It's hard to explain Anders Nilsen's Big Questions (Drawn and Quarterly, $69.95) without confusing people, because Big Questions leaves the reader with so many Little Questions, all of which sound entirely crazy. "Is the pilot really on the lam after murdering someone? How does he talk to geese, and what are the geese saying? Why does the snake feel such an allegiance to the finch named Alger? And the underground lair—is that animal heaven? Animal hell? Why isn't the finch named Charlotte there in the caves, sleeping with the other birds?"
There, you see? Crazy. And on one hand, Nilsen's graphic novel is as absurd as those questions—it's a 585-page story (notably bulkier than your average motel Bible) that took Nilsen 15 years to complete. It features about a dozen finch protagonists who are, confusingly, all drawn exactly the same way and set against a widescreen rural landscape. To keep the finches company, other animals drift in and out of frame: There are the eternally teenaged, shit-talking crows, the nervous squirrels—who always suspect foul play—and a few key humans who speak far less often than the finches (all of whom are quite intellectually capable and self-aware, if often anxiety-stricken).
While much of the book is idle chatter between birds—a sort of Seinfeld of the trees—the finches do have large-scale dramas to contend with, and their curiosity over the mysterious human world feels very much like human questioning of God: Some birds are reverent while some just want to keep their distance from the chaos the humans bring to the table.
But that's about where the thing stops making sense in any traditional way. Those familiar with Nilsen's previous works for the Fantagraphics imprint (which can look and read a bit like vastly expanded versions of Stanley Donwood's liner notes for Radiohead's OK Computer) know that he enjoys playing with the tension between philosophical crises and everyday bullshit, a torch Big Questions grabs and runs with, even if it makes some concessions in the way of plot resolution to keep the reader from going insane. Still, the book ends with some fortune cookie-style wisdom and a belch.
Of course, that's what's so special about the medium of comics. Big Questions doesn't have to tie all the loose ends together to make for a satisfying read: The satisfaction comes from watching Nilsen's talent grow with each passing page and knowing that the epic comic you've just finished is the artist's first, and also most recent, work of art.
GO: Anders Nilsen presents a slide show, reading and signing for Big Questions at Floating World Comics, 20 NW 5th Ave., No. 101, 241-0227. 6 pm Friday, July 29. Free.