Ander Nilsen, Tongues #1 (No Miracles Press, 2017). $15.
An eagle wings over a mountain and across a dry, flat, stretching plain, then alights on a scene of human catastrophe: armored cars overturned, the ground cratered as if from a bombing, and a sprawled, broken-looking man’s corpse lying nearby. The eagle frees a frantic skittering monkey from the downed hulk of one of the cars. Then the eagle flies to a distant crag where an enormous shackled god, chained at ankles and wrists, waits calmly for the bird to rip out his guts—a riff on the Prometheus legend. The god relates a mythic story of, seemingly, drawing a human child, “a small girl,” out of the dark muddy waters of a swollen river. God and eagle debate the story’s significance. Then the eagle cuts into the god’s belly and takes its liver, leaving the mountain animals to graze at the god’s exposed innards.
And then we move on to another story, the second of three in a chain—though they do not seem to be separate stories, really, but interlinked: perhaps non-sequential parts of something larger? A mythos seems to be taking shape.
Anders Nilsen’s Tongues Number One, a roughly 9 by 12 inch, 48-page saddle-stitched booklet, is the first of what is expected to be a fairly long series. I will follow it all the way. Tongues is among the comics I got at the (breathtaking) Short Run festival in Seattle last fall, where I bought it from the table of Nilsen himself, along with a small “process zine” documenting some of the work that Nilsen invested in the project. Tongues is beautiful to the eye and to the hands, a full-color, impeccably crafted object with french flaps and a mesmerizing design scheme based on the recurrence of diamonds and other geometric forms. It’s not just fancy, though. Everything about Tongues bespeaks a designing intelligence; everything seems of a piece, or of a personal world in the process of being, ever so gradually, uncovered.
Readers familiar with Nilsen will recognize some favored themes and tropes: a story that begins drastically in medias res, in the quiet wake of disaster; animals poking through, plundering, and interpreting a site of human wreckage; an open, arid setting running into the far distance, like an agoraphobe’s nightmare; and the very personal recreation of myth. Nilsen, who has worked in many styles and media, here revisits the detailed, precisely stippled style of earlier books such as Dogs and Water (a character from which reappears here) and Big Questions, but with the added nuance of subtle coloring. The colors, though muted, are gorgeous, bringing to life the desert plains and far horizons, the god’s mountain outcropping and his muddy dark river. Nilsen’s understated palette is ravishing. What’s more, Nilsen designs the pages inventively, building layouts out of irregular polygons or hive-like cells that look like no one else’s but read easily (in the river sequence, the pages appear to be built out of the splayed bodies of animals that have been cut open, exposed to view).
In sum, Tongues is aesthetically distinctive, enigmatic, and mind-opening: another quietly alarming comic by Anders Nilsen. It’s great.