number of erroneous attitudes triggered by its superficial characteristics. But what apparently looks like last-minute thoughts or doodles over the phone, is actually something extremely purified, something very powerful that reminds me of the old Chinese legend (retold by Borges, among others) of the painter-calligrapher Chuang Tzu, who spent ten years to draw a single crab, but when he did it, he did it to perfection. But with a twist to this: what seems to be trivial, even meaningless jottings add up to a commentary on itself, both as an act of artistic endeavour (an expressive means) as well as of communication (a means of transference of meanings). The materials of which Monologues is made are extant to disappear. They are but vestiges or symptoms of the artists’ gesture.
In a time in which slickness has become the norm in both mainstream and alternative comics, few are the artists who’re strong enough to go beyond such an imperative, and who’ve been dealing out simple and pleasurable approaches to comic-making. One could mention Jeffrey Brown, Gregor Wiggert or Joann Sfar at this point (to show that these are really global tendencies). Although all of these artists, and several others, have quite distinctive styles and use it for very different ends, they do share an easy-going approach to what one could call its “final rendering”. They’ve raised a personal calligraphy into a means of comics-construction; they write comics more than they draw them. From this group, Nielsen is the most dedicated to the distillation of this pleasure, reducing the need for immediate legibility or the imperatives of clarity for all.
Still, there is a direction towards narrative. Many others have used the “doodled” character to narrativity purposes – I’m thinking of Thurber and Steig mostly, and perhaps Steinberg too. But it seems to me that narrativity, in Nielsen’s work, is becoming more and more as an afterthought as each doodle becomes, first and foremost, itself. Granted, the repetition of the characters involved imposes something quite different than mere individualistic cartoons. In an introductory text that Gombrich produced for a book on doodles, the famous historian discusses Paul Klee’s work and the relationship of the doodle with “intention”, precisely what would distinguish any doodle-as-such from clinical ones or from children’s drawings and from more “artistic” endeavours. “Far from setting out with a firm intention, [Klee] allowed the shapes to grow under his hand, following them wherever they led him”. Isn’t this what’s developing in Monologues? I don’t think a clear-cut direction was put forth on the outset itself, but it emerged nonetheless, and looking back at it, it is a firm one.
At this point, Dave Shrigley comes immediately to mind, perhaps a little too easily and shallowly, but I do feel that both share a very similar and uncommon capacity to most artists for illuminating, through sheer absurdity, on both content and form (a false dichotomy, as all dichotomies), our daily gestures of hostility towards the chaos that really makes up life. A hostility that bears the name of “order”, of “meaningfulness”… Another point of commonality with Shrigley’s work, and a few other artists perhaps, is the mode after which these drawings are not subsumed in any other end except their very own existence, although there is a far clearer narrative structuring in Nielsen, as mentioned before.
The features of the characters are quite simple, almost unexpressive. I don’t like to use the word “minimalist” because, above all, it has had its life in other arts and such a comparison is derisory, and on the other hand it implies no “reduction” whatsoever; what is drawn is what was drawn, period. There is no “simplification” (which would beg the question of “what does it simplify?”), for there is nothing beforehand, it simply emerges as such. A little in the beginning of the Gombrich text I mentioned earlier, the author quotes Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting, in which “what he called ‘un componiemento inculto’, an untidy sketch, was preferable for arousing the mind”. And arousing the mind via untidiness is precisely what Anders Nielsen is doing, as if he is expanding the field of comics through sheer inaction, thus making his “mediocrity principle” both a lie and a springboard in relation to that end. This is not a contradiction, of course, for human existence is full of them, it is made by them.
This “incult atempt” (a more literal translation of Leonardo’s expression) is present in many of the oscillations in Nielsen’s work, a present with two realities, apparently antagonistic. For instance, Nielsen’s figures are representational only to the point they become non-representational; they deny the characters their own traits. I’m not speaking only for the fact that one of the characters has scratches for a head. I’m talking of their representation and what their physiognomies should signify at a first glance. Even in the “car wreck scene”, there is not much happening in visual changes of the face of one of the characters, while the other seems to change heads at every page, changes of no consequence at all towards the meaning of the “contextual scene” itself. But the overall force is derisorily elusive. It does not matter. It is the matter. It would be extremely easy to stage these monologues with real people, a few props and simple stage directions. And we would not be far from a Beckett or a Cocteau play.
Another interesting contradiction, and still related to all of this, is that his work seems to be flexible – where a more normative view of comics is concerned – but actually to serve the purpose of underlining a very strong rigidity. It makes us concentrate on what’s happening at the flipping of each new page. If I’m allowed a lousy metaphor, Monologues first half feels like a successfully played game of Tetris: each page is like a new “brick”, which adds a new element of signification to the whole, and after a certain while we realize a whole new layer of meanings that changes completely everything we had learned until that point.
