Anders Nilsen is the Minneapolis-based cartoonist responsible for publishing a universally adored series of mini comics called Big Questions that features tiny birds with really deep thoughts on life. His newest book, Poetry is Useless, is a collection of images and doodles from the last several years of his personal sketchbooks. There are no birds in Poetry is Useless, but there are a lot of big questions—about art, why we make art, how we value it, and what it means to be an artist. Marc Bell is a Canadian cartoonist and fine artist who is perhaps most well-known for blurring the line between fine art and doodling. After four years of working in the art world, he’s made what everyone (who knows anything) is calling a “triumphant” return to the world of graphic narrative by publishing Stroppy—a madcap adventure tale about a song writing contest gone wrong. Stroppy also has thoughts on poetry.
Nilsen and Bell are at Lucky’s Comics in Vancouver on July 17th at 7:00 pm to launch their respective books. Shannon Tien from Sad Mag had the chance to talk to them about authenticity, capitalism, and self-help for writers, among other things. The best of their lengthy phone call is what follows:
Shannon Tien: Something that I think ties both of your books together is thinking about the process of creating art, or poetry specifically. How do your philosophies cross over or differ on this subject?
Anders Nilsen: Boy, that’s a tough one.
ST: It’s a heavy question to start with. I’m sorry.
AN: [laughing] I don’t know if I could do a capsule description of Marc’s philosophy. What do you think Marc?
Marc Bell: Well we made our books independently, but somehow they both ended up referencing poetry.
AN: That’s true.
MB: We did a tour together a few years ago so this is like a reunion tour…I don’t know how to answer that question either [laughing].
AN: I mean I think we both have a little off-the-cuff playfulness in our work. And probably a little—I don’t know how to put this—a little snottiness or something?
MB: Yeah we’re both sarcastic when we reference poetry.
I like writing poetry if I know it doesn’t have to be good. So for example I wrote Clancy the Poet’s poetry and that was super fun because I could do whatever I wanted and I didn’t have to worry if it was good or not. I could write reams and reams of Clancy’s poetry.
ST: But I love Clancy’s poetry!
MB: Right? It’s pretty good, in it’s way.
AN: I think it’s actually extremely deep.
But I think we’re both artists and we’ve both planted ourselves in that existence, but we’re both a little sceptical and like to make fun of ourselves…and the potential for being pretentious.
MB: Yeah and then I can’t exactly knock poetry so much because I do all these drawings and they have random text in them. They’re sort of poetry. Like my stuff is not that far from poetry really.
AN: Yeah, so I think we’re both sort of making fun of the thing we’re also actually doing.
MB: [laughing] Yeah, you got it.
AN: I actually sort of think of my book as my poetry collection, if there is such a thing, you know, making comics.
ST: Ok. I guess I was thinking that Clancy, he’s a poet, and all his poetry ends up doing for him is…
MB: He’s sort of co-opted by the Schnauzers.
ST: Right. So it’s like the opposite of the idea that poetry can save you.
MB: He was against the song contest idea. He was against all of it. But I don’t want to ruin the end! There’s a twist to the story.
AN: Basically, poetry is a tool of the oppressor and we’re both in revolutionary mode against the aggressor. Right Marc?
MB: That’s it, exactly.
Refer to Clancy’s poem called “Society”.
ST: Okay so this is more a question for Anders, but your book is fragments of your old sketchbooks. What ties the fragments together?
AN: Really the only thing that ties the fragments together is the fact that they all were in my sketchbooks. They were all just things that either kind of happened or ideas I had that were worth putting down but not worth turning into an actual book.
ST: And how many years back does it stretch?
AN: I think the oldest pieces in the book are probably from 2008. There are 22 or 24 books. There’s a funny thing about sketchbook collections because you know that they’re sort of bullshit a little. You know the artist is editing a little and not showing you the really crappy pages, which I’m not showing you either. So each of those notebooks, there’s maybe 6, 7, 8, or maybe 10 pages from each of them.
MB: We did a couple crappy pages in one of them.
AN: Yeah last time we went on tour together we made some crappy pages together and I didn’t show those. We promise to be better on this tour.
