I first met Anders Nilsen at the pre-dawn end of a very long Saturday at SPX 2013. Several beers and dozens of conversations into the evening, we both found ourselves standing outside enjoying a moment of relative quiet and fresh air. Though we spoke briefly and enthusiastically about doing an interview, it wasn’t until nearly 16 months later that we finally managed to reconnect, this time in New York City.
Just a week before Christmas, on a typically dreary Monday afternoon, I met Anders at the Society of Illustrators, imagining that we might spend time browsing the collection before settling down at the bar to chat; however, after arriving nearly an hour late due to the ill-advised decision to drive into Manhattan because he was running late, we spent our first half hour together scrambling around the Upper East Side trying to locate his missing totebag (it was in the trunk of his car). By the time we were finally ready to talk, we decided to ditch the SOI bar, grab some coffees and take-out, and settle into a room at my office, which conveniently happened to be around the corner.
With flurries dancing in the air outside, we spoke for nearly three hours, covering everything from his Midwestern childhood, his parents’ backgrounds, and his early artistic influences, to his religious upbringing, his transition from “artist” to “cartoonist,” and the loss of his then fiancée, Cheryl Weaver. About a week and a half later, after he had returned to his home in Minneapolis, we followed up by phone with a second three-hour conversation, this time delving deeper into his major works, including Big Questions, Dogs and Water, the two Monologues books, and his forthcoming sketchbook collection, Poetry is Useless.
--Marc Sobel, March 18, 2015
“The whole thing was a vaguely traumatic experience.”
Marc Sobel: You were born in New Hampshire?
Anders Nilsen: Yeah.
Sobel: When did you move to Minneapolis?
Nilsen: My parents split up when I was two. I moved with my mom and my sister to Minneapolis then.
Sobel: Why did they split up?
Nilsen: They were very different people and they wanted different things. My parents were in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia right out of college, actually during – or at the very beginning of – the revolution there. They came back to the States and lived in a commune in San Francisco in the early 70s. So they were very much part of the counterculture of the time.
The commune left San Francisco with the intent – as far as I understand it – of going to homestead somewhere. I don’t know how specific the idea was, but they were headed originally toward Erie, Pennsylvania. I think the plan was to go get some land in the country, in the middle of nowhere, build a house, and live together and… well, try and create a new, alternative society.
Anyway, on the way, my mom, who had a six-month-old daughter at the time – my sister, basically decided she didn’t want to take her kid out to the middle of nowhere, far from any doctor, and she just didn’t want to put this dream into practice. So they ended up moving to New Hampshire instead because my dad’s brother was there. My dad hadn’t given up on the basic idea. He bought some land and started building a house, but my mom felt a little out of place, so eventually she went to Minneapolis to go to library school and then just decided to stay there.
Sobel: So you and your sister lived with your mom?
Nilsen: Yeah, we grew up mostly in Minneapolis, but we would go see my dad every summer and every other Christmas in New Hampshire.
Sobel: What was the community like in Minneapolis where you grew up?
Nilsen: We grew up in a neighborhood called Powderhorn Park, which was a block from this giant, urban park. It’s probably fair to say it was a little bit of a rough neighborhood. I got more than one bike stolen out from under me as a kid. (laughs) But it was also right in the middle of the city and there was a lot going on. It was a neighborhood with a lot of former hippies and artists, so there was always interesting stuff happening. It’s still like that.
Sobel: What was school like there?
Nilsen: Minneapolis is a very liberal place. My sister and I went to something called “open school,” which is public school, but it was loosely based on Montessori or similar progressive educational ideas. It was cooperative learning, so we all sat at tables, not desks, we called our teachers by their first names, and all the grades were mixed together. It was very egalitarian, and creativity was emphasized much more than rote learning. But I went to 4th and 8th grade in New Hampshire, and moving from open school to a traditional small town school was a crazy culture shock for me.
Sobel: Why did you do 4th and 8th grades in New Hampshire?
Nilsen: My dad just wanted his kids around. It wasn’t his choice that we ended up halfway across the country. Part of the reason he built his house out there was political and he really wanted my sister and me to experience what he was trying to do. He was embodying his philosophy about the world and he wanted us to be a part of that, and to understand and identify with it.
Sobel: What was his philosophy?
Nilsen: (laughs) Honestly, I’m a little hesitant to characterize my dad’s philosophy because I’m probably going to get it wrong, but this is my understanding, and I don’t think it’s too far off the mark:
His understanding, and a lot of people’s at the time, was that the American way of life was broken. There had been all this civil rights unrest, protests, riots, and the war. The flaws and hypocrisies of American life and politics were becoming clear in a new way. So he was interested in trying to figure out a way to not be a part of the things that he felt were not working, and I guess that meant, for him, going far away and building his own house, living simply and trying not to rely so heavily on the industrialized world. He started building a house from stones that he found on the land and timber that he milled by hand.
Sobel: Did you like living out there?
Nilsen: In some ways, yeah, although going to a very traditional small town school in New Hampshire was a real shock. All of a sudden I had to learn grammar, and learn by memorization. I really had no idea what was happening. We were diagramming and naming the parts of the sentence. All that stuff was just completely beyond me. I hated it, and I totally sucked at it. I went from being… well, I was never a great student, but I went from somebody who did ok to being a really bad student. I think my particular creativity was recognized at my school in Minneapolis. I was in the gifted and talented program, and my teachers were interested in the weird stories I would come up with. Then all of a sudden I was trying to name the parts of sentences? The whole thing was a vaguely traumatic experience.
Also, the social atmosphere there was so different. Those stereotypical hierarchical social structures that you have in most schools, like the popular kids and the not-popular kids… that didn’t exist quite in the same way in Minneapolis. So all of a sudden I was thrown into that in New Hampshire which was a really weird roller coaster ride. When I arrived there in 8th grade, I was immediately embraced by the popular kids and then it became these weird social games and stuff that I just didn’t know how to play correctly. So I ended up leaving halfway through.
Sobel: You’ve said in other interviews that your dad was an artist. What kind of art did he make, and did he teach you about drawing or was that something you picked up elsewhere?
Nilsen: He was a painter. I wouldn’t say he taught me, but I think the fact that he was doing it when I was little made it seem very normal and straightforward. He would have my sister and I sit for him so he could draw us, which I didn’t particularly like. (laughs) It was really boring. But he also got remarried, and his wife, my step-mom, actually did teach us stuff. Both of them were artists and were making drawings and paintings when I was a kid. But, yeah, she was very engaged. She would do little lessons with us sometimes, and she would always buy me a sketchbook for my birthday or Christmas. She was always curious about what I was doing. She later went back to school and now teaches art K-12.
Sobel: What about your mom?
Nilsen: My mother is a writer. She worked as a librarian, but she was also a creative writer. So all of my many parents were very supportive from the beginning. My stepfather was also super supportive.
“I was totally channeling Bill Sienkiewicz.”
Sobel: What kind of art were you making as a kid?
Nilsen: I think it was pretty similar to what a lot of little boys draw: battles and spaceships. I had a friend who lived across the street from me in Minneapolis and we would cover his walls with 8 ½ x 11 typing paper to make a giant surface to draw on and then we would draw these crazy battle scenes with cliffs, airplanes, people in tunnels, and giant creatures coming out of the water. It was very heavily slanted toward horror and war and that sort of thing. There was a comic book element to it, once I started reading more comics.
Sobel: Can you describe how your art developed through middle school and high school?
Nilsen: I had evolved out of the spaceships and the war stuff by middle school and was starting to develop pretensions toward real art, but I was also moving into an obsession with skateboarding. I was very influenced by the art and graphic design of skateboarding in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
Early in high school, my sister and I were both getting into punk rock, but my sister is a couple years older so she got into it a little more seriously, and her friend, Mali, was doing these amazing, very teenage, goth-kid drawings, but with skulls and monsters. I don’t know, certainly there’s a better word for this, but they were artistic in a way that I hadn’t really aspired to yet. I remember seeing that stuff and being like, “Wow, I don’t just have to draw Dungeons and Dragons characters and skateboarders, I can draw weird shit and experiment and see what happens.” So that was a big deal for me. That was probably freshman or sophomore year.
After that I started doing more open-ended stuff, like weird skulls and a being a little more expressive. The art that I was into then was definitely the Expressionists, like Edvard Munch. I was also a huge fan of Bill Sienkiewicz.
Sobel: Oh yeah? The New Mutants?
Nilsen: Yeah, and Elektra: Assassin. I loved that stuff. I was pretty young, but I remember that opinions were very split on it. Some people hated his work. People either loved it or hated it.
Sobel: It was so different than anything that had come before.
Sobel: That’s what made it good, though.
Nilsen: Totally. It was very expressive, and just nuts. That was a little earlier, more like junior high, but I have sketchbooks where I’m drawing Warlock from The New Mutants. (laughs) I was totally channeling Bill Sienkiewicz.
Sobel: Had you seen any of the more underground or avant garde stuff in comics at that point, like RAW or Zap, for example?
Nilsen: I started seeing that stuff around 8th or 9th grade. Like I said, my mom is a librarian and there was a kind of radical librarian scene in Minneapolis. This was in the late 80s, so obviously pre-internet, but there were these librarians in my mom’s system who had their feelers out in the world for ‘zines and weird art comics, mostly political stuff. There was something called the Burman routing, named for a cataloguer, Sandy Burman. It was basically an envelope with a list of librarians’ names that would be full of weird stuff Burman had come across that month and he would send it around the system to all the names on the list. So my mom would get this stuff and bring it home, and that’s how I first saw RAW magazine, I think. I’m not sure what else, but a lot of early self-published ‘zines of various sorts.
Also around that time, I started getting a little tired of superheroes. I realized that X-Men was essentially just an endless soap opera (laughs) and I was being manipulated by Marvel. I remember when X-Factor first came out, I was like, “I’m supposed to want this more than I actually do. I have to buy it for the other series to make sense, but that’s fucked up. I don’t want to buy this shit.” So, at a certain point, I was like, “Let’s see what else is going on,” and that was the moment that Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns and all that stuff was happening, so that stuff became this doorway which led me to explore what else was happening. I started to pick up Weirdo and…
Sobel: Did you see Love and Rockets at that point?
Nilsen: Yeah, Love and Rockets. I came across Clowes at that point, too, although I just thought he was too weird. I didn’t get it. (laughs) I picked up Eightball #1, with Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, and I was like, “This is fucked up. I don’t really get it and I don’t know what to think about this.” (laughs)
Sobel: It was a little surreal.
Nilsen: Totally. And very harsh. Like, really psychologically harsh. A lot of Weirdos were too, but the covers were so gorgeous. I was basically just buying them for the covers but then I would read them and I’d get to these crazy, gnarly sex things and be like, “Ech! (laughs) Is this what comics is?! I don’t know...” (laughs)
“I could see up ahead that I was going to have to make a choice”
Sobel: In several interviews, you’ve talked about how your interest in comics sprouted in that period between undergrad and graduate school. Up until that point, particularly in undergrad, what kind of art were you most interested in?
Nilsen: I was in the painting program, so I was making paintings, but the last year and a half that I was in undergrad I was doing these elaborate sculptural installations with found objects and stuff. The main thing I was doing were what I called at the time “nail collages.” I would put hundreds or thousands of nails on a wall and then tape or glue fragments of cut-out images from magazines and newspapers.
Sobel: Where did you do these?
Nilsen: I’d do them in my student studio. I also did a thesis show my senior year where I put thousands of nails on the walls at this gallery. My friends and I would go to flea markets and buy old Life magazines and National Geographics and all kinds of stuff. The funny thing is that that work has followed me. Every once in a while I’ll get a commission for that stuff. So that’s where I thought I was headed, art wise.
Sobel: You also did some ‘zines in college?
Nilsen: Yeah, a few.
Sobel: What were those like?
Nilsen: They would have fallen under the category of the “per-zine,” or personal ‘zine. They were just these little artsy things with poems, photos, and weird drawings. I was in a band for a little while, and I was the singer, so I also did a little booklet with all of my song lyrics. I was doing a lot of collage, too, so that was a big part of those. I think I did three issues plus the lyrics book.
Sobel: Were you doing any comics at that point?
Nilsen: I did a few comics in high school but I didn’t have that sense of, “I’m going to be a cartoonist.” I was going to be a painter or an installation artist. So I was doing some comics and reading some, but it wasn’t really part of my conscious agenda. That didn’t happen until later when I did The Ballad of the Two-Headed Boy. That was the first time I really thought about making comics and telling stories.
Sobel: That was the book that evolved out of your paintings?
Nilsen: Right. It started out as a series of paintings, which people in my department didn’t get. They were too cartoony.
Sobel: Was this while you were in New Mexico?
Nilsen: Yeah, so it would have been ’95. I was super excited about painting cartoony stuff, but I remember this intense critique where it was going well at first but then it just went totally downhill. People were talking about the way it was painted, and how I was trying to control the viewer’s interpretation too much. The instructors there were painters and... they weren’t exactly abstract expressionists, but that’s sort of the place they were coming from, very painterly and expressive. I did some of that, but it just didn’t feed me. I didn’t want to do that stuff. I wanted to tell stories. So those images that became Two-Headed Boy, they were in service of telling a story, they weren’t supposed to be looked at and appreciated by themselves.
Sobel: In your Mome interview with Gary Groth, you said you’ve gotten used to the idea that it takes you years to discover what your stories are really about. When you look back at Two-Headed Boy now, can you identify what it was about on a personal level?
Nilsen: I think it was partly about being a young artist, and being very aware that I was going in two directions. I was going in both this storytelling direction and this high art direction, and I could see up ahead that I was going to have to make a choice at some point, and that that might not be easy, or that it would involve an intense sacrifice. So, in a way it’s a coming of age story. It’s like, becoming an adult means leaving something else behind.
Sobel: Was that book the turning point which led you to pursue narrative storytelling in your art?
Nilsen: Not quite. I finished that book and then I abandoned storytelling again and got into the nail collages for a while.
Sobel: So then how much time was there between Two-Headed Boy and the start of Big Questions?
Nilsen: Well, I guess it’s not quite true to say I totally left storytelling behind because the earliest strips in Big Questions #1 and 2 are things that I was doing in my sketchbooks in ’96, the last year I was in school, and ’97, after I finished. So all that stuff was happening in my sketchbooks simultaneously; there’d be a little bird cartoon and then right next to it would be this crazy collage with writing and some object taped into the book. It was all coexisting. So I guess I was doing comics, just not with a strong agenda. I had no anticipation that I was ever going to do anything with them. I had done those ‘zines, but I don’t think I was really even thinking about that. It was just to entertain myself and play around with humor and the rhythms of jokes and storytelling.
So I guess I was doing those little strips in my sketchbooks for a few years until late ’98, when I finally put them together into Big Questions #1.
Sobel: You mentioned in one of your interviews that it was Craig Thompson who encouraged you to apply for a Xeric Foundation grant, which led to you printing Two-Headed Boy. How did that develop, and how did you know Craig?
Nilsen: It was late ’98 or early ’99 when I put together the mini-comic version of Big Questions #1 and #2, and I liked it, so then I thought, “Well, I have this other story...” I had made this single hand-made art book of The Ballad of the Two-Headed Boy, so I thought, “I should make this into a book, too.” So I went to the library near my house and scanned those drawings and made a little photocopied version of that book.
I was back in Minneapolis at that point and Michael Drivas (owner of Big Brain Comics in Minneapolis) was going to SPX and he offered to take some of my minis. He was like, “You should let me take some to SPX and I’ll just give them to people.” So I did.
Sobel: You didn’t go? You just sent the books?
Nilsen: Yeah, I gave him a little stack of books, but I didn’t really understand what he was doing. (laughs)
Sobel: Had you ever been to a comics festival?
Nilsen: Oh no. Not at all. I didn’t even know what SPX was. I thought he was going to sell them. Afterwards I was like, “Did I just give those away?” But then… it must have been SPX ’99 because by the time I started getting postcards and letters from people about them, I was back in school. Anyway, one of the postcards I got was from Craig Thompson saying “You should apply for a Xeric grant.” I was like “What’s that?” (laughs) I didn’t even know who Craig Thompson was until I went to a bookstore and found Goodbye, Chunky Rice and realized, “This guy is an actual real artist.” (laughs) I also got one from Eric Reynolds on a Fantagraphics postcard, and I was like “holy shit!” I think Tom Hart also sent me a postcard. It was crazy to get all these postcards from people, but it was also very exciting. It was like, “People out in the world think this is cool.”
Sobel: Were they responding to Two-Headed Boy or Big Questions?
Nilsen: I think both. Eric’s postcard was more about the birds, but I think Craig mentioned the Xeric because The Two-Headed Boy was a more substantial piece.
Sobel: Did that response motivate you to do more comics?
Nilsen: I don’t know how much those postcards pushed me to embrace comics. I think I was already moving in that direction because by that time I had done Big Questions #1 and #2 and I definitely wanted to explore that world more, but I think getting them was an affirmation that I’m not the only one who thinks this is cool.
Sobel: Once you got the Xeric grant and published Two-Headed Boy, what was that experience like and what happened afterwards?
Nilsen: Not very much. (laughs) I had boxes of those books for years! Not much happened partly because it wasn’t that good of a book. (laughs)
Sobel: You don’t like that book?
Nilsen: I have a certain affection for some of that stuff, but it feels so overwrought and the drawing is very expressive. It feels like student work. It happened before I really knew what I wanted to do as an artist. So, for a long time, I had boxes of those books and I wasn’t even trying to sell them.
When they stopped doing the Xeric a few years ago, I remember talking to Sammy Harkham about it, and I said, “I don’t know if it’s that bad for this grant to go away because it didn’t actually do much for me. Yeah, I made this book, but it wasn’t a good book, and it didn’t go anywhere. I don’t think it helped my career particularly.” But Sammy made the point that what it did was made me take the making of that book seriously. I had to think, “I can do whatever I want now, so what do I want to do?” I had to actually think about book design, color, endpapers, and I had to figure out how to get them out in the world. It just made me think much more seriously about what I was doing, so, in that sense, I think it was ultimately really valuable.
“Everything was weighted to the dark side.”
Sobel: Regarding the first two issues of Big Questions, you’ve mentioned in several interviews and even in the postscript to the book itself that the seeds of the story came to you during an art exercise where you had to draw the same object over and over for 60 minutes. Do you have a sense of why it was the birds and the plane crash in particular that emerged during that exercise?
Nilsen: The idea was that we were supposed to bring to class an object that had either some history or personal significance. I brought this little plastic toy soldier. I don’t know why I chose a soldier, but I did.
Sobel: Do you remember where you got it?
Nilsen: I don’t know. It was a residency, so we were up in Los Alamos for two weeks, but I don’t know why in the world I had a toy soldier. Maybe it was an assignment that had been given before the start of the residency.
Anyway, I started drawing this soldier and really quickly I realized, “I don’t want to draw this soldier over and over. This is fucking boring!” (laughs) So instead I started riffing on the idea of the soldier, stuff about militarism and violence and imperialism. I just started doing different sketches, little images and scenarios, playing with those ideas. Then I came back to the soldier, but as a character, wandering around in this empty landscape, then he dies, and then the birds came down.
But aside from the particularities of the birds, the airplane and the soldier, these ideas, like militarism, and what it means to be a soldier fighting in a war, and death, were all really themes about trying to confront big, complicated things about the world. So it’s like I’d draw the ultimate end, death, but then I had to balance it with, “Well, there’s death and all this sad, angry stuff in the world, but there’s also beauty and transcendence, too, so here’s a little bird flying in to land on his foot.” (laughs) Then I would go back to the other side and the plane crashes, but the people figure out how to survive. That’s how life is. Bad shit happens, but you always move through it and get to the other side, and then something else bad happens eventually, too. I’m interested in that churn of extremes, I guess. So that was the form it took.
Of course, at that point, I was not thinking about this stuff at all. It was just: he dies and then the birds come down. We literally only had one minute for each drawing, so I was just basically scribbling. It was very raw. Looking back, I’ve never been a big fan of the Surrealists, but what I was doing was totally automatic writing. I was just trying to get stuff out without any internal editing or plan, and it was incredibly productive. It led to a 600 page book that I finally finished fifteen years later. (laughs)
Sobel: Have you tried that exercise again?
Nilsen: Never in that kind of formal way where I set a timer – though it is something I do with my students. I do a lot of timed comics exercises with them. But in a different way it is still part of my practice. I try to occasionally start doing stuff without knowing where it’s going or what it’s about. The Monologues books were all about trying to get the shit down as fast as possible without thinking too much about where it was going.
Sobel: After that exercise, you had the elements of a story, or maybe the seeds is a more appropriate metaphor. How did you then begin to develop it?
Nilsen: I just really liked the little birds. One thing that’s probably worth saying is that all the nail collage and painting that I had been doing was really heavy and dark. Even the music I was listening to back then was this punk, emo, hardcore shit. Everything was weighted to the dark side. So when these birds appeared in the middle of this early 20s angsty moment that I was having, it was like, “Oh, this is different. Here’s some levity.” I actually remember doing some work earlier in my college career where I was playing with that idea, the darkness and light thing, and trying to inject humor, but when you’re in art school, humor is not cool. When you’re an undergrad in art school, at least for me, you’re supposed to be serious and, like, critiquing society. So I think when these little birds appeared, I was like, “These are fun. I like this. What else can I do with them?”
Sobel: Just to be clear, when did you do that initial artistic exercise with the birds and the soldier?
Nilsen: I think it was the summer of ’96.
Sobel: Ok, so this was the end of undergrad. Then you took a couple years off?
Nilsen: Right. I graduated in December of ’96, then the next summer, I moved to San Francisco. I lived there for a year, and was sort of pursuing the nail collage stuff. I was applying to shows and just doing comics a little bit on the side. A couple years went by before I ever thought that there was more to the birds than just goofy gags. That’s also around when I was working on this little children’s book story for my sister.
Sobel: That’s where the birds came back in?
Nilsen: Right. There were birds in that, too.
Sobel: Is that something you ever published?
Nilsen: No, it was never published. I just made five copies or so. It was just for my sister.
Sobel: Were these the same birds from Big Questions?
Nilsen: They’re not the same characters. It’s a different world, but there are these two birds that don’t talk or really do anything, but they follow the story along.
Sobel: Was that the spark that made you begin to flesh out Big Questions?
Nilsen: That wasn’t the spark for Big Questions particularly, but it was the thing… I was working on that before I published the first two Big Questions and it just felt so much more real to be making something for a particular person, and to be thinking about my audience. So, therefore, if you’re thinking about your audience, you’re thinking about entertaining them and I wanted my little sister to laugh, and be stoked about it, which is very different than “I want the people that come to the gallery to be provoked to think critically about their place in society.” (laughs) That’s not invalid, and I’m actually trying to do that, too, still, but it was the first time where I was consciously trying to entertain, which was very liberating. And I was just having the time of my life drawing little cartoon animals. There was a voice in my head saying, “You still think you’re going to do that high Art stuff, but you’re not. You’re going to end up doing this.”
Sobel: That was the moment of realization?
Nilsen: Yeah. It took a while, but that voice was right. That story made me think about making books for people. So I finished that book for her and then, in the summer of ’98, I moved back to Minneapolis and started laying out Big Questions #1.
“The Pilot and the Idiot are different sides of myself.”
Sobel: One of the things that stands out about Big Questions is that you draw such natural and dynamic animals.
Nilsen: Yeah, people always ask about that, but I don’t know why I can draw animals. I guess part of it is that drawing people is very complicated because of the nuances of the face. I’m not so good at drawing faces. If you get a line off just a little bit, it completely changes the expression. Not to mention all the social signaling that’s happening with hairstyles and the kinds of clothes people wear. That shit’s all so complicated (laughs) and you can clear it away by just having the character be a bird, or a squirrel, or whatever, and then using the way the animals talk and what they’re talking about to give the reader a way to understand what kind of character they are.
Also, that blankness on the birds’ faces is very much a cartooning thing. Tintin is the blankest character in Herge’s world, yet he’s the one you identify with. The reader fills up that blankness with their own point of view. And the emotional impact of an image is often inverse to how much you show the emotion on the face. I feel like, often, the more I try to show my characters emote, the less effective it is.
So that’s how I think about it now, but I wasn’t thinking all this when I started Big Questions. Back then the birds were just easy and fun to draw.
Sobel: So Big Questions #3 was when you introduced the first human characters, the Idiot and his grandmother.
Sobel: The Idiot is a character I haven’t seen you talk much about in other interviews. What do you see as that character’s role?
Nilsen: Maybe the Idiot is sort of like the Tintin thing: there’s just not that much to say about Tintin. Captain Haddock has a biography, and Calculus sort of does, too, but Tintin doesn’t. He’s just blank, and I think, for me, the Idiot was supposed to exist as that kind of blank character.
I do think of him – and at the time I was thinking about this a lot… there’s this comics tradition of the hapless child-man. Ziggy, Charlie Brown, Ed the Happy Clown, Jimmy Corrigan. Even Clark Kent kind of fits. It’s a real thing in comics. I don’t know why that’s the case, but I was very aware of that tradition, and its well-worn grooves, and I was interested in subverting it, in taking that haplessness and giving it a kind of power. So the Idiot is a little bit about that, too.
Sobel: One thing that you said in another interview which I thought was really interesting was that you see the Pilot and the Idiot as two interpretations of God, where the Pilot represents the jealous God of the Old Testament while the Idiot is more like how the universe actually works. Can you elaborate on what you meant by that?
Nilsen: Well… (laughs) They weren’t templates, and it’s not an allegory in a sort of x equals y sense; they’re just general attitudes and patterns that I was interested in playing with.
I guess I think of the Idiot as the Buddhist idea. It’s like, the way the universe works is inscrutable and unpredictable. It’s both benevolent and harmless in the sense that it’s not out to get you, it doesn’t wish you harm, and the Idiot is benevolent and harmless, too. He’s not out to get anybody, and yet he’s an idiot and he might accidentally sit on you, or he might suddenly eat you. I think that’s kind of how the world is. You can interpret that negatively or positively, but dealing with the Idiot, you just have to go with the flow and do your best; whereas the Pilot is a little more unpredictably jealous and angry. He doesn’t really seem to get that the shit he’s doing is awful, so there’s an element of cluelessness with him, too, but he’s a little more actively antagonistic toward the things around him.
The Pilot and the Idiot are also different sides of myself. So, to the birds, they’re ways of seeing the world, kind of like God figures, but they also have their own stories that the birds don’t really understand. In some ways I think of the Idiot as my best self, where he sees the stuff around him and he’s interacting with the world without judgment. The Tao Te Ching talks about acting without expectation, so at the end when the Pilot beats him up, there’s no anger. To him, he just had an experience. He’s not trying to classify it. And he still has this impulse of generosity. He sees that the Pilot is at a loss, and he tries to give him the sandwich; whereas the Pilot is wrapped up in emotion and takes offense at things that have nothing to do with him. Or he misinterprets what the birds are doing and takes it personally. I feel like, sometimes that’s me, too.
“Ultimately, that’s what Big Questions is about.”
Sobel: You told James Romberger that Big Questions is all about how people make meaning, and how it can easily shift. I know that’s a huge topic, but what exactly did you mean by that?
Nilsen: I guess the easiest way to answer that question is through religion. Religions are probably the most common, explicit frameworks that people use to look at the world and decide what the meaning of it is: is there a point to all this, and if so, what is it? And if there’s not meaning, is that a problem? Is part of the reason we assign meanings to life a nervous reaction to the unsettling suspicion that there isn’t any?
Sobel: Are you familiar with Viktor’s Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning?
Nilsen: No. Is that a book about the Holocaust?
Sobel: Well, yes, but it’s about more than that. It’s about suffering in the world, and how our responsibility is to make meaning out of that suffering, which is our great challenge as humans. Even if you’re put through the most horrific experiences, like he was, and stripped down to the very essence of life where you have nothing, you still can find meaning in those circumstances. I see a lot of echoes of Frankl’s philosophy in your work, which is why I was wondering if you had read it.
Nilsen: I guess my feeling is that there is no such thing as meaning, but that our brains are meaning-making machines, so we find it in places where it’s not, and we create it for ourselves, which, paradoxically, makes it real. It doesn’t actually exist, but because our brains are organized the way they are, we find it, which is complicated and confusing.
I didn’t go through the Holocaust so I don’t know about finding meaning in the death camps, but I’ve gone through some pretty awful stuff and I don’t know that I decided that there’s meaning there. I don’t think it was for something. I just think it was something bad that happened. I can decide to take something from it, or do my best to put it in a context and go forward and try to not make the same mistakes I made, or not walk into the same traps that I walked into, but, for me, part of the lesson is also the humility that we’re all going to walk into the traps at some point.
So I guess bringing it back to the book, the important thing to me is how several of the birds are looking out at the world and they’re seeing the same things, these horrible devastating events and these weird, inscrutable humans, but they’re all coming up with different interpretations. They have different ideas about what the Pilot’s behavior means and what the Idiot’s behavior means, but the fact is, they’re all wrong. Everybody in the book is wrong. The only person who’s not wrong is the Idiot because he’s not coming up with any meaning, and that’s sort of how I feel. We’re all wrong, and the best you can do is try to exist in the world knowing you’re probably wrong and giving the other people who are also wrong the benefit of the doubt as far as how you treat them, or how they treat you.
Sobel: In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl talks about how he survived the death camps and worked as a psychologist for 50 years, and he said that patients would often come to him and ask, “What’s the meaning in life? I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in meaning, or anything.” They were all very depressed and lost, and he would start off by asking them, “Why don’t you kill yourself? Why are you here talking to me?” And through that simple question they would say things like, “Well, I’m an artist,” or “I have an elder parent I’m caring for,” or “I have a kid,” and from that starting point he would help them map meaning in a personal way. It’s hard to define meaning at the macro level, but he would help people find it in their own lives.
Sobel: I realize there was no question there, but… (laughs)
Nilsen: Yeah. I don’t know. I have a habit of talking about philosophies I don’t really understand, but in Camus’s essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” he also talks about how the foundational question of existence is “Should I kill myself or not?” That’s a question that leads you to “Is there meaning in life?” Or “Do I need there to be a higher purpose for me to go on?” Honestly, whether you feel like you have found a place in the world to exist that is rewarding and gives you some happiness or a sense of purpose, or even if you’re not able to find that, most people aren’t going to kill themselves. Some people are, but the reason most won’t is related to our brain chemistry. We have a very strong survival drive. I’m not trying to say that Frankl’s idea is a bad way to get people to find meaning in their lives, but I feel like it’s kind of a false construct. If the rational part of your brain is not able to find meaning in your life, then the thing to do is kill yourself? That’s just not how our brains work.
I know somebody at the moment who’s really struggling with whether she wants to live or not and it’s not because the rational part of her is unable to find meaning. There’s something preventing her from seeing meaning, but it’s not her rationality. She just feels like shit all the time. That’s different than whether you have a philosophy that to help you to make sense out of the world.
Sobel: I know exactly what you mean. I have a family member who committed suicide about three years ago. He was severely bipolar, so, for him, it wasn’t about not having a philosophy or a meaning in his life. He was just chemically imbalanced and had a severe mental illness.
Nilsen: Right, and that’s one of the other subjects that I come back to over and over: the failure of philosophy. (laughs) Ultimately, that’s what Big Questions is about. There are all these ideas about the world, but when it comes down to it, you just have to take one more step and keep going and live your life. What it actually means maybe doesn’t matter that much.
Sobel: The idea of how people define meaning for themselves is such a complicated idea. How did you approach it in terms of writing the story?
Nilsen: That’s a hard question because I don’t think I set out with a plan where I wanted certain points of view to be represented. The characters, and the birds in particular, evolved little by little, and differentiated themselves, and it was that push and pull, that dialectic, where they developed. Betty was one of the first birds to express an individual point of view, so then it’s like, ok, she put a signpost up about what she thinks is going on, and how she thinks the other birds should deal with it, so then, since she had taken a strong stance, everybody else had to define themselves in relation. So that’s how the characters developed, based on their different interests and views.
