In the tradition of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, and Charles Burns’s Black Hole, Anders Nilsen’s underground graphic novel Big Questions was serialized over a decade or so, and has now been compiled into a thick, single volume that’s being touted as a magnum opus. The deluxe hardcover edition of Big Questions, which is signed by Nilsen and has supplemental extras, is very beautiful, expensive, and hefty (over 600 pages long). The designers at Drawn and Quarterly in Montreal deserve real credit for being able to make a book look so dignified and serious.
Unfortunately, Big Questions, despite its page count, its august packaging, and its toiling-cartoonist origin myth, is no grand thing. It’s a very quiet series of events—it doesn’t even feel right to call it a story—that take place on a desolate plain and involve disaffected birds wondering about a plane and the pilot that has crash-landed in their territory. There’s also an ambivalently helpful snake, devious crows, an insect-grubbing man-child, and a quiet old lady who’s killed by the plane crash.
The birds, which are drawn so simply as to be pretty much indistinguishable, talk to each other as if they’re exhausted, suggesting androgynous hipsters lounging around all day at a café. Some of them ask basic philosophical questions such as, “Well, like, to what extent are we responsible for the fulfillment of our destinies?” Others get very paranoid about the plane crash and come up with strange hypotheses for what it means. Some of the birds get involved in curious little scenarios, which at times become threatening and dangerous. As for the pilot, he pops a tent, has some bizarre dreams, is annoyed by the birds, and then freaks out and goes on a rampage. In general, not very much happens.
Big Questions shares some of the spirit of its graphic novel siblings. Like Jimmy Corrigan, the mood is autumnal and depressed, with many scenes in which a character sits, turns its head, and looks around in melancholy, while the wind blows and the leaves rustle and the grass grows. Like Black Hole, Big Questions has some surreal and grotesque moments, involving things growing in and then wetly bursting forth from other things. However, very much unlike Maus (which had a plot as logical and grim as a man running from a falling building, as well as a main character who was paradoxically generous and selfish, tolerant and impatient, and heroic and pathetic), Big Questions doesn’t have the sort of meaty human moments that a reader can chew on for days or weeks or years afterward.
It’s possible to write good, meaningful fiction that goes without narrative action or character development. But those two things, stories and characters, are the main ingredients of fiction, and you have to be a genius, like Beckett or Hemingway, to remove them without your work seeming like a plate at a restaurant that’s all garnish and no food.
Sometimes it’s difficult to tell which sort of minimalism is brilliant, the writing that’s the tip of an iceberg, and which sort is lazy, the writing that’s just a few crumbs and nothing more. Big Questions felt more like a lot of crumbs to me than the tip of an iceberg. It’s minimalistic, yes, but minimalism that goes on for 600 pages. It’s got an ensemble of characters, but none that are easy to identify with. Its illustrations and its font have the sort of precious, squiggly, and ironic style that can be seen in a lot of visual art these days and that looks like it was created by a precocious child.
If you like those sorts of things (like Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, or Maira Kalman’s And the Pursuit of Happiness blog, or Reif Larsen’s cartographic novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet), then you will probably like this graphic novel. And if the idea of a big, expensive tome of a book that calls itself Big Questions but only means that in light-hearted jest appeals to you, then you should check it out. If not, then seek the answers to your own big questions elsewhere.
Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions was released on August 16 by Drawn and Quarterly. To purchase it, click here.