Monday, November 6, 2017

Anders Nilsen's Tongues #1

Since finishing up Rage of Poseidon, Anders Nilsen's output has mostly been one-shot mini-comics, albeit in a large page size. But he's now going full-throttle with a new series called Tongues. He began his own No Miracles Press in partnership with musician/publicist Jackie Westfall to produce this comic and other future work; I imagine it's a way of controlling the means of his production.  The series is pretty much peak-level Nilsen, but what immediately struck me about this 48 page comic is how it mixes and matches various Nilsen themes and approaches from over the years. There's the apocalyptic quality of his mythological work like Rage of Poseidon and his classic short story "Sisyphus" from Kramer's Ergot. There's the typical wrecked and bombed-out backgrounds of Big Questions, complete with intelligent animals. There's even the central character from Dogs and Water on a walkabout, his teddy bear still strapped to his backpack. It's a recapitulation of his entire career, yet it still feels fresh and bold. His use of color in particular is exciting, but there's also a narrative through-line that was introduced with a promise of future conflict and world-building that's unusual for Nilsen's usually quieter fare.

The issue is published in roughly the same format as the former Ignatz line of books that was co-published by Fantagraphics and Coconino Press. Nilsen did his first issue of The End with that line, in fact, which is much missed. It's a large format with French flaps and beautiful inside cover art. It's accompanied by a Process Zine with all sorts of sketches and other preparatory drawings for the actual book. This is another Nilsen trademark, adding something handmade that breaks down his creation process, only it's coming out in real time with the release of each issue. In a sense, Tongues is simultaneously a recapitulation of his career to date as well as an ambitious story with an epic scope. Like many of his comics, there's a sense of a background conflict looming over it. There was a war that ended but still has a strong stamp on current events, as well as a sense of a conflict yet to come. There are desolate landscapes with signs of life struggling to survive.

The three different chapters represent three different but intersecting narratives. The first, "The Prisoner", follows an eagle intently examining several overturned vehicles in the middle of a desert. He finds a monkey in a jeep that he frees before he goes about his real business: tearing out the liver of the titan Prometheus. Yes, the very same god who gave humans fire and protected them from the vicissitudes of the gods. In this story, the eagle and Prometheus became friends, with the eagle performing his daily duty with reluctance. This is by far the most visually ambitious chapter, as Prometheus relates a dream of finding a young girl in the mud of a river. Each of the dream pages is formatted around the silhouette of a different animal, along with drawings of different anatomical systems: digestive, neurological, respiratory, etc. They reflect the nature of the animals the eagle encountered and included the young girl. The formal qualities of each page are eye-catching and demand a lot of reader attention in order to absorb everything Nilsen is depicting.

The second chapter brings back the main character from Dogs and Water, once again hiking out in the middle of nowhere for unknown reasons. He does mumble to himself about having a plan and sticking it to some guy who was doubting him, This chapter represented a bit of the goofy side of Nilsen, as the hiker is a clumsy goof who literally trips over his own shoelaces. When he sees a convoy of military vehicles pass by on the road, he tries to flag them down but they all ignore him...with the exception of one jeep. The driver is amused by the sheer lunacy of traveling by foot and essentially demands to have him come with them so he can hear his story. This chapter is titled "Hercules" and one wonders if the hiker is going on some epic set of labors or if he's just highly deluded. Of note with regard to the rest of the book: the vehicles in this chapter are the same as the wrecked ones we see in chapters one and three, and the monkey that we see in the other two chapters is introduced here.

The final chapter is "The Murderer" and introduces us to the young African girl we saw in Prometheus' dream in chapter one. Like the other two chapters, Nilsen here is establishing new characters and their environs. She pushes her way out of what may have been a locked military vehicle, gets food from where the monkey's hiding out and talks to a chicken about her quest. The chicken is quite insistent that she meet her up with her sister before she tries to kill her adversary. There's an elevation to and almost a florid quality in the dialog here, as Nilsen is writing this portion like a fantasy story. She's on a quest, and she's being directed to places she doesn't necessarily want to go as part of that quest. Her goal is to kill someone who's presumably horrible, but is it Prometheus? What becomes of the hiker? Who is the girl's "sister"?

Nilsen plays with time in each of the three stories. The first pays close attention to the ritualistic, daily character of the eagle's quest. We know it's coming, that it's been going on for a long time, and that it will continue to happen. The second story is another quest, whose purpose is known only to the hiker (and even then there's some question that he knows what he's doing). He's in the desert for an interminable period of time, but we also know that this narrative is headed for disaster. Finally, the girl is both tied to a specific time and place when she emerges from the car but also seems magical, as though time doesn't quite have the same effect or meaning when it comes to her. That chronological unraveling contributes to the entropic feel of this comic, where whatever order is perceived in each story is on the verge of falling apart. This has the potential to be Nilsen's best work yet, and I will be fascinated to see how the narrative continues.

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