This is nothing new in Nielsen’s oeuvre, given the fact that with his Big Questions (still in progress), the expression “the plot thickens” really gained a very evident existence with each new instalment. And paying close attention to the experiences in Mome, we know that Nielsen is trying out multiple territories at the same time. I don’t believe much in “evolution” where art is concerned, nor in the “progress” of an artist… What I do is to understand such a path as a trial-and-error trajectory in which every single experience is done under the maximum will…
All the better for those who take up his challenge.” - Pedro Moura

“I have a hot and cold relationship with the work of Anders Nilsen. His Big Questions series is fascinating and well-constructed (though I’m waiting for the collection since I can’t catch up with the out of print early issues), yet I found Monologues for the Coming Plague to be an utter disappointment which felt as if it had been tossed off in a minute or two. His work in the anthology Mome has given a similar reading experience for me, some good, some that feels unfinished and hasty. I do respect Nilsen’s willingness to experiment in ways that few comic artists would, taking cues, I think, from the conceptualism and minimalism of the fine art world and combining it with the narrative thrust of comics. His use of minimal drawing puts a great emphasis on text in many of his works, but it is clear his minimalist drawings are a result of purposeful stylistic choices rather than an artistic limit (for proof, one only has to look at the drawing in Big Questions or the Sysiphus story in Kramer’s Ergot 4).
My plan herein is to look at Nilsen’s work in 4 issues of Mome (I’m skipping pieces from two issues that I have because, well, I don’t have anything good to say about them).
“The Beast” (Mome, Summer 2005): This story shares something with the pieces in Monologues for the Coming Plague: a single faceless character speaks. In this case the character appears in four panels (albeit frameless and backgroundless) in front of a landscape photograph that stretches across each double page spread. I’m not clear on reading it what the purpose of the landscape backgrounds are. They don’t bear any apparent connection to the character or his words and seem to change at random. The idea of using a unified background for a double page like this is novel and interesting, but it doesn’t get put to any real use other than filling up space. The background could place the character in a setting or evoke a mood. I can see potential in this tactic, but it is not taken advantage of here. As for the words, they jump around and don’t come to any real… point. It feels improvised, some kind of automatic writing, on which more soon.
“Event” (Mome, Fall 2005): This is my favorite of all the stories, it’s adventurous and brilliant. This story consists of colored squares of varying numbers, sizes, and configurations with text underneath. For instance, a three page sequence: a gray square captioned “What you said you would do”; a square subdivided into four different colored squares captioned “Your reasons for not doing it: stated”; a larger purplish brown square “unstated.” The whole things relies on an interaction between the captions and the squares in relation to each other from one page to the next. The text and image are interdependent, requiring the combination to create the meaning. These pages would have little to them on their own, but as one reads from one page to the next, the differences between the size, color, and configuration of the shapes creates a pathway for interpretation. For instance, a page depicting a smallish grey green square captioned “Time spent trying in vain to correct the damage done [by you]” is followed by a page with a larger grey brown square captioned “[by others]” (see image below). The simple shift of the size of the squares from one page to the next emphasizes the certain qualities of the “you” in the story and his/her attitude to clean up the mess made by this “event”. It’s a simple yet highly effective way to convey this information based on one of the basic elements of comics, reading the difference from one panel to the next. A great example of an abstract comic. Like many of the other works here discussed it is a minimalist piece, but the minimalism is successfully used.
“On Whaling: A How To” (Mome, Winter 2006): Another talking figure comic: this one has no background at all and the figure goes through an almost constant transformation (veering from a hatted figure to a Haring-esque creature to weird hybrid-person/objects). He is drawn with a pink outline filled in with light blue, a surprisingly pleasing visual combination that looks great in the minimal style with the white background. The figure’s words are an often funny commentary on the classic “where do you get your ideas” question (“One sure-fire useful trick to getting good ideas is to accumulate diverse experiences and live an interesting life. I have not tried this myself, it seems dangerous. But I know that Herman Melville and Ernest Hemingway got a lot of material this way for their zines about whaling.”). On the third page, the figure offers “guidelines that are sure to yield productive results,” outlining a brief method for a kind of automatic comics. Start with some kind of minimal figure, then find words for it in sixty seconds. After that sixty seconds you turn the page and draw the next page/panel.
This description of a process leads me to look at “The Beast” and “Monologues for the Coming Plague” in a different light. Are they perhaps examples of this style of automatic comics writing? I can’t say this improves my enjoyment of the stories, but it better explains where they are coming from. The Surrealists’ experiments with automatic writing are more interesting on a theoretical level than in actual practice. Drawing on the unedited contents of the unconscious is all well and good for the author but to the reader the results are more often than not just boring. Personally it leaves my me unsatisfied.
The way the character in “On Whaling” transforms does remind of me of some Surrealist objects and juxtapositions, such as the intersection of the character with various objects (akin to the “nothing is more beautiful than the the chance meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table”). This story is much more successful than “The Beast”.
