Smash Pages Q&A: Anders Nilsen on ‘Tongues’

‘It’s a weird amalgam of other stories I’ve done.’

In recent years Anders Nilsen has published a number of books that have been hard to categorize. From Rage of Poseidon to Poetry is Useless to the reissue of his earlier Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow, Nilsen has shown himself to be not just a talented artist and storyteller but a gifted designer whose books are carefully considered objects in their own right.

As brilliant as each of those books are, like a lot of comics readers I’ve been waiting for Nilsen to announce his next big project. Big Questions, which was published in a single volume in 2011, was an epic story in a way that goes far beyond the book’s length. Nilsen has just published Tongues #1, the first part of a much longer story, and he was kind enough to take time to talk about the comic, his plans and the book’s landscape.

Where did Tongues start?

It’s a weird amalgam of other stories I’ve done. A lot of my work comes out of my sketchbook. I keep sketchbooks and every once in a while some drawing or a strip that I do will keep tugging at my shirt sleeve wanting to get turned into something. This book is a little different in that rather than coming out of sketchbooks it grew out of a few other finished stories. The first time I really delved into Greek myths was when I did a story about Sisyphus for Kramers Ergot years and years ago. That story stuck with me. I felt like it was a little unfinished and I wanted to go back and explore those characters and their story. A similar thing happened with Dogs and Water, which is my first actual published book. A few years after that book came out I was asked to do a screenplay for it. Nothing ever happened, but I wrote a screenplay and in order to turn it into a feature length story I had to add some scenes. In the book as it exists there’s the scene where the main character is walking around in the middle of nowhere and he’s passed by a military convoy. The question occurred to me, what if one of the trucks in the convoy stopped? In writing the screenplay I explored that idea and wrote some scenes that I really liked and wanted to continue to explore and see where they would go. Then when I did Rage of Poseidon, which is a collection of stories about mythology, I did a real short piece about the myth of Prometheus which just mentioned the idea that he has a relationship with the eagle. The story of Prometheus is that he’s being punished by the gods and an eagle comes every day and eats his liver. The idea that over the course of millennia this is the one other being that you have any contact with, so what would that relationship be? What would those conversations be? Those are the three main threads or just outstanding questions that eventually I decided to throw together into a book and see what would happen.

I have to admit that I opened the first page and saw the eagle and I thought, okay, birds again.

[laughs] I can’t get away from the birds. There’s a talking chicken, as well.

You’ve been doing shorter books in recent years, but this sounds like a much longer project.

Hopefully not quite the scale of Big Questions, but in that neighborhood. 350-400 pages is what I’m thinking.

Is serializing the story a way to break up the story or how does working in this way help you?

It’s a way to break up the work and give yourself a running deadline. Deadlines are super helpful for me. Serialization ends up functioning as your first draft that you can then go back to and edit and clean up. You also have just a little bit of interaction over that time with an audience and it’s really helpful to get feedback and to hear how people are understanding it. Even when you just hand the book to a friend, watching them read it makes you see it in a different way which is always helpful. It’s not that easy to do that by yourself in a studio. More pairs of eyes are definitely better, I think, just to get yourself thinking about it differently. Getting out of your own head is necessary.

You’ve done some short comics that were in color, am I remembering that right?

For the big giant Kramers – #7 – I did a comic that was fully painted in gouache. With illustration or with covers I’ll use color, but basically I haven’t done any other full color comics.

So why did you think that this story needed color and how did you figure out the palate?

I’m really drawn to working in color. Before I got serious about doing comics I was at least nominally a painter. There’s an element of just wanting to do something differently, to not just do the same thing over again. It didn’t feel appealing to just go back into that world of black and white. I guess having worked in color a little bit around on the edges, the idea of what it could add just in terms of atmosphere was pretty appealing to me. It’s turned out to be a ton of work so I’m still figuring out how I’m going to approach it going forward. I tried to figure out a way to paint it in gouache and that was unsuccessful so I’m doing it all in photoshop.

So much of your work is defined by the setting and the landscape. Tongues isn’t a completely realistic story, but what were you thinking in terms of where it’s set?

I think of it as Central Asia-Middle East. It’s not a specific place. It’s not Afghanistan, it’s not Kazakhstan, but it’s a fictional version of those places. I want it to feel like a place that readers have maybe seen on the news and it feels a little like a place where we knows there’s conflict, that some of the conflicts that I’m referencing could be real conflicts that are actually happening. That convoy that drives through is an American military convoy. But it’s obviously not America. I’m using a lot of reference to get a sense of what those places look and feel like, but it’s an amalgam of a place that I’ve never been to and places that I have been to that might be somewhat similar.

You make a point that one of the characters is speaking Swahili. Why?

I can’t really get into it for spoiler reasons, but it’s important that that character be from East Africa

The comic is oversize, there are french flaps, there’s a square piece of paper between the cover and the comic, you designed the end pages. You spent a lot of time thinking about how to present this.

One of the things about serializing is that allows me to play and do weird format stuff like that. I may end up doing it in the collection way down the road, too. As much as I think of myself as a cartoonist, I think of my medium as being books in a way, too. The way the comics are presented, the form that the book takes, is super important to me. I want it to feel considered, to be interesting as an object and not just as a story. The book is a little closer to the French album size. Comics is a visual medium and I feel like it should be as big as is practical so you can really feel like you’re losing yourself in the story.

How does the comic compare to the size you draw at?

The book is roughly 9” x 12” and I’m drawing at 13” x 19”. My originals are larger than they used to be. The originals for Big Questions were all 11” x 14”. I have this problem where whatever size my page is when I start drawing, my drawings get bigger and I end up having to paste extra bits of paper on the edges to accommodate the expanding drawing. [laughs] I thought, if I use a bigger piece of paper then that’ll fix that problem, but it doesn’t at all.

So it’s shrunk down, but not a lot.

It’s probably roughly shrunk down as much as most comics. That first scene has a little less detail in the drawing. I thought color would change the way I draw and it did actually. I thought I would be able to leave out a lot of detail in the drawings and I’m doing that a bit, but not as much as I expected.

I was curious about the mountain in the background of the first panel on the page. In the scene at the end there’s a volcano where the mountaintop is gone. Is that the same mountain or are there two mountains?

That volcano is not the mountain that the other character is chained to. There are two relevant mountains. One of which we haven’t gone to yet. Which will become important later on. I recently moved from the Midwest to Portland, Oregon and the drawings of the mountain on the first page were heavily inspired by flying past Mount Hood into Portland at dusk and seeing the light on the mountain. It’s quite beautiful. The cool thing too about Portland is depending on how you’re approaching, you can see both Mount Saint Helens and Mount Hood, which is kind of relevant to the story as there’s one volcano that’s blown and one that has not.

And Eastern Oregon is desert.

That’s true, too

So you just put out this first issue. Do you have a schedule or a plan for how often they’ll be coming out?

This is intended to be my main project. I’ll likely be doing some small things on the side. I’m working on a Wolverine comic for Marvel right now, but Tongues is my main thing. I don’t have a firm schedule, but I’m planning to do two issues a year for four or five years. With a little luck I can maintain that schedule. The coloring was intense enough that I’m going to have to figure out how to make that possible but that’s the plan.

Well, Anders, I’m not sure where you’re going, but I really can’t wait to find out.

[laughs] Well, thank you. I’m not entirely sure either. I’m probably 93% sure where I’m going. I don’t like to be too sure where I’m going with any particular story. [laughs]

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