Fairy tales and future autobiographies abound in Anders Nilsen's and Marc Bell's comics

Carolyn Supinka Oct 2, 2011

Canadian artist Marc Bell sat in the sunshine in Polish Hill, drinking an iced coffee from Lili Coffee Shop and pondering the existence of two of his main characters.

“Maybe in a general sense, I was trying to make a comedy duo,” he said, referring to the “Shrimpy and Paul” strip which populates many of the pages of his new collection, Pure Pajamas. “I mean, Shrimpy’s dynamic — Shrimpy’s very straight and flat, he doesn’t talk a lot. He’s kind of annoying and deadpan, and Paul’s always stressed out. I just present them with problems, and things get kind of convoluted.”

“There’s a lot of comedy duos where the one guy doesn’t talk,” Chicago-based artist Anders Nilsen remarked from his lawn chair beside Marc.

“Really?”

“[Stan] Laurel and [Oliver] Hardy, doesn’t one of them not talk?”

“Well, there’s also [magicians] Penn and Teller,” Bell said after a moment of thought. “But I’m pretty sure Laurel and Hardy both talk.”

Bell and Nilsen make an interesting duo themselves. Both are celebrating new releases with a road trip across the East Coast, giving out readings and book signings along the way. Nilsen recently released Big Questions, his complete graphic novel. Bell’s new collection Pure Pajamas is a collection of his work in newspapers and anthologies. Just after starting out on their tour, they had stopped in Pittsburgh on Sept. 16 to host a reading and book signing at Copacetic Comics. Located in Dobson Street in Polish Hill, the store also houses the Lili Coffee Shop and Mind Cure Records.

Bell grew up in London, Ontario, where he attended a vocational arts high school called Bealart. He then went on to study art at university. He creates comics and mixed media pieces, which have been described as “a mix of commix, high art, typography, and cartoons” by the National Post. His drawings are incredibly detailed, imaginative windows into a world full of fantastic characters and surreal landscapes. Zany text swirls throughout the images, labeling objects as a “cloud cave” or a “gnewest machtoe.”

When asked about his working process, Bell described his reliance on experimentation and impulse. “I don’t plan too much,” he explained. “I start things out trying to make a bit of a mess, then turn it into something more concrete. I start out in sort of a flimsy way and then build on that — for example, there’s a lot of collage in my work, and I use scraps and casual drawings for those, and then I concentrate on turning that into something bigger.”

Another collection of Bell’s, Hot Potatoe, was published in 2009 and is a collection of comics, mixed media, water colors, and a monograph on the author and artist’s own life, written with Matt Soucie. The book details his life, career, and even his death in 2075, which involves George Stroumboulopoulos, a small soapstone sculpture, and a case of breaking and entering. Bell reflected on his future life: “I hole up in this French hotel room, doing this laissez faire European art style, painting cupcakes, and later I go back to Canada.”

In a way, Nilsen’s own book is also a collection. Nilsen has published Big Questions in parts over the past 10 years, and as of this fall, the story is available as a whole for the first time. A haunting modern fairy tale, it has been called Nilsen’s magnum opus. One of the fascinating things about Nilsen’s work is that the plot and characters of Big Questions feel deeply rooted in reality, in spite of the many fantastical elements throughout.

When asked about the story’s 10-year development, Nilsen said that he always saw the story as a whole. “That’s one of the reasons why I like this book being out — it’s really one big story,” he said. “A lot of people thought it was just this slow, meditative little vignette, [like] it just seemed to come out of nowhere. The birds in the story came out of this weird drawing exercise that I did. Writing this story — it’s like, you are inventing it, but it feels like it’s this story that already exists in the world, and you’re trying to see it as best you can and get it down.”

The aforementioned birds are central characters in the story. Many comic artists take pains to draw their characters as individuals, but Nilsens’ birds, though very distinct characters, have no visual markers for readers to differentiate one from another. “They started out as generic birds,” he said. “I was presented with the problem of should I differentiate them, and I thought that was probably a good idea. I played around with the idea of giving them markings, but then I found that I was really interested in the fact that they’re the same. Like they’re this group that is essentially the same being.”

“_Big Questions_ is a lot about how people make meaning,” he continued. “All these little birds are watching human events unfold, and they all have different interpretations of what’s happened, and they’re all wrong. They can’t know that it’s beyond their limits to understand.” When asked about whether he knew the conclusion of the story all along, or ‘discovered’ it as he wrote it, Nilsen thought for a moment before responding, “There’s a quote I heard about the conclusion of a good story: it should feel surprising, but also inevitable. The only advantage you have as a writer is that you have time to think about it and figure it out, but to the reader it should feel obvious from the start.”

Nilsen’s unique drawing style has a strong influence on the tone of the narrative itself. His line marks are detailed and concentrated in some areas, and sparse or completely absent in others. This creates a dream-like quality, as though the characters are passing through a stark, barren plain broken by only a few places of rest. “I think it’s just the way I draw, but I am definitely aware of it informing the content of the story,” Nilsen said. “It’s sort of realistic, but I have this idea of wanting the drawings to be indifferent to the story, and to the reader.”

Nilsen and Bell both spoke about the importance and support of the artist community. “Groups of comic artists and writers, those communities existed before the internet began to play a role,” Bell said. “There was this thing called Factsheet Five — it’s gone now, probably online — it was in the ’90s, and it was this magazine that listed tons of different zines and comics. It didn’t do reviews, it just gave short blurbs, explaining what these works were, and giving addresses.”

Pittsburgh’s own ’zine community gathered two weeks ago at AIR in the Northside for the Pittsburgh Zine Fair. Another upcoming event is PIX, the Pittsburgh Indie Comic Expo, which will be running at the Guardian Storage Facility on Oct. 8 and 9 in the Northside, and will be free to the public. And of course, there is always Copacetic Comics, which houses an incredible range of graphic novels and print pieces. Boichel is extremely knowledgeable about the world and history of comics, and is always willing to inform and help visitors. The store is a valuable resource for Pittsburgh artists and comic writers themselves.

That evening at the store, readings, talks, and comic interpretations of music took place in Lili’s — as Bell explained, “[comic interpretations] started for Vice magazine — they said draw Rebel Yell, draw R.Kelly’s ‘World’s Greatest,’ and then they gave me this Bruce Springsteen song; it had so many lyrics in it I could only do part.”

Afterward, the crowd trouped upstairs to Copacetic Comics for the book signing. The store, though much larger than its previous location in Squirrel Hill, was packed with fans and comic lovers. Tables were piled high with comics and graphic novels, and Copacetic Comics’ owner Bill Boichel made his way throughout the room expertly, handing out flyers for upcoming Pittsburgh comic events and working the register.

Meeting and talking with Bell and Nilsen was an amazing experience. Both have created incredible work, and are very passionate and dedicated to their art. With them, a conversation about comics was like sitting in the middle of a crossfire: References to artists, favorite comics, obscure artworks, and inspiration shot back and forth at a high speed, revealing their knowledge and place within the supportive culture of the ’zine community.

Bell and Nilsen also offered advice to art students. “When you’re in art school, you have big ideas, but you can do a lot more with less — I would actively collect paper, and just use what was immediately around me,” Bell said, referring to his collage work.

“It’s sort of a truism in art that accidents can create the best work,” Nilsen added. “The thing about art school that has the best potential is that you get to experiment and try so many different things. Enjoy what you do, but also do it a lot. And if you have to do it a lot, do what you love. A lot. And don’t smoke crack.”