It’s the same thing with the Idiot and the Pilot. I didn’t know what the hell those characters were about when I started. It was just like, “Ok, this guy’s kind of angry and he’s heading towards a bad end. And this other guy, he’s not all there. He’s not making judgments about the world.” So I just ran with that, like if one of the birds had an interaction with the Idiot, and he had a certain point of view, how would he interpret it?
So I definitely didn’t have an agenda. It just developed organically as I worked. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I would just drop stuff in. For example, when the bomb first falls, and Charlotte, Betty, and Curtis are like, “What’s going on?” That started him on this trajectory and helped define his take on it, which was adversarial to Charlotte’s. But then they have this little interaction and Curtis flies away. That scene was very early in the process when I was still just dropping obstacles in to create a structure for the plot. So I drew a little heart to show that Betty has a crush on him. I thought, that will be interesting, and I’ll have to figure out how that’s going to work. I didn’t know how it was going to unfold, it was just like, “This is an interesting complication that I’ll figure out later.” Then later came and I wondered, “Is this too complicated? Does this have nothing to do with anything? Should I leave this out?” But it also makes a really nice end to that scene because it adds layers.
Sobel: There’s a whole theme about faith and religion that comes through with Charlotte and Betty, and their ideas about the bomb. Do you see that as a commentary on organized religion?
Nilsen: It is sort of a commentary on organized religion, but it’s more a commentary on certainty, and people that want to be certain about their interpretations. Whether that’s religion, or politics, or whatever, I always rebel against that idea... although, it was important to me in the book to give it a little bit of credit, too, because I think that people who have a lot of certainty about stuff can often get a lot more done, maybe for worse, but sometimes for better, too.
Sobel: What do you mean?
Nilsen: I’m actually working on a piece right now about optimism in which I’ve come to the conclusion that optimism, whether there’s good reason for it or not, is beside the point. It doesn’t matter. It’s just something you either have or you don’t.
There’s a couple of quotes by Winston Churchill that I came across while working on this piece, one of which is “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity; the optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.” That is a great quote and it’s totally true. If you’re optimistic, you figure out how to make the best of any situation, which is really helpful, but if you look at Winston Churchill, yes, that philosophy helped him get through World War II, and helped him shepherd the nation through the blitz and win the war. On the other hand, he was the architect of the Gallipoli campaign in World War I, which was a complete and utter failure. Based on his great optimism, he managed to convince people through his charisma and will that if they put all the pieces in place, they could bust through the straits of Gallipoli, and, I don’t know, tens or hundreds of thousands of people died because he had this faith and this certainty that it was a good idea. Certainty and optimism can get a lot done, but not necessarily in a predictable direction.
Sobel: How does that tie back to the storyline with Charlotte and Betty?
Nilsen: Charlotte’s a little bit the same way. She has this really powerful conviction that if we do this, this, and this, then this will happen. That conversation with her and Betty again at the end was also important, because the other thing that happens with optimists, or people with a lot of certainty, is that even if the events don’t play out the way they expect them to, they just preemptively change their story. It’s like people who go through the Bible with a fine tooth comb and predict that the end of the world is going to happen on July 6, 1996, and when that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t make them think “I was wrong,” it just makes them think “Oh, there was this other detail. Now that we know this, it’s actually going to happen in 2006.” (laughs) They actually become more certain.
Sobel: Was it challenging for you to end Big Questions after fifteen years? At what point did you sit down and say, “I have to wrap all these ideas up somehow into a narrative that holds together?”
Nilsen: I was moving towards that from pretty early on. By the time I was done with issue 3 or 4, I had a pretty good, if slightly blurry sense of where it was going to end. It got a lot longer than I expected, and a lot more happened. Actually getting to the end took a lot longer and was much more complicated than I thought it would be. But partly that was because I was having fun with it and I wanted to go down all these blind alleys. I wanted to explore those other characters. For example, I dropped the crows in in the middle and then I was like, “These guys are fun. I want to play around with them some more.” But it always was going to be a single narrative arc. I think a lot of people who were reading the serialized issues just thought they were these episodic meditations on... whatever. Just a series of loosely connected moments. I don’t think a lot of people realized it was all adding up to a larger story.
Sobel: Some of the early issues were hard to find, so people might not have had access to the full story anyway.
Nilsen: Right. A lot of people picked it up in the middle when Drawn and Quarterly started publishing it.
“I feel like they’re not good drawings.”
Sobel: Can you talk about the symmetrical patterns you used on the cover and for chapter breaks in Big Questions? You said in one of your interviews that they were inspired by designs on old money and stock certificates?
Nilsen: Right. I became interested in that stuff because of this artist, J.S.G. Boggs. He does drawings of money. They’re actual size, but he changes them a bit in funny, odd ways, and then he takes these drawings and goes out and tries to use them as currency. For example, he’ll go into a bar and say something like, “Here, I did this drawing of a twenty-dollar bill and I want a beer. Can I give you this drawing and you give me the beer and the change that you would have given me if this was an actual twenty-dollar bill?” If that exchange is accepted, then the bartender has a really cool drawing for basically nothing, and people who collect his work have to then go to the bar and somehow get the bartender to give them the drawing.
So he’s this weird conceptual performance artist, but he does these really amazing drawings of money, and reading about him got me to look at currency as, basically, a work of art, and think about what that kind of design means. Basically, the reason for that intense intricacy of ornamentation was originally to make it hard for counterfeiters to fake. Now they have crazy watermarks and put slips of reflective ribbon inside the money, but that design sensibility of intricate ornamentation has lingered, and because of that history, that sort of ornamentation has come to signify value. Its complexity is also fascinating unto itself. It’s almost impossible to understand it. You can’t really look at money and register instantly what is happening with all those tiny lines. To me that becomes an interesting metaphor for the world. It’s like, there is this extremely ordered structure to the world, with specific rules, physics, chemistry, etc. Things all happen for reasons, and there is an underlying order, but when we look at it, it’s impossible to understand, the structure is too complex.
The other thing with those abstract breaks between chapters is that it’s important to me to create some sort of pause. Also – and I don’t think I did this successfully in Big Questions – but part of my idea was that there should be something happening with those ornamental pieces where they are going through an evolution just as the story itself is going through an evolution, and they should hopefully parallel each other.
Sobel: How did you actually draw them?
Nilsen: I basically just drew a bunch of concentric circles with a compass, and then drew radiating lines from the center, so you have this circular graph paper. Then I drew a line, like a curve, that intersects at certain places, and then just repeated that curve over and over. It’s an interesting process because you never know quite what it’s going to look like when you’re done. I guess if I did this for a living all the time I would start to learn the rules and tendencies of different forms, but it was something where I just watched these things unfold and create themselves as I was drawing. It was very labor-intensive but also sort of fun.
Sobel: You also mentioned in a couple interviews that you see a lot of mistakes in the middle sections of Big Questions. What did you mean by that?
Nilsen: Basically, I was referring to issues five and six, with the explosion of the bomb and the events surrounding that. I kind of like the plane crash drawing, but a lot of the other stuff that happens around the crash, like the emergence of the Pilot and his first interactions with the birds, I look at that stuff and it looks rough because I was still figuring out how I wanted to draw comics. Starting with issue three, when the people first appeared, I was getting back into drawing for the first time in years, and I was really loving the process of trying to get everything just right, but then I started to question that a little bit. The stuff with the little birds had started off very crude and off-the-cuff, so I was playing around with trying to get that feeling back into the work. Working on issues five and six, I think I swung back to drawing really quickly and roughly. Now I look at those sections and I feel like they’re not good drawings. They don’t carry the atmosphere that I feel the book ultimately needed. In issue seven, when the Idiot wanders off into the forest and Bayle follows him, that’s the point where I embraced the way that I love to draw, but it was something I had to play with and figure out for a while.
Dogs and Water is drawn much more roughly, and that Sisyphus story in Kramers Ergot 4 looks pretty rough to me, too, but those don’t drive me crazy. They are, at least, consistent. I had to do it for a while to figure that out.
“The bear is the childhood notion of being an artist.”
Sobel: Speaking of Dogs and Water, I wanted to ask you about its parallels with Big Questions since it came out in the middle of that book. Do you think of them as related stories?
Nilsen: I don’t actually, although I do see the similarities between the human character in Dogs and Water and the Pilot. In Dogs and Water, he’s this person who’s lost in this empty landscape and doesn’t really know what’s going on or where he’s headed. He gets into a relationship with wild animals, and encountering death is an important theme and plot point in both stories, too, but still, they feel like really different books to me.
Sobel: The airplane crash is also something that both books have in common.
Nilsen: Yeah. Stuff crashes in my stories. (laughs)
Sobel: Is that something that you can tie back to a specific source?
Nilsen: Well, they’re big, dramatic events and a lot of storytelling is about dramatic events, or extreme experiences. Looking back, I don’t know if this is where I got the image, but there’s a great crashed airplane scene in Tintin in Tibet which I’m sure must have had some influence on me.
Sobel: I wondered if it had anything to do with 9/11?
Nilsen: Oh, really? I was worried about that at the time. I actually drew all that stuff before 9/11. I drew the plane crash scene in 2000, but then it turned out a lot of other storytelling had to happen before I could get to that point in the story, so while I was working on that other stuff, 9/11 happened and then I was like, “Fuck, everybody is going to think this is commentary on 9/11.” As it happened, the plane crash happened in issue #6, which didn’t come out until 2005, so by that time people weren’t interpreting it that way... as far as I know.
Sobel: Another parallel I see between Dogs and Water and Big Questions is that desolate landscape.
Nilsen: Right. It’s interesting to me that people characterize it that way. In Dogs and Water, the landscape is definitely desolate. There’s almost no vegetation, but Big Questions, to me, is not desolate. I might say empty, but desolate sounds like some damage happened, or, if you were stuck out there by yourself you would probably die because there wouldn’t be anything to eat.
Sobel: I guess I meant desolate in terms of humans. There are hints of civilization but you rarely see other people besides the Idiot and the Pilot.
Nilsen: Right. That’s not an unusual reading of it. I didn’t really get this until I had actually finished the whole book and was on a book tour, but I was driving up the coast of California and it just hit me at a certain point that that the setting in Big Questions is this archetypal, generic landscape. Those open plains with some forest and trees are totally the Upper Midwest, which is where I grew up. I just drew the landscape outside Minneapolis basically. But part of the reason I went to it was that I wanted a blank canvas, an empty stage for the interactions to happen on. I also think of it as this kind of generic children’s literature landscape, like in Wind in the Willows, with the forest, the river, the tunnels underground. You’ve got one of everything and the characters move from one to the other. (laughs)
Sobel: One of the other things that seemed to parallel with Dogs and Water was this idea of the impact that humans have on nature and the environment. Is that something you wanted to get across?
Nilsen: Actually, no, not really. I wasn’t really thinking about that consciously.
Sobel: In both stories humans feel like these incredible forces of destruction.
