Sunday, July 12, 2015


Poetry is Useless (Drawn & Quarterly) by Anders Nilsen hit my eyes at a useful time. To enter into a series of fragments, I’d just finished reading Drawn and Quarterly’s 700 page anthology of comics, appreciations, interviews, and miscellanea and I was struck by the network of diversely partial, rare, short, and sweet materials which form the tendons and tangents of its body of work. I’d also just spoken with cartoonist Marc Bell about all the boxes of his art (and many of the comics he’d collected) currently sitting (waiting?) in storage. Inevitably, I started to wonder what becomes of all the drafts, the mini-comics, the sketches, the doodles without a home. Not being any kind of visual artist myself, I further grew curious about how much a full-time illustrator creates that does not find use in a larger scale project which tend to favour full narratives over non-linear experimentation – where do all the abandoned ideas, the micro jewels of thought, the scraps of pattern, incident, and memory go?

According to two time Ignatz Award winner (
Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow and Big Questions) Anders Nilsen, much of the above, plus animal and human portraits, travelogue, jokes, and aphorisms, best arrive fully overlapped in a genre-bursting sketchbook-as-graphic novel. It’s up to the engaged reader to poetically, and maybe uselessly, fill in the shifting gaps between text, image, character, context, chance, personal perspective, and who knows what else.  

- Brad de Roo, who should mention if you are soon planning a trip to the US of A, you could fill in some shifting gaps by catching the tail end of Ander’s tour with Marc Bell (which ends non-Americanly in Vancouver on July 16th) or by autoing over to the Autoptic Festival which he co-runs in Minneapolis from August 8-9th.   

Despite the maybe dismissive title, Poetry is Useless, do you read poetry? Do any poets usefully stand out to you? 
No, I never read a lot of poetry outside of school, though I remember getting into it. And as a kid I wrote a fair amount. I liked Lewis Carroll and ee cummings. I got excited about Howl as a kid at some point, of course.

Do you keep a list of things that are useless? Should art have a use? 

Keeping a list of useless things seems not very useful to me. The usefulness of art, or lack thereof is very interesting to me. But it's complicated. My thoughts about it have changed a fair amount since I was a kid. I liked a simple answer to the question, mostly in the negative when I was a kid. Now I like complicated answers to most questions, this being one such.

Your work here and elsewhere is full of metaphysical and ethical questions. To pick up a question that goes back to Plato, what is the relationship between art and philosophy? Is an understanding of, or an interaction with, philosophy essential to good art? Do philosophical concerns and aesthetic impulses ever conflict in your work? 

Most art is philosophical whether the artist intends it or not. Most human interaction and behavior is the same. But Philosophy is sort of dead and boring. Art is a way of making play out of it. Of testing it out in hypotheticals, of making it real by turning it inside out. The only conflict between philosophical and aesthetic concerns in my work is when I fail to make the ideas interesting and they stay dead like a fish in the grass.

Would it be fair to say that this book is a collation of sometimes overlapping sketchbooks? Do you have many sketchbooks going at once? Are they itemized in any way or relatively free-form? How many books went into this mix? 

Sure, that would be fair. I usually have two or three books of one sort or another going that might get a good drawing going. There are about 25 sketchbooks represented in the book. All numbered with roman numerals.

Any favourite published sketchbook by other artists? What about the notebooks of philosophers, writers, or artists? 

I recently saw a beautiful book reproducing Emily Dickenson's little fragmentary poems and writings on scraps of paper, torn bits of envelope etc. Super gorgeous book. I'm about to show Laura Park's sketchbooks in this little show I'm putting together in Minneapolis a little later in the summer. Also super gorgeous. Chris Ware's sketchbooks are really nice.

Poetry is Useless features many strips in second person. What about this type of narrative appeals to you? Do you feel a responsibility to address the reader directly? Is it sometimes a means of transgressing the lines between fiction and non-fiction?

I don't feel a responsibility… I just like doing it. It's a sort of conceit of imagining you can really be having a one on one conversation in a mass medium. That you can really address someone directly. I don't know if it works or not. I think it can end up doing the opposite, and being a little alienating. But I like the idea. And yeah, it is slightly transgressive of fact and fiction, which is also nice. The two merge a little. 

Your book’s inclusion of many portraits (sometimes beneath narratives, other times superimposed within strips) facing the reader or the page or looking into other scenes not totally viewable by the reader really got me thinking about bearing witness to the Other. I started asking questions like: ‘What are these people looking at? Does the direction of their gaze change how I am to receive the narrative? What does it mean to see them in portions, so close to portions of story? Is this in a sense a visual extension of second person narration? Is this a means of breaking down the usual reader/author perspective?’

Cool. Generating questions in the mind of my readers is pretty much what it's all about. One of the things I like about the 'sketchbook' form is that it does create arbitrary connections between disparate images, which begs for connection in the reader's mind.

Continuing a bit with the question of addressing a reader, you mentioned in a recent interview with The Comics Journal that most of this material was already published on your blog and therefore placed the work in a different relationship to the reader than a fully finished unseen narrative would have. You said:

It’s a sketchbook because it’s this little book that I have in my pocket, but on the other hand it’s not really a sketchbook because I am thinking about an audience, so it is really this ongoing conversation that I’m having with an audience
Does this ongoing internet-mediated conversation with an audience change the way you write, draw, and edit?

Oh yeah, totally. This material would not exist without the internet. There's a very real way where doing this work is like a performance. It feels a little like doing stand-up. There's a popular idea about art making that it's some sort of personal, internal process of 'self expression' that the artist is doing in a self contained sort of way. This is very much about having an audience - trying to be funny, provocative, puzzling, frustrating, etc. Without an audience it would be pointless.

I’ve recently climbed around on Drawn and Quarterly’s boulder-sized 25th anniversary anthology. It features a short essay about D and Q that you wrote, a journalistic appreciation of your work, and some rare examples of your comics. What does it feel like to be featured in such a wonderfully varied and celebrated document?

I'm super honored to be part of that book and part of the life and history and family that that company is. It means a lot to me. I feel super lucky to be connected with that history.

What’s next? Will any of the strips or motifs or drawings found in this new book find their way into future work? Are your sketchbooks piling up with convergent or divergent materials? 

Mostly I'm drawing landscapes in my sketchbooks lately. The blank talking silhouette head hasn't had much to say for a while, so maybe he's retired. Or no longer necessary. Not sure. But there will likely be more travelogues, abstract shapes, ears and drawings of hairdos. So maybe I'll do another book of sketchbook stuff in a few years. Or maybe not. Hard to say.

Is there anything about comics or yourself or any other topic that you feel surprised not to have been asked about, here or ever?

Nobody ever asks me about my cat in these interviews. I could fill pages talking about my cat. And it would be fascinating. Oh well.

1 comment: