"Infinity plus one minus infinity plus two divided by three, times zero."

The End #1

There are two especially crucial portions of this book, one of the newest entries in Fantagraphics’ and Coconino Press’ Ignatz series of ultra-deluxe, oversized pamphlets, 32-pages at $7.95. The first is the front cover image, depicting two human symbols, one fleshly opaque and one ghostly transparent, standing in front of a thorny design of a jutting black thatch, which is itself plastered atop a blurry, faded photographic scene of nature. If you look closely, you’ll see that the transparent figure is actually only transparent as to the nature scene - none of the black lines show up behind it, as if they’re body is a filter, keeping those particular rays out.

The symbolism becomes extraordinary clear once you’ve read through the book. Indeed, perhaps one of the primary things on writer/artist Anders Nilsen’s mind is clarity of expression - this book is stuffed with symbols, but they’re mostly on the same plane as the symbols found on traffic signs, so simple that anyone can swiftly grasp what they’re indicating. Those human figures on the cover look a bit like something you’d find on a restroom door, and that’s because they’re built to readily convey the cleanest possible information to the observer, as fast as possible. Nilsen is not interested in obfuscation here; almost everything he draws is simple to pick up, and the stuff that isn’t simple, he actually explains for the reader. And that is because his use of symbol and the formal properties of the comics form is as a vital means of conveying the drenching emotions inherent to the subject matter as the tearful faces and impassioned speeches that other comics might rely on. Although Nilsen uses all that too.

But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The End #1 is something of a spiritual sibling work to Nilsen’s recent Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow for Drawn & Quarterly, which was a collection of drawings and photos and letters and things arranged in tribute to his fiancée, who died of cancer in late 2005. The End is obviously focused on those events too, as Nilsen explains in a text piece toward the front of the book; he also emphasizes, however, that the particulars of his situation shouldn’t be regarded with as much weight as the broad emotions on display:

And then one day one of these people got sick. It was the girl, but that doesn’t matter. It could’ve been either one. She got cancer or AIDS or cholera or chicken pox or Asian bird flu, it could’ve been anything, she could have been in a helicopter crash or hit by a train. It doesn’t matter.”

As such, Nilsen proceeds to fill the book with different visual and narrative approaches to his broad theme; this is an autobiographical comic, but it has no interest in a straightforward account of events, or maintaining any consistency in character or visuals. There are two long passages: a section titled Since You’ve Been Gone I Can Do Whatever I Want, All the Time, composed in a slightly looser version of Nilsen’s ‘realistic’ Big Questions and Dogs & Water style, and an untitled section (the entire second half of the book) executed in the ‘talking icons’ mode of his Monologues for the Coming Plague and several of his contributions to MOME. There are also some little bits of incidental drawing, or sketches adorned with text about whatever Nilsen did on the day of the page’s composition. They might initially seem like space-filler, but all of these pieces relate to one another, in that they depict the different ways a person has to go through life following a great loss. Eating a good breakfast, thoughts swimming, holding back waves of emotion, etc. Each new mutation on these pages is a new color of grief and/or coping. The title of the comic may be The End, but the contents are painfully aware that someone’s life, nevertheless, has to go on.

Nilsen’s talent with the comics form is on fine display, as each of his approaches operate to convey information differently. Each ‘panel’ of Since You’ve Been Gone… depicts Nilsen in a different scene, often weeping or attempting to keep himself from weeping. There are no panel borders, each scene drifting in space - the harshness of borders, after all, would apply a notion of pace to the passage of time, and sap the whole piece of its dreamlike drift (Dogs & Water operated similarly). But the panels are also cumulative; at the start, Nilsen is always crying, captions offering information like “Me crying while doing the dishes” or “Me trying to hold it together on the train in France.” As pages pass, Nilsen begins doing things like eating food without breaking down, or going shopping, but each page is punctuated with tears or depressive activity. But eventually, the captions stop, and we see nothing but wordless scenes of Nilsen engaging in mundane activities, only for the whole section to conclude in a full-page fantasy spread of Nilsen drifting out to sea, the expanse of his interior state profound when capping a series of tiny external actions.

If Nilsen uses his ‘realistic’ style to capture isolated moments from across a wide swath of time, the symbol-driven style of the book’s second half (and actually tiny parts of the first) is utilized to depict moment-by-moment action. It strikes me as an acknowledgement of the weight accorded to detailed art by the reading eye, with Nilsen forcing the ‘heavier’ art to only depict solidified moments on a timeline, leaving the illusion of animation to the icons. Much like in Monologues…, Nilsen has his human symbols deliver rambling words to the reader, while they flex and contort into telling shapes, and interact with similarly basic symbols. Eventually, the black thatch of lines from the cover (ah, now I’ve caught up to myself!) becomes the dominant image, literally growing out of a narrating human figure as it explains all the things it could be, now that it’s alone. Selections:

In my new life I could be an electrician, a plumber, a financial analyst, a homeless ex-baseball player, a U.S. Senator.”

I could go back in time and be a bird, hiding from a colossal meteor impact.”

I could be Venus.”

I could be a giant worm at the bottom of the ocean eating volcanic sulpher out of a fissure in the ocean floor.”

All the while, the black thatch of possibilities grows bigger and more complex, forcing the panels that contain it to extend. Finally, the human figure says:

I could be all of these things, one at a time or all at once. What I can’t be is me, with you.”

And then the black thatch overwhelms the entire page, its edged tendrils stretching out of the limits of the page. Then there’s a double-page spread, as the thatch begins to retract. It breaks apart, and pages become nothing but scattered lines, then patterned dots. The panels then reconstruct themselves, and the human figure is left reconstituted, if lying broken on the ground.

That’s not the only bit of visual action in this book, but it’s the most impressive. Nilsen keenly exploits the larger dimensions of the Ignatz page to isolate dramatic instances of total overwhelming emotional force -- the black thatch’s expansion and the image of Nilsen floating out to sea reflect one another as full-page climactic images -- and deftly associates earlier images with later ones. The black thatch appears elsewhere in the book, but by the end it’s clear it represents the labyrinth of the self, the uncertainty of the future and the maze of the mind. It’s fitting that the transparent figure on the cover can only reveal reality (photography), not the internal churn of the living, left behind.

We can approximate the magnitude of these feelings through creation, though. The second crucial portion of the book comes through dialogue, as one of Nilsen’s human icons offers this to the reader, asking them what they‘d do if their life “flew apart like a sheet of glass”:

Or would you try to make a map of the whole process, try to carefully, accurately delineate the mileage between each event, then point and say, ‘And that's where everything was to be just fine, and that's where the fissures started to appear, but we still tried to maintain hope…’”

Nilsen has not done that in this book. He has offered no map, no mileage. He has instead offered a type of scrapbook, not of memories or literal items, but of different states of getting by, of contemplation and (in)action. Nilsen offers only his first-person account of a certain series of moments, refracted several ways, transcribed though his many handwritings to compliment their many states of perception and feeling, and pasted down. It is unusually moving a prismatic autobiographical lens, scattered as one can understand it being.