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Grief Made Graphic

Anders Nilsen dealt with the death of his fiancee the best way he knew how: by drawing comics.

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The first time I visited Anders Nilsen's Humboldt Park apartment, back in the spring, he had only two pieces of art up in his living room. One was a Polaroid portrait of his late fiancee, Cheryl Weaver. The other was a large print from a series of photos she'd shot out the window of the treetops across the street. Weaver was an artist, and when she lived here, shooting the park through the seasons was an ongoing project. Nilsen could never convince her to show the photos in public. "She didn't want to be there and have to hear people talk about what they thought," he said. "She was sure they'd be critical and think it was stupid. We'd have fights about it. The more I tried, the more she would resist. But then if I didn't try," he added, letting out a little chuckle, "we'd fight because she didn't think that I thought she was a good artist."

Nilsen is also an artist. Now 33, he's been making comics for almost a decade, developing a hallucinatory style of fable in which animals and young men ruminate about their existential crises. For most of his career he's published his own work, but in the last few years he's produced several titles for two of the biggest independent publishers in the industry, Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics, including Big Questions, a meditative series revolving around a group of little birds, and Dogs and Water, an award-winning graphic novel from 2004 that was reissued in a hardcover edition a few weeks ago.

But just when doors started to open for Nilsen, he entered the most painful period of his life. Two years ago, at the age of 37, Weaver died after the sudden, devastating onset of Hodgkin's disease. Afterward Nilsen buried himself in his work, creating two raw and intimate books dealing with her final days and his struggle to carry on without her, Don't Go Where I Can't Follow and The End. He was mourning, and he was doing it with more people paying attention to him than ever had before.

"One of the ironies of Cheryl dying is that, when we were together, we were always, always worried about money," he says. "We were both working, but we were often worried about where rent was coming from. Now it's just me and I'm doing fine. I don't have to worry about money. It sucks."

A lifelong comics enthusiast, Nilsen grew up in Minneapolis, where he'd moved at the age of three with his mom and older sister. He started drawing his own strips in high school, when one of his English teachers gave him permission to turn them in as short-story assignments. In college, at the University of New Mexico, he studied painting, but after graduating and returning to Minneapolis he found himself drifting back toward comics more and more. "At the time I was sorta thinking, I'm a gallery artist doing comics on the side," he says. "But in the back of my mind I knew, no, this is the stuff I'm gonna do. Comics made sense because I could xerox shit. It was more immediately rewarding. When I made Big Questions number one, I was working at a co-op in Minneapolis and brought it in to show a friend. We were eating lunch, and then I left and as I was walking away I heard her laughing."

In 1999 Nilsen moved to Chicago to continue his painting studies at the School of the Art Institute. Weaver, also a grad student at the time, had the studio across the hall from his. She was doing experimental film and video, and when she wasn't around Nilsen would sneak peeks at her work. One day they wound up taking the elevator together and struck up a conversation. Three months later they were dating. Within a year they were living together.

Nilsen dropped out after his first year at SAIC to focus on comics full-time. To make ends meet he took a job cooking at Lula Cafe, which had recently opened in Logan Square. Weaver got a job there tending bar. Co-owner Jason Hammel watched their relationship blossom. "Back in the early days we were working crazy hours, starting on weekends at 7 AM," he says. "We'd be groggily coming in and Cheryl and Anders would be over at Johnny's Grill next door, having toast and coffee. She'd get up on, like, four hours of sleep and drive him here, just so they could have half an hour together before he went to work. It was just this incredible little romance going on over the stools at Johnny's Grill, every morning. It made your heart quiver a little bit."

By 2003 Nilsen had self-published five issues of Big Questions, financing the printing with grants from the Department of Cultural Affairs and selling them via mail order and tiny comics distros. That year he ran into Drawn & Quarterly publisher Chris Oliveros at the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco. Nilsen handed over some of his work, and Oliveros was so impressed that he tapped Nilsen to contribute a 30-page story to an upcoming installment of the prestigious Drawn & Quarterly Showcase. "When he commissioned the story I didn't have anything, and was searching for something I could extrapolate into a bigger idea," Nilsen says. "I went to some experimental stuff I had drawn in college and worked on it for a while, but then I hit a wall and realized it wasn't really going anywhere." By that time the story was 70 pages long. Oliveros had no choice but to spike it. For Nilsen, it was a huge blow.

