There's a lot going on in the first two issues of Anders Nilsen's new graphic novel-in-progress Tongues. A black eagle plays chess with Prometheus before tearing out the chained god's liver. A young American ambles aimlessly through a Central Asian desert, a teddy bear strapped to his back. Stealing away from his lover's tower window, a youth morphs into a black swan and flies into the desert, where he consumes the tongue and throat of a murder victim sprawled in the sand. A little girl chats in Swahili about her assassination plans with a black chicken. (There are lots of black birds in Tongues). There's also some literal monkey business. It's all really beautiful stuff.
Like I said, there's a lot going on, but the comic never feels cramped nor frenetic. Nilsen's pace and perspective have a cinematic quality. Wide lens opening shots offer panorama views of a slightly surreal world. Tinged with a touch of mythic magic, Nilsen's mountains, deserts, and cities are a sliver removed from our own reality. Nilsen gives us bird's-eye views of this world, but we also get to see it from the ground up: a mercenary army on the move, a boy tripping and falling, lizards scuttling across the desert floor. Nilsen's clean, clear style depicts movement and perspective with a filmic quality that absorbs the reader's attention.
Tongues hums with a wonderfully unnatural naturalism. Nilsen foregrounds the minute movements of the animals who populate his world, giving his panels and pages a vivid reality. This patient technique pays off strange dividends. In one instance, a group of markhors climbs the mountain to which Prometheus is chained. Over a few pages, the condemned Titan converses with his friend and tormentor, the black eagle, who eventually tears out Prometheus's liver (a scene rendered in lovely and gory detail). The markhors then begin to lap the fresh gore from Prometheus's open wound. This motif of one animal eating from another repeats throughout Tongues, suggesting themes of consumption and absorption, as well as cycles of life, death, and rebirth.
A fascinating sweep of pages early in the first issue of Tongues formalizes these themes of life and death. An ever-inventive draftsman, Nilsen renders the comic's border panels to approximate maps of a living body's organ system. Veins and arteries snake around the panels, intestines and nervous tissue wriggle about the page. At each page's core pulsates some key ingredient of mammalian life--a brain, a heart, lungs. A liver. The panels themselves, suggestive of organ cavities, show a dream version of Prometheus delivering a chthonic child from the fertile, mucky earth.
This chthonic child, born in a dream, appears to be Astrid, a mysterious assassin whose destiny seems wrapped up in a coming war that Prometheus and his pal the eagle drop hints about. Nilsen keeps his cards close to his chest in the first two issues of Tongues though. There's a clarity of vision here, but almost no exposition. Instead, we have to tease out the bigger plot lines from exchanges between characters. And Nilsen takes his time getting to those exchanges, allowing scenes to build slowly. Again, there's an attention to naturalism in Tongues that makes it a joy to simply inhabit--Nilsen's style is gorgeous. The intricacy of his illustration recalls Geof Darrow (without any cramped claustrophobia) or even Frank Miller's line work on Ronin, and the mythical tinting and muted, elegant coloring brings some of P. Craig Russell's work to mind.
It's more than just pretty to look at, of course. Nilsen's episodes bewilder and engage the reader, building to climaxes that are wryly humorous or downright sinister---and often both funny and sinister. Nilsen's inventive register in Tongues though shows an artist surpassing any anxiety of influence. We have here the promise of something original, strange, and engaging. I can't wait to see what happens next.