Mpls. comic artist blends modernity with ancient tales

Anders Nilsen
A self portrait by Minneapolis-based comics artist Anders Nilsen.
Image courtesy Drawn and Quarterly

When Minneapolis comics artist Anders Nilsen searched for inspiration for a new work, he returned to his old sketchbooks and musings about how the gods of classical mythology and the characters in the Bible might fare today.

His imagination inspired him to create a new graphic novel "Rage of Poseidon," which twists modern ideas into ancient tales.

In the title story, the Greek god of the sea finds himself fading from public attention as the centuries pass to the present day. Horrified by what man has done to his watery realm, Poseidon assumes human form to roam the land to learn more about mortals.

"It's been fascinating.They are pathetic and loathesome in a way, but strangely sweet and endearing at the same time, like the larvae of eels. You have been wandering lately in a land called America, in a country called Wisconsin. It's very strange, but the citizens are good people. They have invented a wonderful libation they call iced latte. It is second only to the divine ambrosia of Olympus. You can't get enough."

As a child, Nilsen loved reading two things: X-Men comics and mythology.

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"They are basically soap operas" he said, "with people with superpowers."

As Nilsen grew older and came to understand the power and importance of myth, he began playing with placing ancient characters in modern settings. For him, many of the gods and heroes in mythology are still eminently relatable to people today.

"There is something sort of inherently goofy and fun about setting them in present day and story of highlighting that parallel with our everyday lives," he said.

In Nilsen's book, Poseidon's visit to Wisconsin takes a downturn when he hits the Dells.

"There across the road is a gigantic complex of colorful tubes, twisting and winding down through the air before emptying into man-made pools of weirdly electric blue water. Human children scream and giggle sliding through the tubes and splashing into the pools. A giant billboard presides over the whole mad scene, giving it a name in six foot tall neon: Rage of Poseidon Waterpark. The hair on the back of your neck stands up. The plastic cup falls from your hand. Your human form trembles slightly. Your face flushes red."

The two rages of Poseidon, that of the god and the theme park named for him, collide with catastrophic results.

An internationally known comics artist, Nilsen tells his stories through a combination of text and silhouettes. He jokes that the technique originally occurred to him as a way to save him the work of filling in details. But he came to like the power of the iconic images.

Abraham and Isaac
The final page in Anders Nilsen's retelling of the story of Abraham and Isaac demonstrates how the artist brings the Biblical tale into a modern setting.
Image courtesy Drawn and Quarterly

However, while graphic novels may look simple, Nilsen said they are hard work.

"When I started doing comics, one of the things I liked about it was they are so complicated," he said. "You are dealing with pacing and people have to absorb the image and read it kind of instantly."

Nilsen doesn't stop at classical mythology in "Rage of Poseidon." He also retells the story of Noah and the Flood, and of Abraham and Isaac, putting modern spins on both — including giving Isaac a love for video games. He likes the way the Biblical stories come with the additional punch of centuries of discussion and interpretation which inevitably will become part of the stories he has concocted.

"They have this kind of inherent depth and gravitas," he said. "Basically it's like, why make up your own stories if you can sort of pilfer these other stories and for free you get this huge weight of accumulated symbology and character."

Nilsen said the novel is aimed at a comics audience. But as the grandson and nephew of Lutheran ministers, he also wants to hear what his family has to say about his retellings.

He's dealt with spiritual matters in his comics before. Two of his previous books, "Don't Go Where I Can't Follow" and "The End," dealt with his girlfriend Cheryl Weaver's cancer diagnosis and death. They were very personal books, he said, but people have told him they helped them get through similar difficult times.

Nilsen will read from "Rage of Poseidon" at 7 p.m. Friday, at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts in Minneapolis. He'll also appear at a gathering organized by local comics organization Autoptic Saturday at Co-existance Gallery in north Minneapolis.

His MCBA presentation is called "Isaac and Abraham and Video Games." Although he hopes people will get a laugh or two out of his book, it would be better if some might be encouraged to explore the original texts.

"Because they are wonderful stories," he said. "They're amazing. There's a reason they have stuck around for 2000 years."