Less than a year later, Oliveros contacted Nilsen again, telling him that he hadn't stopped thinking about the story and was interested in turning it into a freestanding book. "I still don't know what he saw in it," Nilsen says. "The story was not good." He threw away 25 of the original pages and redrew another 40. What he wound up with was the bleak, surrealistic tale of a boy who, while wandering a desolate, war-torn landscape with his stuffed bear, falls in with a pack of wild dogs. If it weren't for all the dead bodies, it could almost pass for a children's book.

Dogs and Water was published in October 2004 and went on to become Drawn & Quarterly's most reviewed title of the year, earning near unanimous praise. It was named Outstanding Story in the 2005 Ignatz Awards, which recognize achievement in comics and cartooning at the small-press level, and caught on with readers as well, selling out its initial printing of 4,000 copies. It was Nilsen's biggest critical and commercial success by far, but it didn't take him by surprise. "I figured that was just what happened when you have a comic put out by a publisher," he says.

Shortly after Dogs and Water was completed, Nilsen asked Oliveros if Drawn & Quarterly would be interested in picking up Big Questions as a recurring title. "Normally we would never begin publishing in the middle of a series," Oliveros says, "but I respected so much of what he was doing in it that I was honored to publish it." Drawn & Quarterly signed on for the remainder of the 12-issue run as well as an eventual anthology. Around this time, Nilsen was commissioned to illustrate the cover of the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales, part of a series of books that featured jacket art by bigger names like Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Frank Miller, Charles Burns, Chester Brown, and Seth.

It was a momentous time in Nilsen's personal life as well. At the end of 2004 he and Weaver decided to get married, setting a date, September 18, 2005, and a location, Hyde Park's Promontory Point. Then in February they took a weeklong trip to the coast of France so Nilsen could attend a comic book convention. Weaver had been experiencing seemingly unconnected health problems--fatigue, recurring infections--for a couple months, but their vacation went off without a hitch. It was only after they got home and returned to work that the problems became more serious.

"Cheryl would complain about night sweats, and she asked me about it and I was like, yeah, sure, I sweat at night," Hammel says. "But I had no idea they were getting up to change the sheets two or three times a night." Her fatigue was so bad that she'd have to lie down during shifts. And she started losing weight--rapidly. "There was something in her belly that wasn't supposed to be there," Nilsen says. "It turned out to be an enlarged spleen. She went to a clinic and they said she had to go to the hospital immediately. They didn't even want her to go home to tell me. They knew it was cancer."

Weaver was diagnosed with Hodgkin's, a cancer of the lymphatic system, in early April, but the initial prognosis was positive. The doctors gave her an 85 percent chance of survival. She was in and out of the hospital for chemo over the next few months but seemed to take it in stride. "She was a very stoic person generally," Nilsen says. "She'd started this screen-printing business, and even though she was seriously sick she was forcing herself to print every day. I didn't realize until the end of the summer that she was having to crawl up the stairs to get there. She just wasn't going to sit all day doing nothing. I wish she would have."

Weaver's treatment continued through the summer and into the fall. She and Nilsen decided to postpone the wedding until her health improved. On October 12, 2005, she went to the emergency room with chest pains. She was given a blood transfusion and underwent a CT scan, which revealed that the cancer had spread to her liver. Four days later she was told the disease was terminal. "On the first or second of November, they took out her spleen, and at that point I knew she was gonna die," Nilsen says. "She bled a lot in surgery; they gave her ten units of blood. She was in a coma for a while--she never fully came back to consciousness. I kept trying to tell her to let go, but she was always very stubborn. She died on the 13th of November. My birthday was the next day."

They'd been together five and a half years.

After spending the next several weeks with his mom and sister, going through Weaver's possessions and, as he says, "just trying to function," Nilsen threw himself into the one thing he knew would help. "From mid-December until the end of January, I was working between 8 and 12 hours a day," he says. "It gave me something else to think about. I felt like if I didn't have it, I didn't know what I would do. I'd probably start drinking. The work gave me a goal."

