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Sunday, July 09, 2006

Monologues for the Coming Plague by Anders Nilsen, published by Fantagraphics Books.Monologues for the Coming Plague -- I'll be damned if I can tell you what to make of Anders Nilsen's comics. There are times, such as a lot of his stuff in Mome -- when I find myself staring at it incomprehendingly and flip past it hoping something "better" -- read, "more comprehensible" -- is next. I can remember standing in The Beguiling last year and being a bit stunned to hear Christopher Butcher tell me he thinks Nilsen's stuff is genius. Respecting Butcher's opinion as I did (and do), I figured I was just being dense and missing the forest for the trees, and besides, the specific book Butcher was talking about (Dogs and Water), I still have not read.

I did read the next issue of Nilsen's Big Questions that came out after that conversation, though, and if I understood not everything I read (BQ is an ongoing narrative, apparently much of it from the point of view of birds, which Nilsen seems to adore drawing), at least I came away from it with a respect for Nilsen's aesthetic sensibility -- spare, gentle, bewildering.

"Bewildering" is a good word for Monologues for the Coming Plague, which from the outside seems deliberately designed to look like something you'd be assigned to read in your sophomore Literature class. "Deliberate design" is a concept I thought about a lot while reading Monologues -- did Nilsen deliberately design the book so the spine must be cracked while reading it? A note at the end confirms Nilsen had a deliberate purpose in using two different paper stocks over the course of the book. He seems to think a lot about design and the tactile nature of reading a book, which, while common in artcomix (at least the ones I like), is always an added pleasure, given how little thought goes into the presentation and quality of most entertainment, from movies and music to comics, books and everything else.

What about the comics? Sloppy, strange, mannered, elegant, brilliant? I'm not altogether convinced you couldn't have drawn any picture in the book. And yet, you haven't, and Nilsen has, and there's an undeniable net effect akin to awe. Awe that his brain works in this way, awe that Fantagraphics finds this worth publishing, awe that I enjoyed it all the way through. Awe, perhaps, that I don't ever enjoy reading Nilsen's stuff as much I think I should, but always more than I think I will.

Nilsen raises big questions about narrative, art, philosophy ("Yeah, I have a philosophy, but I'm not sure what it is.") and existence. He doesn't seem to answer any of them in his comics, but I hope one of his punchlines here will also describe this review for you:

"Thank you, that was actually very helpful."



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