As the title of his 2011 Big Questions suggests, artist Anders Nilsen confronts the enduring themes: faith, doubt, the examined versus the unexamined life, and basically The Meaning of It All.
While such weighty themes are present in Nilsen’s latest title, Rage of Poseidon, he’s in a lighter mood this time, bringing a comic logic to various tales of pagan and Christian deities and their mortal subjects. Such an approach is of course deserved, with the literal absurdity of the respective canons well underlined.
Also dryly pointed out are the implications of how history favours some immortals over others. Hence Jesus is able to pick up Aphrodite at a bar by telling her that her husband Mars works for him now: “Me and my Dad run this whole place.”
Nilsen’s treatment does lack the satisfying bite of Scottish cartoonist Tom Gauld in You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack (2013), in which the same subject was savaged with a precise and understated blade. What’s striking, however, is the esthetic power of Nilsen’s conception and design: the artist strips away almost all stylization to create images of mythic, monumental density.
The presentation and style are in fact reminiscent of early forms of proto-comics such as Frans Masereel’s and Lynd Ward’s woodcut novels Passionate Journey (1919) and Gods’ Man (1929), respectively. Like a master Greek vase painter, Nilsen moves skillfully between black-on-white and white-on-black imagery, a rendering of Hades in the Underworld a splendid example of the latter.
Indeed, the book contains iconic renderings of such tales as the trials of Odysseus, the torment of Prometheus and the Sacrifice of Isaac. Also as with Greek painting—or Baroque more than a thousand years later—much power is derived from visualizing narrative high points, as when a Divine hand stays Abraham’s a moment before it can cut Isaac’s throat.
All this is even more effective in the book’s accordion format, which allows several related pages to be juxtaposed at once, displaying powerfully the panel-to-panel contrast of specific moments that distinguishes the comics medium. (In other instances, Nilsen sprawls wider compositions across multiple pages.)
What’s particularly amazing is the sense of latent movement in some scenes. It’s as if Nilsen’s figures have not been truly caught within one pregnant moment of high drama, but slowed down to a point of almost imperceptible, yet still unmistakable, movement.
Take the quietly sad panel of Abraham accosting Isaac: the relative positioning of the figures, their hair seemingly ruffled by a desolate breeze; the precise incline of Isaac’s head upwards in innocent yet bemused deference to his father; Abraham’s one hand resting with seeming despair on Isaac’s shoulder, his other hand caught as if in reluctance or uncertainty. The subtlety of the suggestion is masterful.
And that Nilsen lends such gravitas to select instances reflects that he can’t completely laugh off the material; in the “What If … ?” thought experiment that is “The Girl and the Lions,” Athena is obsessed by the question: What would it be like to die a mortal death, to know your life would one day end, like that usurping Nazarene? Setting aside the Christian promise of everlasting life, of course.
It’s affecting, the way Nilsen sneaks in such metaphysical wonderment, even when otherwise on a bit of a lark. And it makes Rage of Poseidon a graceful, low-key showcase of artistic virtuosity.
By Anders Nilsen
Drawn & Quarterly, 80 pp, $30