Nilsen: Yeah. It is something that I think about, so it’s not surprising that it would show up in my work, but I didn’t have an agenda about any kind of environmental commentary. To me, the Pilot blundering through the world and causing damage wasn’t meant to be any kind of political allegory. It was much more of a personal, individual thing.
Sobel: Same with the humans in Dogs and Water?
Nilsen: I don’t know. There’s not really a character that’s causing damage in that one.
Sobel: Yeah, but there’s a vague sense of war on the margins.
Nilsen: Right, there’s something bad happening. I started working on that story in ’03, and, at that point, the Iraq War was getting underway which is how that became the backdrop.
To me, that book was also very much about what it means to be an artist in the world where something like that war can happen, and how we all have a relationship to it whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. But I definitely wasn’t taking any kind of political stand. It’s just that I’m somebody who tries to be aware of what’s happening in the world. That’s always been a part of my life. My parents made sure that it was. They were interested in politics so growing up it was always something I thought about and took part in. So any depiction of the world for me is going to probably include some awareness of politics and the complications of human relationships.
Sobel: So Dogs and Water was a story about an artist trying to find his way through a war-torn world?
Nilsen: Something like that. That book has a very concrete allegory in it. It was based on a little experimental piece I did right after I graduated from undergrad. Basically, I was thinking about the role of the artist in the world. For as long as I can remember, I always thought, “I’m going to be an artist.” I had no idea what that meant as a little kid, but that’s what I was going to do. And through my teenage years and into my twenties, I was taking all those steps. I was following that childish idea that I’m going to make a life out of art so I guess that means going to art school and then, when art school’s done, the next thing you do is move to a big city and start applying to do shows.
So basically, the bear represents that childhood notion of being an artist, and its voice is telling me to continue walking on that path, but there definitely was a point after art school where I was like, “Where the fuck am I? What am I doing? I’m applying to all these shows but nobody wants my shit.” When I was in art school, there were all these people – instructors and fellow students – who, whether they wanted to or not, were there to look at my work and tell me what they thought, but after graduation it felt really lonely and difficult and pointless. So that original experimental strip was just that character thinking “What the fuck? How did I get out here? This sucks!” When I picked that idea back up in ‘03 that was less of a concern. I’d begun finding an audience, and a point, but it’s still part of the genesis of the book.
“It was like my life had imitated my art. It felt very surreal.”
Sobel: With Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow and The End, is it hard for you to relive those memories every time you do an interview like this?
Nilsen: No. In some ways it’s nice to be able to talk about that stuff in interviews because sometimes when somebody dies, people don’t know how to talk about it, so either there’s not really an occasion to talk about it, or you’re expected to not mention it, or to pretend it’s not part of your life. But it is, so I’m totally happy to talk about it. On the other hand, working on the re-release – the expanded reissue – of The End a couple years ago… that turned out to be pretty hard. (laughs)
Sobel: Why was that?
Nilsen: Because that felt like reliving it. I was right back there again, and it wasn’t that fun. (laughs) It’s not just reliving the experience of loss, there were other issues and things happening that made it more complicated. It really felt like dredging it up and re-experiencing it, so I was glad to have that book done. It is work that I want to be out there, and I want that book to exist, but it was just hard.
Sobel: Do you feel differently about those books now, nearly ten years later?
Sobel: How so?
Nilsen: Well, to me they’re very different from each other. Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow really wasn’t intended for a large audience, and for a few years I really was pretty uncomfortable with it as a published work. I made the decision to publish it, but then I immediately decided not to reprint it. It was something that I made for friends and family because that’s where my head was and I wasn’t ready to work on anything else, but it felt like a very private, incredibly personal book. It also just felt really complicated, like, I went through this really difficult thing, and more importantly Cheryl went through it – and died, and then I made a book and I’m getting money out of it. So that’s why I decided not to reprint it at first.
Before that, I never had much interest in doing autobiographical work, and I still don’t think it’s really where my talent is. But that book got more attention than anything I had done to that point, which was a double-edged sword. On one hand, I didn’t want that to be the book I was the most known for, but I would also get letters from people saying that it was cathartic for them to read it, or it made them think about their own relationships in a new way. So, once some time had gone by and Big Questions came out, I felt like, if this book is going to be helpful for people, then it should be out there. I had to honor the fact that a work of art has its own life once you’re done with it. You have to let it have its life, and give it up to the audience.
Sobel: What about The End?
Nilsen: I had a much less conflicted feeling about that because that book’s really not about Cheryl. It’s about me. The first version of it was just half the story. It ends in the thick of me feeling like utter shit.
Sobel: That’s the Ignatz book?
Nilsen: Yeah. And I was aware that that wasn’t actually the end of the story. I really did want to try to show the whole arc of grief, and talk about where you end up coming to… not that there’s an end point, exactly. But those books both came out a year or two after her death, and by the time The End came out, I just didn’t want to deal with that stuff anymore. I didn’t want to work on another book about that. It was hard enough to move on with my life without continuing to mine through that chapter. So for that reason, I set it aside. But when I finally got to a place in my life where that stuff was less sharp, it started to bother me that the book was not done. I’m proud of those books, and, as an artist, it’s hard to feel like there’s an abandoned child out there (laughs), so I just needed to finish the story.
Sobel: So when did you actually go back and finish it?
Nilsen: Most of the quote unquote new material for the reissue was more or less already done. Some of it had to be reconfigured and heavily edited, but mostly it was pre-existing work I’d done at the time. So it was mostly just collecting stuff and tweaking it, and making it work together. I wasn’t making new work at that point.
Sobel: Was there any kind of negative reaction from Cheryl’s friends or family?
Nilsen: No, although I think those books were hard for them to read. I was like, “I did these things, I don’t know if you’re interested,” but they asked me for copies to give people. So I got no negative reactions from anybody.
Sobel: I know you guys met in art school, but how exactly did you meet?
Nilsen: I started grad school in Chicago in ’99 – she had been there for a year already – and her studio was across the hall from mine. The Art Institute is a big school; there are a ton of grad students, but out of everybody that I was aware of, her work just spoke to me. I liked seeing what she was doing. So I think we had a certain kind of shared sensibility.
Sobel: She was a painter, too?
Nilsen: Well, she was interdisciplinary. She was in the fiber department, so she was working with cloth and stuff, but actually what she was working on when I met her was film and video, and some photography and printing. She had a little press and she was publishing other peoples’ stuff, like small editions of little art books. So she was also a book-maker, a print-maker, a painter; she did a lot of stuff. She was a very gifted artist.
Sobel: Was she a storyteller at all?
Nilsen: No, not really. The books were just little poetic investigations of stuff, although they were sequential books.
Sobel: What would she have thought of your books?
Nilsen: (laughs) The ones about her? I sort of hint in The End that I don’t think she would like them very much. She was very private. I do some curating now and then and I would try to curate her work into shows, or into projects that I was working on, but she was always very resistant. She was a really talented artist, but you could say she was a little bit of a self-saboteur.
Sobel: Do you have a desire to share any of her artwork?
Nilsen: I had a strong desire early on, and I actually have put up a show of her work. I did a show a year or so after her death, which was partly a benefit for cancer research. Also, it was an occasion to do a blood drive. While she was sick she got a lot of blood, and one of her last wishes was for people to give blood. She felt like she had benefited because random people went and decided to give blood and she wanted people to give back, so we did a couple blood drives.
I’ve also put her work in two shows since—the last was earlier this year—but the thing is... I don’t know. It’s like, she wouldn’t let me show her work when she was alive, but now that she’s dead, she can’t object. (laughs). I think the work deserves an audience.
Sobel: Do you have a favorite piece, or series of pieces?
Nilsen: Oh, there’s all kinds of stuff that I really like. She did these folded paper pieces that are like geometric abstractions, but the only marks on the paper are from folding. I love those.
Also, there’s this book that she did, which was her main book project. It’s the only one that she made lots of copies of. I think she did a run of five hundred or something. It was called Pedestrian Errors and it was sentences about little peccadilloes, or minor little things that might go wrong in your life, and then the sentences are all carefully diagrammed.
She did a couple other book projects that I feel like would be great if they were still available. I would love to have that Pedestrian book exist in the world still. Actually, I made a screen-printed edition of another book of hers a year or so after her death, and I sold them at shows for a while, but it always felt a little complicated, so I didn’t continue that.
Sobel: Do you ever see yourself self-publishing any of these again?
Nilsen: No, it would just feel awkward. If I was publishing a lot of other work, maybe I would put her in the mix, but I’m pretty aware of not wanting to feel like that’s something that defines me professionally. I don’t want to be at a show and have a little stack of my stuff and a little stack of her stuff. If I had an extra life, I would love to be a publisher. I would publish weird art books like that. I love that stuff, but unfortunately I have too much other shit I want to do.
Sobel: When you look at Big Questions, where do you see the most direct influence from that whole experience?
Nilsen: Honestly, I don’t see an influence from that experience in Big Questions.
Nilsen: (laughs) Anybody who knows that book well would probably try to call bullshit, but... after she died, it took a little while for me to get back to Big Questions, but once I did, one of the first sequences I was working on was the part where Algernon goes underground to look for Thelma. The thing is, I had written that scene before she ever got sick. It’s totally an Orpheus myth, with an artist going underground looking for his lost love who’s died. It was the craziest thing because I was drawing this thing that I wrote years earlier. It was like my life had imitated my art. It felt very surreal. But the fact is, that story had been crystallized in my head for a long time. I wasn’t processing that experience by doing that scene.
You can also find parallels in Betty’s story, where she’s putting the bones of all the dead birds together and experiencing all this guilt and talking to the dead. Maybe the character of those conversations was influenced, but that was all going to happen, too. So, undoubtedly it influenced Big Questions, but not in a way that is obvious to me.
“Oh my God, what the fuck did I do?”
Sobel: Did making those books affect the experience of recovery?
Nilsen: I do think that working on those books helped me to process it. I don’t think it made it easier, and I bristle at the idea that it was therapeutic... but it probably was.
I guess one of the things, and this goes back a little bit to what we were talking about, is: what is the point of art? Why is it worth doing? That experience changed the way I think about that. Making those books made me experience the grief that I was going through more intensely. If you have a traumatic experience, making sense of your life happens by telling people stories about your marriage, or how you fell in love, or what it was like in school, or why you got fired from your job. Whatever happens to you in life can feel very disconnected, but if you tell stories over and over, it becomes real. It becomes part of an overall narrative and has structure. I think that it really did that. You can’t evade grief; you have to go through it, but making those books helped me actually fully experience it.
And it wasn’t just doing that work, but also the artwork that I was consuming, especially the music that I was listening to… Anybody who’s had a breakup has had this experience where suddenly songs have this incredible potency. I think that’s the same thing. It’s helping you actually experience what you’re going through. It’s creating meaning out of the chaos of experience. So that’s very much how I think about art now, as part of the channeling of human experience.
