Monologues for Calculating the Density of Black Holes (Fantagraphics)

monologues-header.jpgRandom cruelty, futility, ennui, and an implied assault on human complacency are the order of the day in Anders Nilsen’s latest hefty tome.



413 pages full color; $22.99

(W / A: Anders Nilsen)


Anders Nilsen’s comics have the rare power to generate queasy laughter. In a one-panel gag from his latest collection, a mugger points a gun at his victim and says "We’ll laugh about this later." It’s a potent blend of cold shock, humor, and cultural relevance (what don’t we laugh about later, especially if we’re not the one getting mugged?).

The cover to Monologues for Calculating the Density of Black Holes by Anders Nilsen. Click for a larger image.A long-form comic published previously (not in this book) left a particular, deeper impact for me, too. Nilsen dropped two of his signature faceless everymen into a war-torn countryside—(another) gunman, and a victim. The pair played out a shifting dance of powerful and powerless that felt like Beckett-does-Sarajevo. It was pointedly random, with sudden stabs of both violence and kindness in an anonymous third-world wasteland. As much as it felt like life in the parts of the world we like to pretend don’t exist, it felt even more like a dark, haunted dream that we like to pretend the act of waking obliterates.

Monologues for Calculating the Density of Black Holes collects some previously published strips and one-panel jibes, with some new work. A ribbon of a story about a schizophrenic-type who posits conspiracies involving the Pentagon, identity theft, and a note from his mother that finally explains everything, winds through more than 400 pages of digressions and sideshows.

Along the way, a faceless Jesus, God, and Satan shoot the breeze on cell phones. Robots assume the identities of news reporters and others by killing them and slipping on their faces. A symbolically handcuffed god floats through various landscapes (Nilsen’s standard, vaguely drawn character is overlaid on full-color photographs—it’s an effective technique), kvetching and confused. A man mentions "this new reality show… where they hire people to beat up this guy who’s waiting for the bus."

Mostly, it lacks the subtlety of the dream-like third-world piece I enthused about above, but it’s of the same cloth. Random cruelty, futility, ennui, and an implied assault on human complacency are the order of the day. When Nilsen wants you to feel his boredom, or taunt you for your own, he’s merciless. At one point a man admits "This cartoon should have ended pages and pages ago." It’s coy, it’s true, and it’s annoying as hell.

An interior page from Anders Nilsen's latest. Click for a larger image.Other times, he toys with the pacing of the comic itself to humorous effect, as when a character on a cell phone is placed on hold. Two full pages of him standing,  waiting, doing nothing follow. Nilsen makes the reader wait, too. It works. Other times, forcing the reader to experience the ennui of the author works so well the boredom is just boredom, and you want to escape from the book itself. It’s the ultimate compliment, in its way.

The one-panel gags that offer relief from this ponderous, absurdist complaint against modern life are welcome. A businessman with no pants explains "it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make to be able to afford the lifestyle I want"; it’s more of Nilsen’s one-man jihad against complacency, but with a nod to the cartoons in the New Yorker.

Nilsen’s minimalist art, like his wide-ranging parables on boredom and unfairness, can also seem calculated to infuriate. Characters are often faceless outlines simply floating in white space. When it works, it serves his deadpan humor, making a Giacometti-style statement about man’s impotence before the universe. Other times, the standing, inert stick-figure conceit grows tiresome, and would seem to belong in the mini-comics from whence Nilsen got his start. It’s quick and dirty, so the writing damn well better be good, or we’re left with lazy art and lazy writing both.

That concession to an overarching storyline involving the schizophrenic, God, Jesus, Satan, robots, and a note from mother wraps up at the book’s end with a whimper of closure. It’s not the author’s most rigorous, cohesive effort, but it has its moments.

Nilsen is a relentlessly interesting comics creator. Even when he’s shoving ennui down our throats to the point that we’re sick of the comic itself, he has the potential to bring us around with a one-panel gut-punch of black humor, or a narrative that turns nothing into a luminous rhapsody of stillness. Is he just whistling in the dark? Is life an absurd exercise akin to a monologue for calculating the density of a black hole? Maybe so, but I’m looking forward to his next performance in the wasteland. | Byron Kerman

Click here for a preview slideshow, courtesy of Fantagraphics, and here for a 10-page excerpt, courtesy of Publishers Weekly.

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