ST: Speaking of editing, what’s the point of leaving your editorial marks in the published version of your sketchbook?
AN: I try to maintain readability. So if there’s so much crossing out that it feels like it’s going to make it hard for the reader to understand what I’m writing, then I clean it up a little with Photoshop. But in general, it is my sketchbook so part of what may be appealing about it is the fact that it’s a record of me kind of thinking out loud, on the page. So the mistakes are an important part of that.
Also, part of that work is me responding to my own process. So as I’m doing a drawing and then it turns to shit, I sort of have this idea that I want to still turn that page into an interesting page if I can. So if it goes in a weird direction, I want to try to work within the stakes of those unexpected failures.
ST: One of your stick figures in the book asks how to maintain authenticity after the death of the author. Does this sketchbook have anything to do with that question?
AN: [laughing] Ah, you’re probably calling me out for not being as smart as I pretend to be.
ST: But it’s a good thing to think about.
AN: I mean, I sort of don’t believe in authenticity and, you know, the sketchbook has a sort of fake authenticity, as I was saying…you always wonder what’s getting edited out and you’re always getting this sort of idealized view of the artist’s supposed candid moments, which is partly why I’m showing the whole spread of the sketchbook, to show that I’m not picking and choosing the little bits, but the truth is I am. I am not showing the crappy pages. It is work for a finished book. So yeah I think authenticity is highly overrated.
ST: What gave you the idea to draw the back of people’s heads for their portraits? Are they people you know?
AN: Some of them are people I know, but a lot of times when I’m in an audience, like at a poetry reading [laughing], or other events with live speakers, I just want something for my eyes and my hands to do, so I’m drawing them. And also when I’m in public, I don’t always want people to notice, so it’s easier if they’re turned away from me a little bit. I guess I’m a little bit of a coward.
MB: A poet and a coward.
AN: All poets are cowards.
It’s sort of funny. People’s hairdos are really fascinating to draw, as are ears.
ST: I think because you can’t look at the back of your own head, it’s like the most vulnerable part of your appearance.
AN: Yeah sure. That’s a nice idea.
ST: So if poetry is dead, comics are…
Actually comics are fucking awesome.
ST: What would you say Marc?
ST: How was the transition moving back to narrative, Marc, after working in the art world for a while?
MB: It was difficult. I’ve mentioned this in a few interviews I think, but I was kind of scared and I started reading self-help books. The equivalent of a writer’s self-help, or if someone wants to get into the film or TV industry, this is the equivalent of self-help books, like books about writing screenplays. They sort of helped, I think.
ST: Do you mind me asking which ones?
MB: I wish I could remember the titles. One I looked at, it was very basic. It was just about the 20 different kinds of stories people tell.
AN: Which number is Stroppy?
MB: Oh man. I don’t even know if Stroppy…
AN: Maybe it’s 22.
MB: Maybe it’s 23. I made a new form of story for Stroppy.
AN: By the way my new graphic novel is going to be number 16, so…
ST: Oh yeah? Is this book called STORY? Because I feel like I was reading the exact same book earlier this year when I was trying to write a novel.
MB: That could be it. Was it an orange book?
AN: Marc doesn’t care about titles. He only remembers the colours of books.
MB: Not interested in titles!
ST: No, mine was purple.
MB: Maybe it was a different edition! They were like the orange one didn’t sell so let’s throw purple on there. People LOVE purple.
Did it help you with your novel?
ST: No, not really.
MB: Well I actually wanted to try and find a formula to follow, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to do that.
AN: I’m trying to find a formula too. And I was thinking of inserting one of Hans Christen Andersen’s tales into my new graphic novel.
ST: Oh yeah! That would be great. He’s a weirdo. So the formula didn’t work out for you Marc. Did any other self-help books help you with building narrative?
MB: Oh no. There was one I was supposed to read…
AN: The Bible?
MB: [laughing] No. I never got around to reading the one I was supposed to read. I just started.
ST: Well, I think it turned out well. I like Stroppy.
MB: Thank you!
This interview has been edited and condensed.