Sobel: Does having these physical objects that are a product of that grief make any difference in the overall experience of moving on?
Nilsen: I don’t think so. I think you go through those experiences, and over time you figure out how to compartmentalize them and put them on the shelf. And that’s like those books. They hold those memories and experiences and then I just put them on the shelf. Sometimes I wonder a little bit, how did that mark me? I think it did mark me in some ways, but I don’t think the existence of the books changes that.
Sobel: What’s been the response from people who read those books?
Nilsen: With Don’t Go, it’s been things like, “I read that book and it made me feel like I need to appreciate what I have.” Or, “Me and my boyfriend read it and we cried together,” which is pretty profound to me, actually
With The End, I’ve had a few people write me and say, basically “Nothing else that I’ve read captures my experience, but this does, and it makes me feel like I’m not alone,” or, “I want people in my life to read this book so they can understand what I’m going through.” That’s crazy powerful!
Sobel: Can you talk about the bare bones style you used in The End?
Nilsen: That totally came naturally. It has to do with that blankness we were talking about before, and creating vessels for the reader to invest in. I think that’s why it works, but I wasn’t thinking about that while I was doing it.
I was in a grief group with other people that had lost spouses or partners, so I would go to the meetings and we’d all hang out and talk together for an hour, which was great, I would recommend that to anybody… well, maybe “great” is the wrong word, but…
Nilsen: Very helpful. So then I would leave, and my head would be full of that conversation and these ideas and memories, so I would go to… often it was this restaurant that Cheryl and I used to work at, Lula, and I would just sit at the bar and have a drink and draw and write in my sketchbook. My head was so full of all that shit, I just had to get it down. So the drawing was very simple because I had to get it done quickly to get those thoughts out.
Sobel: Did you do any editing on those books?
Nilsen: Yeah. A lot. There’s a really early version of “Let X Equal X” that was in some ‘zine show that Mark Todd and Esther Pearl Watson put together. One of the earliest versions of that story was in my sketchbooks, and then I redid it first for that show, and then again when I started working on The End. I took the basic ideas and tried to make them more coherent and more like a little story. So that’s true with most of that stuff. It went down in my sketchbook in a very raw way and then I would come back to it and massage it into a coherent little piece.
I sometimes feel like there should be a warning statement on both of those books.
Sobel: Saying what?
Nilsen: Saying, “Not for the faint of heart” or “this shit is really sad.” (laughs)
There was a moment, right after Don’t Go came out, which was down the road a ways from the events, where I sat down and read it and I just thought, “Oh my God, what the fuck did I do? This thing is crazy intense! People are watching me have a serious freak-out.” (laughs) So that was another reason I did not want to reprint the book. I felt like, “Oh my God, what am I showing people?”
Sobel: Why did you ultimately decide to reprint it?
Nilsen: Because when autobiographical work is most interesting, it’s usually because people are displaying their most vulnerable moments that they otherwise don’t show. And that’s what I want to make art about. I’m a fan of pretty pictures as much as anybody, or a fun, vacuous story, but the stuff that I’m compelled to make is dealing with real shit.
Sobel: So you won’t be doing any New Mutants comics? (laughs)
Nilsen: (laughs) It would probably be fun, but I couldn’t do it. I would want to invest it with some weird political stuff or kill off a couple of the characters. They would never get around to fighting the villains because they’d be having intense conversations and breaking each other’s hearts. (laughs)
“Those books got a lot of bad reviews.”
Sobel: Like The End, in the Monologues books, you’ve distilled comics down to the bare essence, with just posture, gesture, and dialogue, and Poetry is Useless goes even further where you just have the silhouette talking head. Can you talk about how this style evolved?
Nilsen: It all goes back to Big Questions, which started out really simple. It was just simply-drawn birds talking, and then it evolved and became more refined, but, as I mentioned, when I was working on issues five and six, I was missing the spontaneity of not really knowing where I was going. This was at a point where I was a few years into Big Questions and I was also working on Dogs and Water and Sisyphus, so I was working only on finished comics. I wasn’t doing much stuff in my sketchbook, and I wasn’t doing any experiments or playing.
So then Kramers Ergot 4 came out, and Sammy Harkham organized a book tour. I was in a van with a bunch of cartoonists for ten days and that got me reacquainted with the fun of drawing and inventing weird shit in my sketchbook. I think I was sitting in an airport on my way home from New York or Boston – wherever the last Kramers stop was – when the beginning of the first Monologues book happened. I was just trying to reacquaint myself with that automatic style of writing – starting something but not knowing where it’s going. So Monologues honestly began the same way Big Questions did, but I tried to make a pact with myself not to refine it, or not to start worrying about the drawing, and not to get involved in plot mechanics or character so much. It ends up doing that anyway by the end of the second book. I’ve done some work on a third and final book, although I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen. I have ideas about where it could go and what it could turn into, but the Monologues books were originally an exercise in off-the-cuff spontaneity and stream of consciousness comics. So having drawings that are super simple was a way of making it happen fast so that I could get my ideas down.
Sobel: What kind of critical response did those books get?
Nilsen: Those books are interesting. People either love or hate them, and a lot of people really hate them. (laughs)
I don’t get a lot of bad reviews for most of my work, which I shouldn’t say too loudly because maybe somebody will take it upon themselves to give me a bad review, but those books got a lot of bad reviews, especially the first one. People thought I was being super pretentious. I think the shitty drawings were like an insult for some people, but honestly, I’m glad. Those books have a much more limited audience than something like Big Questions, so I feel like, the people that hate those books, that’s fine. Those books aren’t for them. For some people, those are their favorite books of mine because they’re so weird.
Sobel: Was it just that the style was so different than your other books?
Nilsen: I think the art style was off-putting, but also the non-linearity, and the jokiness. The word pretentious got used a fair amount, so I guess people think I’m trying to be clever, which I guess I am. Or maybe there’s an opaque, inside jokiness to them? I don’t know.
“I think it was a failure but I tried.”
Sobel: What kind of religious upbringing did you have?
Nilsen: My grandfather – my mother’s father – was a Lutheran minister as was her brother, so she grew up in the Church. As kids, we didn’t go to church with regularity, but we would go occasionally. The thing is that my step-dad was an atheist, and my dad was sort of an agnostic with atheist tendencies, so we were always encouraged to think about and question things. None of it ever stuck. (laughs)
I am very interested in religion, though. If you read my books, it’s obviously a big part of my work. I think about what my grandfather did in relation to what I do, and I feel like there are actually a lot of similarities. Every week he got up in front of an audience and talked about stories. He retold stories, and talked about what they were about, why they were important, what we could take away from them, and about how we should live our lives and treat other people. I feel like that’s kind of what I do, too. I tell new stories, but I am also very interested in interpreting old ones and finding meaning in them, or playing with the meaning in them.
It’s interesting to me, too, that I’m not a religious person, given how comfortable I am with religious language. A lot of other secular people aren’t. I was very aware, while doing Rage of Poseidon, that some people were uncomfortable because they couldn’t really tell if it was religious or not. There are some parts where I’m clearly making fun of the Bible, but then there are other stories in there that are finding real meaning in those stories. I have a friend who grew up religious but moved away from it, who expressed to me that it was hard for him to figure out how to take it. He came to a point in his life where he wanted to reject that stuff, so the idea that there might still be something there, even if you’re not a believer, is complicated for him. Then I have another really good friend who grew up completely atheist, her father was completely anti-religion, and she also was a little uncomfortable with those stories. It made her wonder if I was secretly religious. I don’t know. I love that weird ambiguity. These things are so charged that people have to have a stance, and it’s like, if it’s not clear what their stance is, it freaks people out a little bit.
Sobel: You’re touching on deep identity issues when you use elements from those Bible stories.
Nilsen: Right. And certain people feel like they have ownership over those stories. With Rage, that was one of the things that was really important to me. The religious right, or the fundamentalist Christians, have claimed all those stories and the secular world has let them take it. They’ve just let them take this incredible cultural history, and I feel like, “No, fuck that! Those are my stories, too.” I don’t have to believe they’re literally true for them to be amazing stories that are meaningful. So I’m interested in reclaiming that stuff and making those relationships more complicated.
Sobel: Have you done any formal Bible study?
Nilsen: Yeah, I guess I have. I’ve done a lot of reading about the history of the early Church, and the way that the Bible was constructed, mostly the New Testament. I haven’t spent a lot of time with the Old Testament, which is actually where the more interesting stories are, but I have done a lot of reading about the New Testament and the ways that it evolved and changed over time, the ways it happens to be a very historical, human document.
It’s interesting to me because everything comes down to the interpretation of stories, which is about the interpretation of life. It’s about how people make meaning out of the world. Everybody looks at the Bible and they have to have some criteria for evaluating if the stories are true or not, and if they’re just stories, how should we think about them? Should we think about them poetically? A lot of progressive Christians look at the New Testament and they think about it politically these days. They think of Jesus as this progressive political figure. That’s one interpretation just like any other, but scholars have gone back and parsed the Bible and it’s not what any of us want it to be.
There’s this guy, Bart Ehrman, who is a Bible scholar. I’ve read a lot of his stuff, and in one of his books, he talks a lot about interpretation and the struggle to figure out what the original authors might have meant. But even if you could figure that out, even that is already a step removed because they were writing many years after the events of Jesus’ life. So even if you could figure out exactly what they meant to say, they’re interpreting something too, so do you trust their interpretation 30 years after the fact? Or 50 years? He argues that it’s all interpretation. Whether you’re reading this extremely contorted document 2,000 years later, or you’re the person that actually saw the event happen, you’re still making an interpretation based on your agendas and history, and where you’re standing in the crowd. There is no solid truth really, and functionally, it doesn’t matter. I just love that idea because that’s what is so great about stories; they’re full of meaning, they’re never static.
Sobel: Where does your interest in mythology and Bible stories originate?
Nilsen: The Greek myths were a huge thing for me as a kid. The Bible less so, but it was around, too. All those stories are just great. They are these weird foundational stories that pop up in literature and songs; they suffuse our culture. They’re fun play material, too. They are these slates that you can do anything with. You can cast them in different lights and they are able to stand up to it, which is fun.
I got confirmed in the Lutheran Church, and I remember talking about the story of Abraham and Isaac in confirmation class. I remember feeling like the Minister didn’t really know what he was getting into when he made us read it. (laughs) It was like, “Huh. This story is super fucked up and he doesn’t really have any good answers.”
Sobel: As a father with two sons, I hate that story. (laughs)
Nilsen: Yeah, right! I’m not even a father and I’m like, “What?!” But that story stuck in my head and I’m still very interested in how it works. Somehow that story is deeply resonant and people keep coming back to it. There’s probably a very simple reason for why it exists. It probably reflected some value that somebody was trying to impart three thousand years ago, but it has stuck with us all these years even though it doesn’t really work anymore as a story. On the surface it’s borderline nonsensical and completely fucked up, and it’s about this god who is manipulative and insane. Yet it resonates.