“The Notary” (Winter 2007): Very similar to “The Beast” (even in its title), “The Notary” features an almost identical figure this time on a background of slightly blurry maps. The figure’s monologue is focused on his all encompassing doubt and his doubt of his doubt. He interrupts himself to perform mathematical calculations, which might be read as a certain type of certainty in contrast to the doubt. Math, at least at its basic level, provides verifiable answers and rules, such that one does not find in life. Though in both cases the math is “multiplication” which could also be the multiplication of doubt. I found this story more successful (again) than “The Beast”, though only on reading it after reading Nilsen’s Ignatz issue The End, which seemed to add a certain pathos to this character with his all encompassing doubt (also, The End has math in it too interspersed with monologue). Perhaps this story is much less automatic, or else, as an automatic exercise it brings forth certain emotional resonances.” – MadInkBeard

“What good is art when the world is going to hell? We’ll take for granted, for the sake of argument, that the world is in fact going to hell. It seems like a reasonable conclusion given global warming, the end of oil, water shortages, bird flu, AIDS, the Middle East, bad diets, the state of television, road rage, nuclear proliferation… the list goes on.
I’ve heard it said that every culture has food and sex, but that what counts as food and sex in different places and times is not at all predictable - rotting cabbage, tarantulas, getting peed on… art is like this, too. It’s rare to find agreement on something even as fundamental as what exactly it is.
I remember telling my photography teacher in college that what we were doing - trying to get perfect blacks in our prints, and perfect whites - seemed entirely beside the point of life, and that maybe I would go and be an Emergency Medical Technician in Bosnia instead (this was in the early 90s). It felt very good to say, noble and wise; it even felt plausible at that moment, which it wasn’t in the least.
All art started with religion, that is to say with the contemplation of life, death, fate, the eternal, the unknown. It was the telling of the story - usually just one, though generally with multiple contested versions - by which the culture in question defined itself. Slowly, the artifice of the telling became the main subject of the art. The gilding around the Madonna became more important than the Madonna herself.
Between college and an abortive attempt at graduate school I took a trip to Italy, Holland and France to see some of the artworks I’d studied in school. The thing that struck me most among the vast collections of that continent was the clear progression in the portrayal of the patron in art, the person paying the artist’s bill. Early on, the patron is shown in passivity, observing or interacting in a worshipful way with whatever divinity is being depicted. A couple of centuries later, the divinities, now mostly anonymous angels, are usually waiting upon the patron.
These days, instead of a person waited on by angels the patron is likely to be a sandwich cookie or car, waited on by people. Measured in quantity of print space, airtime or bandwidth. This is our primary artform - how we define ourselves, how we share and idealize our experience of the world. What is art for then? For selling things. For conferring status to objects. For creating desire. So we can add the degradation of art to our list of woes from which humanity is widely expected not to recover. Divinity and the unknowable are no longer part of the equation.
I am vaguely interested in commercials because they are sometimes very interesting, funny and horrifying, as art should be, but they are ultimately not very satisfying as foils for experience. As for those other related questions of life and meaning, they all got refined too. Working on them for two thousand years has not, fortunately, gotten us any closer to resolving them. But we still pursue them, and it’s probably a good thing to have dogma mostly out of the way in our pursuit.
A professor of mine used to belabor the point that the greatness of Modernism in general and of abstraction in particular is its very lack of utility. Being good for nothing, it offered a rare space in life that demanded nothing of you, allowing quiet contemplation - a great and rare gift. That sounds pretty good to me, although it also works as an explanation for the fact that so much of early and mid-20th-century art is so boring. It seems like the logical outgrowth of trying to create beauty while avoiding meaning.
I’ve never been convinced that this thing I do has much point. The interpretation of experience, the contemplation of beauty, life, the absurd; these are probably more or less what it is, but I’m not sure that we couldn’t get along without them. Several weeks ago, though, I was doing a book signing. At one point a woman got my attention, said it was nice to meet me and that my work had helped her through a difficult time. I didn’t know exactly what to say, the conversation moved on and I lost track of her as the night progressed. I don’t know what she was referring to specifically, but the comment stayed with me.
In November 05, the person I loved most in the world was killed after a long battle with Hodgkin’s Disease. In the months that have followed I have almost compulsively made work about her, about us and about the loss. It may or may not be worth reading. It may amount to therapy: important, valid, but not necessarily, strictly speaking, art.
With this kind of loss, nothing softens the blow. Nothing anyone says can make you feel better about it. What helps is being made to feel it at all. Conversation can do this, and certain music and storytelling do it powerfully - in the same way that words particularize ideas and shape our experience of the abstractions we use them to describe. The music I was listening to didn’t help me be sad, it became my sadness.
People are dying, being tortured, being sold into slavery, the world is on fire. So why does anyone think it’s worthwhile to play in a string quartet? Because after you bury your dead, after your wounds heal and you are released from your bondage you will want to hear the string quartet play. The strings will be like vocal cords wailing, allowing your grief. Art may be good for all kinds of things, and this is one thing I would not be able to live without.” – Anders Nilsen

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