Big Questions #10: The Hand That Feeds
Drawn & Quarterly, October 2007
Anders Nilsen, writer/artist
When I was a kid I was in Gifted class and we went on a field trip where some guy spoke to us about aliens and UFOs. He talked about how when eyewitnesses report UFOs hovering there one second and then being whoosh gone the next, it could be something similar to what a dog thinks happens to his master when the master gets into the car and drives to the supermarket. The dog’s brain isn’t sophisticated enough to understand that process–he just knows the master’s gone. Maybe the aliens are on a corresponding level to us as we are to the dogs.
That idea stuck with me for a long time. It’s only in reading this issue of Nilsen’s long-running series that it occurred to me that you don’t need aliens in that equation–you can basically just say that perhaps the meaning of life, what’s really going on here, just what the hell is going on with us, is just as much out of the grasp of our comprehension as how aliens commute. Nilsen, who since beginning this series has had to wrestle with the precarious nature of human life and our need to cobble some sense out of its ruins in a way I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, articulates this notion gently and humorously in Big Questions, but also terrifyingly. His art is a repeated intimation of great vulnerability, with a line that looks like it might blow away in a strong wind, figures whose slightly disproportionate heads suggest infancy, heightened detail that sits mutely on the page indifferent to what plays out amid it, and a nightfall that coheres out of a multitude of tiny dots of darkness as though it can’t muster up the courage to simply descend. His rival flocks of finches and crows, in their interactions with themselves, each other, a pack of wild dogs, and a pair of human survivors of a catastrophic plane crash, grapple with the big questions of the title–quite literally in this issue, as one of them comes up with Plato’s parable of the cave–but always with one hand tied behind their metaphysical backs. There’s just so much they don’t understand about the crashed plane, the people, even each other. Their touchingly well-meaning efforts to stockpile food for “the hatchling” inevitably lead to grousing, mockery, rivalry, and finally violence. What makes the book so unsettling and frightening is that they’re really completely wrong about what’s going on, and both their good and bad intentions, their sacrifices and their sarcasm and their venality, are all equally meaningless. Is that what life is?