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.

Anders Nilsen by Anders Nilsen, Cour­tesy of Anders Nilsen
Marc Bell by Marc Bell, Cour­tesy of Marc Bell




















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.

Clancy Recites a Poem from Stroppy by Marc Bell

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.

AN: Cap­i­tal­ism.

MB: Soci­ety!

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.

Poetry is Use­less by Anders Nilsen

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.

Poetry is Use­less by Anders Nilsen

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…

AN: Um…stupid?

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…

Stroppy by Marc Bell

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.

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