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His last major work of fiction was Big Questions, a 600-page epic fable involving a community of birds. If Big Questions was a graphic novel (in the most literal sense of the word “novel”), then his latest work, Rage of Poseidon, is more of a short-story collection. Here the cast of characters is grander: All seven of these stories star characters from Judeo-Christian belief or classical mythology and sometimes both, including Prometheus, Abraham, Isaac, Jesus, God and a good chunk of the Olympian pantheon.
But whether writing through birds or gods, the mundane or the divine, Nilsen’s true subject matter remains much the same: explorations of metaphysical and existential concerns, here more directly concerned with faith and religion than elsewhere.
Nilsen’s writing is spare and efficient; you could even say curt. In all of the stories, he writes quite conversationally, usually easing into second-person storytelling. “So imagine you are Poseidon, god of the sea,” the title story begins. That story is set in the present, but features the ancient Greek god; the same goes for “Prometheus” and the book’s longest and most compelling story, “The Girl and The Lions.” The stories “The Flood” and “Leda and the Swan” take place in their original settings. “Isaac” (“So imagine your name is Isaac and you are standing on a moutaintop with your dad”) is fairly true to the Biblical telling, but the ending finds Isaac playing a video game his father let him buy at the market (It’s Exodus 6: The Reckoning, if you’re wondering). The final story, the single page “Jesus and Aphrodite” is set in a bar in heaven.
All would work just fine as prose, and, to be honest, Rage is the sort of book that can prompt a definition-of-comics sort of conversation among those with opinions on the matter. There are no multi-panel grids, and no dialogue balloons. Each page contains a single picture in a single panel (if a single, square image on a page can be considered a panel), with a few sentences hand-written beneath it.
The art is sequential, in that one image leads directly to the one on the next page, and, if we allow for each page to be defined as a panel, then it’s definitely comics, each story a sort of giant comic strip with page-size panels (You can make it more sequential too, depending on your folding skills, but we’ll get to that in a few more paragraphs). These images are black and white, and in silhouette (for some more examples of what the pages of the book look like in sequence, this Drawn & Quarterly-affiliated blog has some good images).
The imagery is thus often rather mundane-looking, only finding real power in the juxtaposition, including the unusual changes in subject matter or the occasionally particularly bold design element of an illustration (some look like mass-produced pictograms rather than drawings) or the way they attempt to illustrate something that doesn’t lend itself to illustration. (For example, there’s a three-page sequence in which Athena and the other Olympians come to grips with the story of Jesus that at first seemed so ridiculous but then started to supplant their own stories and thus their influence. Nilsen draws a complex geometric shape, and then gradually makes it more complex, as it gains dimensions on each page.)
The most noteworthy aspect of the book, aside from its overall quality, is Nilsen and publisher Drawn and Quarterly’s decision to print it in such an unusual format. It’s printed “accordion style,” a term that meant nothing to me until I held the book in my hands. Now I know that means it’s printed on one reeaaallllly long piece of paper (click here for an example of just how long), carefully folded by machine or magic or some combination of the two into pages.
So, if you wanted to, and had a very big house and were maybe also insane, you could unfold the entire 80-page book into a single, continuous strip.
The effect of this gives the book a tapestry- or scroll-like quality that is perhaps fitting given the subject matter, but it’s an experience only available if you do unfold the whole book. It also makes it really hard to flip through, and, whether or not that was the intent, it’s a book you really have little choice but to read in order.
For me, the main effect of the format choice was that it made me handle the book very, very carefully, as I was afraid if I dropped it or turned the page wrong the whole thing would somehow explode out like a spring, and I’d be trapped under a pile of comics pages. The format therefore kind of forced me to hold the book with a great deal of reverence and respect, the kind I might have were I handling a holy book.
None of that may have been the intent of the author or the publisher, of course. Maybe they just thought it would be cool to publish a book in this format, and they knew they could, so they did. I don’t know that it is cool — not at this great a length, anyway — but it’s certainly cool that Nilsen’s career is at such a point that he can have his books printed in unusual formats if he wants.
He deserves it, and Rage of Poseidon is an excellent example of why. While the book’s somewhat unwieldy format may not lend itself to reading in the bathtub, or thumbing through, or tossing across the room to a friend with a “Here, catch!,” the stories and their surface content, the writing and the illustration make this perhaps Nilsen’s most readily accessible work to date.