The book that came out of this period, Don't Go Where I Can't Follow, was filled with artifacts of his relationship with Weaver: giddy, affectionate postcards the two had mailed to each other from across town, a 21-page letter he'd sent his sister about an ill-fated romantic getaway, a page from his journal titled "Things He Does, in Spite of Which, She Will Probably Marry Him Anyway," snapshots from the trip to France, the last time their life together was normal. In March Nilsen added the final pages--a 16-panel illustrated letter to Weaver describing her memorial at Promontory Point, where he'd scattered her ashes into the lake. The drawings are wide and cinematic, the point of view hovering behind and slightly above the crowd. In the first panel Nilsen walks with his mom, a sliver of something small and black jutting from the crook of his arm. A short, decimating sentence reads, "You are in my arms."

Nilsen didn't originally intend the book to be seen by anyone other than family and close friends who wanted something to remember Weaver by. He considered taking out a loan to pay for the printing himself, but the finished product was much longer than he'd anticipated, and the cost of doing it in color was too high. Somewhat reluctantly, he decided see if Oliveros had any interest. "I knew we had to, even though it wasn't a traditional comic," Oliveros says. Don't Go Where I Can't Follow was published in a run of 3,000 last October. Chris Ware picked it as one of his top recent releases in an industry trade journal, calling Nilsen "an observant, sharply intelligent and unpretentious man" and the story "harrowing yet at the same time calmly and powerfully life-affirming."

A few months later Nilsen assembled the first half of a two-part series he'd agreed to do for Fantagraphics before Weaver died. Still overcome with grief and up against a deadline, he cobbled it together from sketchbook drawings, and the result, The End, was a bare look at his fragile emotional state. One section, with the deceptively blithe title "Since You've Been Gone I Can Do Whatever I Want, All the Time," shows him crying by himself at every point of the day. Another revolves around two featureless figures, one the shadow of the other, spouting impossible math equations while explaining loss. "My past, present and future have all come unhinged and flown off in different directions," one figure says. "When I reach out my hand to try to get ahold of one or the other of them, my fingers brush against them and just push them further out into space. Of all of them, I miss my future the most." As the panels continue, one figure disappears, and the other morphs into a giant maze that covers an entire center spread before dissolving into a field of dots. "That's one of the things you mourn," Nilsen says. "You miss the person, but you miss your life, the life you expected to have, too."

As time has passed and the grief become less immediate, Nilsen's feelings about Don't Go and The End have grown more conflicted. He decided at the end of July not to go forward with the second installment of The End. Drawn & Quarterly has approached him about reprinting Don't Go Where I Can't Follow and pushing it in chain bookstores, believing it would appeal to a wider audience, but Nilsen is on the fence.

"I was looking through Don't Go the other day and realizing just how personal it is," he says. "It just feels awkward for me to do a second printing that I don't need to do. I'm trying to figure out whether it resonating with an audience, if that's a valid enough reason. But that's abstract to me. A year ago, if I was on a bus or in a restaurant and a certain song came on, I would have to leave because otherwise I would totally break down in public. And I don't want to break down in public. Don't Go feels like it's me breaking down in public. The End is the same way. Everyone gets to watch me dissolve into tears."

Nilsen says the grief sometimes comes back to him when he least expects it, but if Don't Go and The End accomplished anything, it was forcing him to work through it as it was happening. In telling the story, he was able to see the arc. "I went with him to the site where he spread her ashes on the first anniversary of her death," Jason Hammel recalls. "We sat there and talked and the way he thought about it was like it was an archetypal myth. Like a tale, like an ancient tale. He had so much clarity on it. The story was amazingly sad and dramatic and had beautiful moments. Like the night she died, there had been this storm unlike any storm I'd ever experienced. It was just horrible outside and all of us were sitting in this dark room--it's just like one of those moments that feels scripted by God. And when he talked about it at the Point, he said that he felt like he was in a fable, but at the end of it."

While trying to make up his mind about the second printing of Don't Go, Nilsen has finished inking issue ten of Big Questions, which is due out in November. He also recently started dating someone, and though he's given her all his books to read, he's eager not to have his loss dominate his entire life. "It's awkward because the books are a very specific view, a very uncomplicated view, though it was as complicated as any relationship," he says. "But when someone dies, they get idealized. I'm in a place where I want to be moving forward, not in the past--as much as the past will always be with me."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Rob Warner.

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