Chicago New City Interviews Anders Nilsen!

Anders Nilsen

Chicago New City    |    Chicago New City    |    February 24, 2005

As Anders Nilsen grew up in snowy Minneapolis, he lived near a large park. He's happy where he is now, he says from his West Augusta street apartment overlooking a blizzard-covered Humboldt Park. After a year's stay in San Francisco, he came to Chicago in 1999 to attend The School of Art Institute for graduate school. He only stayed a year.

"Mostly really I just felt out of place," he says. "The place is kind of geared toward the fine art and high art way of dealing with things. My teachers liked what I was doing and they were very supportive--it just didn't seem like they could talk about it in an interesting or helpful way. They couldn't tell me anything about comics that I didn't already know."

The son of a librarian and a mason, he grew up in comics-friendly environments, and took up drawing early on, as his father would frequently draw, usually images of him and his older sister. "I started to draw ever since I could remember," he says. "I don't remember not drawing."

Growing up a fan of "Tintin" and "Elfquest" led to his own "Big Questions" series, an extensive collection of thoughts and characters that spill across six different volumes and discover the funny, if not disarming, answers of existence. His "The Ballad of the Two-Headed Boy" won him the Xeric Grant and put him on the proverbial map. His newest, "Dogs and Water," Nilsen's dive into long-form published by Drawn and Quarterly, only adds to the impressive assembly of work.

In "Dogs and Water," Nilsen creates an epic landscape of desolation and doubt as a man wanders the never-ending wilderness armed with a backpack and a teddy bear. Nearly all spare visuals, the book seems rather ghostly, a haunted setting of smothering whiteness, as its hero tumbles through a wasteland only to stumble upon packs of wild dogs, a ghastly helicopter crash, and a barrage of heavy artillery and bullets.

The story unfolds during its creation, Nilsen says. "During the time after I started it and before I finished it the war in Iraq started, so that started to percolate a little bit," he says of the two-year process of putting "Dogs and Water" together. "The original strip I started with was more about just being an artist and figuring out how to make it through the world and how to hold on to what a sort of ridiculous idea that is, but to hold on to it and persevere."

As for the bear? "When I started [the book] it was a symbol of leaving school and being in the middle of nowhere but having this notion of childhood that I'm still carrying along with me. I'm using a childhood notion to navigate the world. I'm hanging on to this idea that I'm an artist, even though it's not an adult thing to do." Though Nilsen claims to not believe "in any kind of god in a way where God has intention or is manipulating the world," he feels religion plays a factor as well. "We constantly imagine that there is a purpose or a higher meaning, a plan for all of us," he says. "It's the thing that gets us out on the road, doing stuff, feeling like what we do matters. But I don't actually believe that there's something there, but it's important to have that sort of motivation."

2005 looks to be a huge year for Nilsen. He plans to finish another chapter in the "Big Questions" anthology (which he believes will take the entire year), plus future work with Fantagraphics and a distribution deal that will send his work across the globe and publish it in different languages. "I have a friend from college who's an artist too and he and I used to joke that the way you become a successful artist is to never ever become proficient at anything else," he says. Nilsen may be on to something.

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