So that story in particular really stuck with me, and I’ve ended up using it in a few places. It pops up in Big Questions because there was a dream, that I actually had that I re-created in the book, which had to do with fathers and sons and sacrifice. After that dream, I started to see that story in a really different way, thinking about it not as a story about actual fathers and actual sons, but rather… In a dream you are all the characters, right? If you had a dream about yourself dealing with your father, that dream is actually about you and the archetype of fatherhood in your brain, so the “you” in the dream is one aspect of yourself, and the father in your dream is another aspect of yourself. That idea throws that story into a different light. If God, Abraham and Isaac are all different aspects of the self, that story is very different, and after I started thinking about it like that, it actually became a much more useful, and, to me, profound story.
Sobel: In Rage of Poseidon, it felt like you used some of those Bible stories as cultural satire. Would you agree with that characterization?
Nilsen: Oh yeah, definitely. The stories in that book are really different. Some of them are satire, but others are pretty straight. But, also, I was taking those really old stories that we think of as having happened in a world that is completely different, and unconnected to our life, and putting them in our present day reality. It’s a weird, fun exercise that I think is illuminating. I don’t know if the people that were telling these stories actually believed they happened or not, some probably did and some probably didn’t, but they were stories about their present day existence, whereas we think of them as stories about the distant past that aren’t really connected to our modern lives. But they are. As soon as you plop them into the present day it’s like, oh yeah, it’s still the same thing. The way a father feels about his son isn’t actually that different now. It might involve video games and slightly different language, but the way you feel about your sons is probably very similar to the way that some shepherd in 1,000 B.C. thought about his sons. (laughs)
Sobel: That’s a crazy thought, but probably very true. What was the inspiration behind the book’s accordion style, single-page format?
Nilsen: Those pieces were originally not even a book; it was a slideshow reading. Most of the earliest pieces, like the Prometheus piece, the Jesus and Aphrodite piece, the Isaac and Abraham, and Poseidon stories, those were all monologues in my sketchbook. So their original form was the little silhouetted head guy telling those stories. Then I had a friend who asked me to do a reading, but I’ve always felt like doing comics readings was a little weird. I think my work doesn’t lend itself to it, although I also think comics don’t lend themselves to being slide readings generally. But this friend of mine, who’s a novelist (Joe Meno), asked me to do a reading with him. I knew I had a few stories that dealt with this theme of gods, so I decided to try to use those, but since they didn’t have good images attached to them, I took them and turned them into a slide reading by making large, single images. The reason they were silhouettes was because I didn’t have a ton of time, and I didn’t want to make a bunch of images, so I thought doing the silhouettes would be really quick.
So the original form was all about one single, semi-monumental image in the dark, and then my voice, reading. I gave the reading several times and people would always ask, “Is this going to be a book?” so I was like, “Alright, maybe I should make it a book,” but it just felt like... they were intended as single images that you just rest with for a minute, not like comics panels. They’re not conveyors of information. So I was thinking “How am I going to make a book where that same iconic feeling of monumentality can be part of it?” So basically the accordion was a way to make the object feel monumental, but I don’t know. I think it was a failure, but I tried. (laughs)
Sobel: You think that book is a failure?
Nilsen: I guess I don’t think it’s a failure as a book, but I don’t think it recreates that sense of monumentality. I like those stories a lot, and I think what the silhouettes end up doing is interesting, but I don’t think there’s really an adequate way of re-creating the feeling of that religious monumentalism that the slide reading was aiming at. So, honestly, I feel like those stories were really intended as a slide reading. That’s the way that work should exist. When I do a reading, the people who come to that are experiencing the work for real, and the book is just this record of that performance. By the time I was doing some of the later stories, like the Venus story and the Noah and the Flood story, I had the book in mind so maybe those are more successful pieces.
“It’s the one thing I’ve done that most perfectly reflects who I am and how my mind works.”
Sobel: Your new book, Poetry Is Useless, is a collection from your sketchbooks. What’s the timeframe?
Nilsen: I think the earliest strips in there may be from ’07. The last ones are from mid-2014, something like that.
Sobel: Are they mostly chronological?
Nilsen: They are roughly chronological. There are a few things that are not, just for the sake of flow, but for the most part it’s pretty chronological. I did a lot of editing. Originally I wanted to do a 400 page book with all that stuff, but that would have made it, like, a $75 book that no one would want, so I had to cull it down to the just the good stuff. Looking at artists’ sketchbooks is always a little weird because you’re only seeing the best stuff, whereas the reality is that there’s a good page and then four bad ones, and then there’s a good one and then five more bad ones.
Sobel: Why did you choose such a provocative title?
Nilsen: I am sort of regretting that title, although provocative titles stick in your head. (laughs) I went through the book and made a list of ideas or phrases that might work as a title. The book is about being provocative so it jumped out at me, and it’s weird and random in a way that I like.
Also, if Big Questions is a novel, and I’ve done some memoir and nonfiction stuff, I think of the short pieces in that book as my poetry collection. They’re these weird little things that point to ideas without always being literal or explicit. So I liked the idea of referencing poetry in the title, but now I feel like it’s too provocative, and not really what the book is about.
Sobel: I wondered if it was self-deprecating.
Nilsen: Yeah, partly. It also points a little bit to my ambivalence about the functions of art in general, and whether it’s really good for anything.
Sobel: The cover has an empty boulder with a power cord dangling from a hole. Why did you choose that particular image?
Nilsen: Not for any very well-thought-out reason. The book has a bunch of different aspects to it. It’s partly about drawing, so I wanted that to be represented on the cover. I wanted an image that was both a pleasurable line drawing, but also had this flat abstraction happening, which is another theme in the book. Again, it was like with the title, I just went through the book and tried to find images that would work as a slightly inscrutable, but evocative cover. I probably did ten or fifteen covers for it. I had a lot of trouble deciding and narrowing it down, but that boulder was an image I really liked.
Sobel: I read the PDF version, so I’m curious what your vision is for the graphic design of the book. Are you going to try to recreate the look and feel of a sketchbook, or is it going to be more of an actual graphic novel?
Nilsen: Well, I want the book to be this inscrutable object, so I played around with ideas like not having my name on the cover and not having any text on the back, although that’s yet to be determined. The spine was supposed to have no text on it, just shapes, but that got nixed. Inside, each page has a spread of my actual little pocket-sized sketchbook. I was mostly using little Moleskines, and they’re really small, but then I was also using different sizes, so I wanted to be able to accommodate both.
So partly it’s about reproducing the drawings, and showing the physical work, but on the other hand, it is important to me that people understand the context of the work as well. That’s why you can see the sketchbook degrading a little bit over time, and in some cases, the spine slowly cracking. That’s because it was in my back pocket all the time, in case I had a weird idea that I wanted to write down. The book is about my constant interaction with the world. It’s me seeing something and then jotting it down, or drawing on a plane, or sketching when I’m in Colombia. Showing all that process stuff was very important to me with this book.
Sobel: Do you think collecting all of these strips and pages will have any kind of adverse impact on the material?
Nilsen: I don’t know. What do you mean by “adverse”?
Sobel: Well, if you look at some of these huge strip collections, like The Complete Far Side or Calvin and Hobbes, that take all this episodic material and put it under one cover, it can lose some of the humor and individuality of each piece because it’s all lumped together. If you sit down and read 200 Far Sides in a row, for example…
Nilsen: Right, it’s different than encountering them one at a time.
Nilsen: Yeah, that’s interesting. I hadn’t really thought about that, but almost all of it was on my blog at some point, and I’ve always assumed that the work would eventually be collected into a book. Honestly, I’m very happy to have this book finished because it feels like, in some ways, it’s my work more than anything else I’ve done. It’s the one thing I’ve done that most perfectly reflects who I am and how my mind works. In a way I feel like it’s, I don’t know… This is sort of a weird thing to say, but it’s like it’s the first time I’ve done something that maybe is slightly new, or hasn’t really been done. On the one hand it is a sketchbook, because it’s this little book that I have in my pocket, but on the other hand it’s not really a sketchbook because I am thinking about an audience, so it is really this ongoing conversation that I’m having with an audience.
Sobel: Does it feel more personal because you’re talking directly to the readers rather than through characters?
Nilsen: It’s that, but I think it’s also the fact that I was always thinking, “Is this page going to go online or not? Is this page going to get presented?” The internet actually is part of why the work exists and why it took the form it did, so it’s not just a sketchbook, and it’s not just a graphic novel, or a book of collected sketchbook stuff. It is this record of an ongoing, not particularly defined, weird monologue that I’m having with an audience. I don’t know. I relate it to what a stand-up comic does, actually. Posting stuff on the Internet is a little like being on stage in that it’s this one-way communication, but the audience is very important and they help define the interaction. It feels very different to me than any of my other books.
Sobel: Both Big Questions and some of the strips in Poetry is Useless come off as, I don’t want to say anti-organized religion, but certainly skeptical. Is that a fair interpretation?
Nilsen: Sometimes I think my feelings about it are more complicated than my work lets on. (laughs) I actually have a lot of respect for religion and some of the things that it has given us, but I’m also an atheist. I think Poetry is Useless has an anti-religion tone at times, which is not really what I want to put forward.
I’m more interested in the absurdity of religion, especially fundamentalist religion, because if religion is something you think about, it’s hard not to notice its absurdities. But I’m also really interested in the power that it has. Like I was saying earlier, our brains are meaning-making machines and there is something that compels us to want to make the universe relatable. We like to personify it, in the same way that little kids personify everything, like trees, rocks, toys. I know when I was a little kid I felt bad for my left hand because I was right-handed and used my left hand less. (laughs) That’s just how our brains understand the world. So it’s not surprising to me that we would want to understand the universe as being like a person - which we call “God.” That’s seductive, and I think it can actually be a really useful way of relating to the universe. You just have to keep in mind that it’s a metaphor, not a reality.
The stories that Western religion has given us are also amazing, and, at least for me, a lot of them really resonate, or at least they are so strange and weird that they resonate as really fucked up surrealist parables. (laughs) So I love that stuff and I’m interested in that tension where our brains are wired to see the world this way, and yet it’s absurd. Within the Western world, and in America at this moment, there are people that are trying to organize the government according to their weird, absurdist nonsense, which, if you can zoom out enough, is hilarious. It’s awful and tragic because of the actual repercussions it has on people’s lives, but it’s also funny and it can be productive of good jokes, too. (laughs)
Sobel: There’s a sense in Poetry is Useless, particularly in the strips about meditation and awareness, where you encourage readers to look beyond their typical routines of everyday life and embrace something larger, whatever that may be, where it almost felt like it was coming from a Buddhist perspective. Is that a fair interpretation?
