Little Birds, Big Questions

Anders Nilsen Gets Existential



Anders Nilsen has been publishing the comic Big Questions since 1999—first self-publishing photocopied pamphlets, then later distributing issues through Drawn & Quarterly, a Canadian publisher that's just released a massive collection of the series.

It began as a gag strip, little birds talking about big questions. A tiny, crudely sketched bird asks his friend, "To what extent are we responsible for the fulfillment of our destinies? I mean, if my life is to be meaningful and full, is it up to me to make it that way, or can I just wait for circumstances to come together?" There's a few beats, and then: "That second thing you said," responds the other bird, and resumes pecking at seeds.

Soon these strips—clever as they are—begin to evolve in both visual and narrative sophistication. The birds stay crude, but backgrounds emerge, and a farmhouse, and the shadow of an airplane. Inside the farmhouse live an old woman and her apparently disabled grandson. Every now and then the birds find a chocolate doughnut crumb mixed in with the seeds that they snack on, but the doughnut days come to an end when the old woman dies, leaving her weak-minded ward alone on his own.

One day, a plane "lays an egg" in the field near the farmhouse and then crashes into the house itself. A mysterious pilot emerges from the plane. The birds, taking the pilot for the hatchling of a giant bird, devote themselves to his care, to the pilot's confusion. Meanwhile, other birds have formed a quasi religion around the egg laid by the plane before it crashed. The reader knows the egg is a bomb. The birds find out soon enough.

Big Questions walks an engaging line between sophisticated and silly. (In its masking of existential questions with cutesiness, it evokes both Jeff Smith's Bone and Craig Thompson's Good-bye, Chunky Rice.) A self-serious and frequently fatally misguided flock of birds are the book's focus, but there are other animals, too: a thuggish crew of squirrels, on a violent quest to find their lost nuts. Bawdy, wisecracking crows, cackling raucously at their own jokes. (Next time a sunny afternoon is darkened by a crow's cry, try to think of it as a screech of laughter rather than an ominous portent.)

Through it all, the quest for food and shelter—for both humans and animal—is a constant, low-level preoccupation, but even as the birds pull up grubs and share tips on worm-killing, Nilsen slips moments of insight into this bucolic setting. One bird, wounded in the bomb blast, confronts another who is guiltily guarding the bones of her dead friends: "You know, until just now I thought of this as something that had happened... to me. I see you've been thinking the same thing." That observation could apply as equally to self-centered humans as tragedy-stricken little birds.

Drawn & Quarterly has put together a handsome collection—the massive, 600-plus page volume features a few pull-out, full-page spreads, as well as extensive end notes and early strips. There are also reproductions of past Big Questions covers, many of which evoke old-timey naturalist drawings gone slightly awry: a wild dog sits with a severed arm in its mouth. A small bird perches curiously beside a grounded missile. The catch is that Big Questions comes with a handsome price tag as well—at $70 for a hardback, it's certainly not for the casual reader. But for fans of Nilsen's work—or of ambitious, career-defining novels—it might just be worth it.


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