It’s not very often that grown women and men alike can be reduced to tears with a few select lines of heartfelt prose, rarer still that that prose should develop into a superbly illustrated graphic novel, the contents of which are by turns heartbreaking and hilarious. But Anders Nilsen has managed to create such a work; a rare beast of autobiographic narrative that’s both deeply tragic and wonderfully life-affirming.
The End tells the true story of Anders’ life after the death of his partner Cheryl – from the days leading up to her passing, through the weeks and months that followed – chronicling moments of deep personal reflection and awkward encounters with close friends. It’s arguably one of the best things I’ve ever read, comics or otherwise, that deals so universally with the personal experience of grief and loss, revealing much about the way we process tragic events. Within minutes of its arrival in the studio, The End had reduced two of us to tears and left us squabbling over who would take it home to read first, so we felt it only proper to contact Anders to ask him a little more about this masterwork based on his own life.
How do you go about putting together a book that’s so inherently personal?
Every book has it’s own biography. The truth is, most of the work in The End was not intended for publication. It was work I was doing in my sketchbooks, in the year or so following Cheryl’s death, trying to process it. I had agreed to do a book for a European publishing project a few years earlier and the deadline was coming up (I’d actually chosen the title The End long before Cheryl even got sick – the book was supposed to be about something else entirely). I felt like the work in my journals, though, had potential and was still deep inside the grieving process so I didn’t really care at that moment how such personal work would be received. Going back to it this year, six years later, was positive in a way, to be reminded of Cheryl and her memory, and to finish what had been an unfinished story. But it was hard, too. It’s tough material, obviously.
Did you ever worry about publishing it?
I worried less with The End than I had with Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow. I actually decided to let Don’t Go go out of print for a while, for many reasons, but partly because I was uncomfortable having such a raw moment of my (and Cheryl’s) life be on display. At the time I was also concerned that those two books and the events they depict might become the work I was most known for, which I didn’t want. Time passes, though. That doesn’t feel like such an issue any more, and both books seem to have a very real impact on readers, which as an artist feels like something one ought to respect and accept.
Looking back do you feel that your images and texts really communicate how you felt at the time?
I think so. I sometimes feel like I left important things out. Some of the peculiarities of grief are left out, like how other people respond to you. Part of me feels like I ought to have had a little handbook in there somewhere, a ‘how to’ book on dealing with loss and what to expect. But really I was just trying to grapple with what was in my own head, and that’s what the book ends up being. It’s more an internal landscape. But, yeah, some of it is pretty raw, and that’s how I felt at the time. Some of it is funny, too, I think, which is also part of the experience. It can feel very absurd at times. If it feels like a crazy emotional roller coaster to read, then it’s doing the job.
A lot of people still don’t take comics and illustration seriously as a communicative medium but you reduced three of us to tears. Do you think you’ve made a book that moves the medium on?
I hope so. That is part of what felt important to me about keeping both books in print. They are ‘comics’ to some extent (The End more than Don’t Go), but they really are just storytelling with pictures. In a way my model was more the ‘personal zine’ from the 90’s than comics per se. But yes, I do feel like there is room at the borders of comics for an expansion of definitions, and while I’m happy to contribute my two cents, the truth is that that’s how the work turned out in my messy, ‘interdisciplinary’ sketchbook, so that’s how it ended up in the book, too.
Is it hard having other people share in your own loss?
Not hard so much as surreal, sometimes. When someone reads the book I think it feels to them like it’s just happened, and I have, once or twice, had people come up to me at festivals with a stricken look, saying “I’m so sorry”, sort of not realizing that I’m several years removed at this point. But that’s part of the strangeness that the book is about. Still, for both books I’ve done very limited events or appearances. I’d like to do more, because there’s a way in which I’m proud of the work, and I want to share it, but doing events means spending an evening in a difficult moment in my past. Which isn’t bad, exactly, it’s just heavy.
Do you think you’ll write another version further down the line as your life begins to change?
Probably not. I revisited The End partly because the original version stopped halfway through the grieving process and I wanted to finish the story. There are parts of the story, still, that are not told, and maybe when I’m an old man I’ll feel like telling them, but for the most part I’m happy with what I’ve said on the matter. The other thing is that really, Cheryl’s death and how it colored my view of the world will probably inhabit my work for the rest of my life, whether I mean for it to do so or not.
I just finished a book of short pieces called Rage of Poseidon. It comprises seven pieces all told from the point of view of characters from Greek mythology and the bible, set in the present day. It’s also not exactly comics. Each page is a single image in silhouette with text below. So either I’m valiantly continuing to push the medium forward or else I’m off on my own in the vacant wilderness of ‘experimental forms’. Hopefully the former. Oh, and it’s an accordion book. That will be out in the Fall.