An interview with cartoonist Anders Nilsen, author and illustrator of Big Questions, Dogs and Water, Monologues for the Coming Plague, and other stories. (You can check out his work here.)
You studied painting and installation in art school. What prompted you to shift into making comics? What is the appeal of the comics medium?
Sometimes things that make sense in art school make less sense in the real world. Comics allowed me to connect to people more immediately, somehow. It was also the medium I'd been closest to as a kid, and probably had the best intuitive understanding of. When I found it again it was a bit of a revelation.
I understand that you decided to leave graduate school to make comics independently. What prompted that decision, and how did you survive artistically once you left? What were the challenges in establishing yourself?
It was a lot of things. Partly, at that time at the Art Institute in Chicago there were no instructors who understood comics, really. So I was paying a lot of money to people who knew significantly less than me about the medium I was engaged in. Art school is also a funny sort of place. It's extremely expensive, and offers very few useful, marketable skills. So of course the people that end up there are, in many cases, people who don't need to worry about making a living. That wasn't me, and I just felt a little out of place. I also had gone there anticipating a serious conversation about art and art making, and found that a bit lacking, too.
The rhythm and timing of your narratives always feels very natural and spontaneous. How much do you tend to improvise while working?
Work like the Monologues books place the emphasis on improvisation. Big Questions less so. But it's really a matter of degree. Improvisation only really works when there are thousands of hours of practice behind it. The rhythm and timing that I try to get to in my work definitely comes out of that, but it also comes from re-reading a scene several times at different stages and trying to figure out where it needs more or less space. I'm really interested in the fact that silences, or very small gestures can be every bit as important as giant splash pages.
In your work, you use language in a very engaging way. Do you consider yourself more an artist or a writer, or are those distinctions unimportant? Do you tend to begin with words or with images?
Yeah, it's funny, when people say they like the writing in my comics I never really know what they mean. Is that the way I structure my stories, or do they mean the dialogue, the text? I don't really separate them.To me the pictures and the words interact to make a story happen. Sometimes one carries more water, sometimes the other does. I probably start more with images, but certainly not in every case.
Big Questions must have been a massive undertaking. Can you talk a bit about how it began, and what it became? I’m especially curious about the editing and revising process – with a book of over 600 pages, was it difficult to keep everything in order?
It started out just as little gag strips in my sketchbooks when I was finishing up my undergrad, working on a giant installation for my thesis show. They were a something of a counterpoint to that stuff. Over time their little conversations turned from gags into something resembling a story and they began to differentiate into distinct characters. And I decided to go with it. For the next twelve years.
Once the story was done I pretty much immediately turned around and read through the whole thing and started making notes about changes that needed making. And spent about five months making them. Moving word balloons, adding a panel here and there, straightening panel borders, clarifying conversations. I drew one or two entirely new scenes in the middle to flesh out a plot line that hadn't quite gotten its due. The editing process was actually pretty grueling. It's the one time over the last 12 years where I actually started kind of hating it. But it was necessary, and I think made a better book.
There is a marked difference in style between Monologues for the Coming Plague/Monologues for Calculating the Density of Black Holes and your other projects. How did the stylistic differences in Monologues come about? Was there a change in your process while working on them, as compared to other projects?
As I got deeper into Big Questions (and eventually Dogs and Water as well) my way of working slowed down and got more concerned with craft, and I started missing the more off the cuff way of working that the work had started with. The Monologues books were a way of getting back to that.
How does it feel to be finished with Big Questions? Do you think you might undertake such a large project again in the future?
Well I never meant to undertake such a large project in the past, so my intentions at the moment may not bear too much on the question. I have a few smaller projects to finish up in the next year or so. After that I do intend to start another proper graphic novel. Honestly I hope it doesn't go to 600 pages, but we'll see.
You’re in the middle of a book tour to promote Big Questions. How is that going? Do you enjoy the promotional aspect of art-making?
It's totally amazing, gratifying, humbling...and completely exhausting. I just got back from the UK and France, and have been on the road for almost all of the last two months, and I don't think I've ever been this exhausted. A lot of the events,though, have included a little slide show and reading and then some Q&A afterward, and those are always awesome. Comics is pretty solitary, usually. It's great to actually have a conversation with a bunch of readers in real time once in a while.
You are currently based in Chicago. Does your environment have any influence or effect on your work?
Not Chicago.I think the upper Midwest, has, though. I grew up in Minneapolis and spent time outside the city as a kid. That landscape looms, I think, pretty large in my work.
Have you ever had a specific demographic in mind?
No. Curious, thoughtful people who read.
One goal of this Advanced Studio class is to gain some understanding of how artists balance their work and their lives. Obviously this is something we will have to learn for ourselves individually, but I’m curious about how you have structured your life in order to do the sort of work that appeals to you. Is art-making a constant aspect of your life, or is there a separation between work and play?
It's all work, it's all play. The trick is to make it pay.