Upon returning home to Minneapolis, a comic book star re-releases a painful memoir about losing his fiancée to cancer.
In 2011, Minneapolis native Anders Nilsen shot into the top ranks of the comic book world with "Big Questions," a 658-page epic about existential talking birds. It was named to many critics' best-of lists.
After living much of his adult life elsewhere, the 39-year-old cartoonist recently moved home to teach comics at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
With Nilsen's star ever rising, his publisher, Montreal-based Drawn & Quarterly, went back to the presses to re-release the cartoonist's heartbreaking 2006 memoir, "Don't Go Where I Can't Follow." The 96-page mixed-media hardcover paints a touching portrait of his fiancée Cheryl, who died from cancer in 2005.
Nilsen will sign and chat about the book Saturday at Boneshaker Books. Here he talks about the memoir's difficult subject matter, finding inspiration in Minnesota and advice for his new students.
Q Is there anything in particular about the Twin Cities that you've drawn inspiration from?
A It's not the cities themselves, but I've realized more and more as I get older and travel how much my aesthetic comes from the Upper Midwest. The gently rolling -- beautiful, but undramatic -- rolling plains definitely show up in my work a lot.
Q You're known as a cartoonist yet this memoir mixes in old postcards, letters and photos. How do you think that approach bolstered the story you wanted to tell?
A The intended audience originally was just friends and family -- people who knew Cheryl and I -- so it felt appropriate that it be more a document of our time together and her illness than a novelization. I think of it less as art and more as a kind of history. Presenting the actual objects of that history is just a way of minimizing my role as the middleman between reader and story, making it a little more direct. I am known as a cartoonist, and that is a large part of what I do, but really my interest is telling stories with pictures. Cartooning is just one of a multitude of ways that that can happen.
Q In the years since it was first published, how has your relationship with the book changed?
A I definitely grew less comfortable with having such raw parts of my life on display, and there was a moment when I decided against a second printing, partly because of that, but also because I was uncomfortable monetizing the experience. I had also begun a new relationship and the book felt at times like an anchor keeping my own, and other people's attention, on a very loaded past. But the book also seemed to connect in an unexpected way with an audience, and it didn't feel right to me to keep it out of print because of personal squeamishness.
Q Were there any books that you found comforting after losing Cheryl?
A That's a funny thing. No. I really had no interest in reading about other people's experience with grief. Talking with other people who were actually going through it, though, was tremendously helpful. Music, too, spoke volumes.
Q What advice do you give your students who want to get personal with their comics?
A There's definitely a tradition in comics of almost embarrassingly exhibitionistic autobiography, especially in the realm of sexuality. In general it isn't appealing to me to make work like that, but for some people it feeds them. I guess I would say don't do it unless you really feel like you have something to say, because it's a little like making a scene in a restaurant: Everyone is looking at you and coming to their own conclusions, and you have to be OK with that.
Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909