Nilsen: Yeah, I would say that, although I don’t know that much about Buddhism. I guess the touchstone for me is probably the Tao Te Ching, which I think is similar. It is sort of existential, and my understanding of it is that it’s taking the world at face value and finding, for lack of a better word, meaning in it. But yeah, it’s a lot about non-attachment, acceptance, compassion, simplicity. I think those are Zen Buddhist values, too.
Sobel: What do you mean?
Nilsen: It’s like, the workings of the world are amazing, and when they’re totally unexpected and feel random, and you can’t understand why – that’s absurdity. When your brain fails to reconcile the way the world actually works with your expectations, that’s absurdity, but it’s fun to imagine that there’s shit out there that you have no idea what the deal is. Maybe you can delight in that, maybe not. I don’t know. I try to.
Sobel: Do you consider yourself a spiritual person at all?
Nilsen: I’m definitely an Atheist, and I don’t know what “spiritual” means. The word “spirit” is like the word “soul,” and I don’t believe in the soul, so I don’t really know what that means, but I am somebody who is interested in trying to understand my relationship to the universe, which I guess brushes up against the idea of the spiritual. I just did a piece for the New York Times which was a stab at putting my tiny little life in the context of everything. I think awe is an appropriate response to being alive in the universe, but I don’t think you need to have God or silly superstitions to have awe and profound joy, or be at peace in the vastness of the universe. I don’t know. Words fail when you start talking about this stuff.
“My first reaction was ‘I’ve been Roy Lichtensteined.’”
Sobel: I wanted to get your thoughts on two things which seem related. One is the strips about Roy Lichtenstein that are in Poetry Is Useless, and the other is your recent blog post about the idea of audiences taking ownership of artists’ creations. Can you recap what happened with William Pope.L using your imagery, and what the status of that is, and then, secondly, describe what you meant by artists losing control of their work?
Nilsen: Sure. So what happened was that I got an email randomly from a friend who I work with occasionally as a curator that she had just gotten a monograph of William Pope.L’s work in which page 400 of Big Questions was reproduced. She emailed me to ask, “Did you know about this? What’s up with that?” It turned out that he had made a print of that page and put it in his show at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago about a year and a half ago, in January 2013. And I had no idea.
When I did that post and mentioned that this thing had happened, some people wrote me right away and were like, “That’s so fucked up! He stole your work,” but I don’t feel that way at all. I’m not mad, and I don’t feel like he ripped me off somehow. He credited me in the book and the exhibition. It would have been nice for somebody to let me know (laughs) mostly just because I would have liked to have seen the show, and I would have liked to have talked to him and hear why he chose that piece.
But I feel like we’re in this weird moment in the world where intellectual ownership is very strange. The Internet allows people to snap up all different kinds of images and use them for their own purposes, and steal them basically, so intellectual property is more at risk now than ever before. But I think you have to keep it in perspective a little bit. Yes, as artists, we want to keep control of our work. We spent a lot of timing doing this stuff and we’re trying to make a living and it’s not that easy to make a living as an artist so when people steal your shit to make t-shirts and sell them on the internet to people in Indonesia, that fucking sucks. But the fact is, there’s also a lot of concern about people ripping off other people’s ideas in a way that I think is sometimes actually just the normal process of influence. And that’s just the way culture works. You make something and you put it out there, and then it’s out there, and if it’s really powerful, or you captured an idea in a way that hasn’t been done, or hasn’t been done for a long time, it’s going to enter into the cultural conversation. So there has to be a distinction between being profoundly influenced by somebody and ripping them off.
Then there’s the whole conversation about sampling and collage, for example. What DJs do with sampling is, undeniably, making new art from old art, but it’s an impossible situation because I can imagine that, if that was my song, I might be kind of pissed, but it’s not really your song anymore. Once it’s on the radio, and it’s playing in everybody’s bar, and on their iPods, and on YouTube, it’s not really yours anymore, in a way… Of course you need to exercise as much control as legally and ethically possible, but also part of what we want as artists is for our work to transcend us, and for it to have resonance in the world and work new grooves in people’s cultural minds.
So you mentioned Roy Lichtenstein... (laughs)
Sobel: Exactly. Do you see that as the same situation?
Nilsen: Yes and no. Regarding that little cartoon about Roy Lichtenstein in Poetry, somebody curated a bunch of my work in a show in Denmark a few years ago, in ’08 or ’09, which was about cross-influences between comics and fine art. It was in this little museum in Odensk and there were some cartoonists represented as well as some quote-unquote fine artists. It was the kind of thing where you were supposed to look at how these people are influencing each other. The main curator wrote an essay, which did not mention Roy Lichtenstein, but somebody else—and I can’t remember who it was or what her connection was with the whole thing—wrote a little essay, which I think was also in the catalog, that, predictably, took Roy Lichtenstein and set him up as the Godfather of this movement of interchange between comics and high art. I think a lot of cartoonists would feel this way: what Lichtenstein did had nothing to do with comics. He just appropriated cultural images. He could have done that with magazine spreads or whatever.
Sobel: Soup cans.
Nilsen: Right. It had nothing to do with comics. It wasn’t about storytelling, or dialogue, or plot, or character. It was purely a visual, cultural exercise. Before him people painted landscapes. Then culture moved to a place where artists started using culture itself as a subject. He happened to pick out comic books. And actually, I don’t dislike his work; I think some of what he did is interesting, but it just felt like this critic completely missed the point. This show that we were in was about actual interchange. It was about high art looking at comics and learning something, and relating the mechanics and traditions of comics to gallery/museum practice. So, anyway, the joke is that Roy Lichtenstein has as much to do with comics as Marcel Duchamp has to do with the design of urinals. It’s not about that. It has nothing to do with it. It’s a completely different thing.
So when my work was quote-unquote appropriated By William Pope.L, of course my first reaction was “I’ve been Roy Lichtensteined.” Somebody took my work and they’re just aestheticizing it in some weird, disconnected way. But the truth is that’s not what it was at all. I haven’t talked to him, and I’m still interested in that, but it seems clear that he was interested in the content. There are details about his biography and other work that he’s done that relate to the situation that was being depicted in the comic.
“That’s where my heart lies.”
Sobel: You are a co-founder of the Autoptic comics festival in Minneapolis. Can you describe your role and what that experience was like?
Nilsen: There are nine of us working on it, and that was the first festival we did, so we all did a little bit of everything. We met regularly and talked through everything that was happening. Personally, I curated an exhibition of some of the artists’ work, and I helped organize PFC. Do you know what that is?
Nilsen: PFC stands for Pierre Feuille Ciseaux. It’s a French comics artist residency. In 2011, I went over to France and was part of this residency. It was half French cartoonists and half cartoonists from elsewhere in the world all getting together and doing structured collaboration. Zak Sally was there the year I was there, and he and June Misserey, who is one of the main movers behind the whole thing, had the idea of bringing it to Minneapolis, so leading up to Autoptic last year, we had a one-week residency with ten French and Belgian artists and ten North American artists. So I helped organize that and put the whole thing together with Zak and June.
I also put on an exhibition of a bunch of those artists’ work at a non-profit gallery here, and I organized a puppet show by Sara Drake and Puphouse, from Chicago and an animation screening curated by Eyeworks. Also, along with everybody else, I helped curate the festival and figure out what kind of character it would have and decide on a place to have it. Oh, and (laughs), I did all the graphics. I did the poster and the exhibitor badges and all the stuff.
Sobel: Are you still involved?
Nilsen: Yeah, the plan is to do it every two years, so we’re doing it again in 2015. This year we’re dividing up the tasks a little more. Zak and Dan Ibarra are doing most of the graphics. I’m doing two more exhibitions, and we’re doing another PFC residency leading up to it, so Zak and June and I are organizing that. I’m leaving a lot of the other stuff up to other people. It’ll start ramping up soon and we’ll have to figure out sponsors and funding and all that stuff.
Sobel: How would you describe the comics scene in Minneapolis?
Nilsen: It’s growing. There is a comics program at MCAD, the local art school, which I think in the last few years has begun to gather some momentum. I teach there occasionally and Zak teaches there. Barb Schultz is there, too. Kevin Huizenga is moving to town to start teaching there. So I think more and more interesting stuff is coming out of that program and feeding into a little burgeoning scene here. We’re trying to provide a showcase for that scene and also inject some national and international comics juice into it as well.
Sobel: What do you teach at MCAD?
Nilsen: I’ve been teaching what’s called the Advanced Comics Seminar. It’s basically comics majors, mostly seniors, usually in their second to last semester. The way I’m teaching it is, “Ok, you’ve been studying this stuff for three years, you should basically know what you’re doing by now so go do it.” I’m there to help them do it the best they can and try to get them to expand their thinking about what they’re doing. I’ll critique them, help them, in theory, broaden their horizons a little bit and expose them to stuff that they otherwise wouldn’t see, and generally just get them to think and make comics in an interesting way.
Sobel: I was going to ask you if, at this point, you’re able to support yourself with comics and illustration work, but it sounds like the teaching is a supplement to that?
Nilsen: It is and it isn’t. I didn’t teach at all in 2014, but it helps to have that occasional extra cash. The income of a freelancer/author is uneven at best. (laughs) It can be very good at times and very thin at other times. It’s unpredictable, so it’s nice, if you’re teaching, you at least know where your rent is coming from every month. But mostly I make a living doing what I love, drawing pictures for people.
Sobel: Do you also sell original art?
Nilsen: I wouldn’t say I sell a lot. I stopped selling Big Questions pages. I think Peter at the Beguiling still has some, but I’m mostly not selling my originals anymore. I do some commissions; I have one big one right now, and then some illustration work. So that’s where most of my income comes from.
Sobel: Where do you see yourself going artistically in the next 5-10 years?
Nilsen: I have no shortage of ideas and projects to do. (laughs) I am just embarking on a new graphic novel which I expect to be a long-term project. One of the things about Big Questions was that I didn’t really know what I was doing when I started it and that fact - me figuring out my medium - ended up becoming part of the character of that book. Now I’m starting a new graphic novel where I do know what I’m doing at the beginning, and that’s very exciting. I don’t really know where it’s going yet, but I expect it’s going to be a pretty long process, though hopefully not fifteen years again. (laughs) Maybe five. Right now I have a couple of beginning scenes and some vague ideas about what might happen at the end, but I’m just exploring situations and dropping obstacles in characters’ paths, and exploring new characters for the first time in a while and it’s very fun.
Sobel: Do you still have a desire to work outside of comics?
Nilsen: Yeah, I do have drawing and painting ambitions. It seems like the niche that my work has found in the world is books, but every once in a while I get an invitation to show work in a gallery or museum, and I definitely always leap at those opportunities. That’s something that I am still really interested in. But I also think of my books as my yearly solo show. And that’s where my heart lies for the most part. That’s also the audience that I’m most interested in and feel the closest to.
Conducted December 16, 2014 with follow-up by phone on December 28, 2014.