Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow

February 14, 2008

In a 2006 interview, Anders Nilsen recalled, “Cheryl used to say I had the Horror Vacui.” His fiancee Cheryl Weaver had teased him for his habit of filling the empty spaces in his drawings; an artist herself, she poked fun with a choice art history term. Earlier in the interview, he mentioned a book he was completing about their relationship. It would chronicle their travels together, to Michigan and France, until the point when the traveling stopped and she lay dying of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in a hospital bed. This book couldn’t have been easy to start, much less finish. Nonetheless, Nilsen probably didn’t have much choice. As an artist, his job of work is filling in spaces, and he was faced with the most profoundly empty one imaginable.

The resulting book, Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow, is a singular work. What began as a memorial for friends and family grew into an act of mourning offered to the public. Freely mixing comics with journal pages, letters, and photographs, it offers a portrait of loss that doubles as a mirror. Though remarkable for what it is not—maudlin, self-indulgent, overwrought, incomplete—it is more remarkable for its accomplished restraint. Nilsen holds back, both in expression and form, when by all rights he could have screamed.

The book’s form is simple enough. Seven sections each cover a different period, like “Getting to France” or “The Hospital.” They usually focus on one kind of material, like the first long section, which reproduces a handwritten letter from a comically troubled camping trip. At first glance, it’s an odd choice: the letter is long and hard to enjoy fully without knowing those involved personally. Had it been typeset, reading it would have been a chore. But Nilsen has reproduced it in facsimile, wrinkles and all, giving it an intimacy that makes up for the length. The rest of the book follows suit in presenting photos and journal entries. Like finding a box of lost correspondence in the attic, we get to piece together the story.

Nilsen has put the story in chronological order, except for the two sets of postcards that open and close it. Playful and sweet, they were sent when the relationship was new, about five years before the rest of the story. They give some respite to the tragedy in between, but also define the story: two people, love, travel. And subtlety: he gives no context, but it’s soon clear that he’s arranging things deftly. After all, he structured the book around their mishaps traveling, not just because they had so many. It is the guiding metaphor. Travel stands in for life, at turns joyous, boring, and above all temporary. Days get reduced to a few photos, centuries of history to a monument or two. Travel’s best partner, the postcard, reduces weeks at a time to just a pretty picture and a thought. If that’s what happens to ten thousand miles of travel, then what happens to a life?

Nilsen never makes such grand statements. In fact, he never tries to render his emotions on the page. Instead, we get signposts along the way, journal entries, but these are cues for his memory rather than portraits for our eyes. The only piece in the book drawn after her death is “The Lake,” an eight-page comic depicting the spreading of her ashes. Nilsen keeps his distance through its sixteen spare panels. He draws himself—always from behind—carrying her cremains to the place where they had planned to get married. No one’s face appears in close-up, though the service was crowded with people. The sequence plays out in a stately rhythm through wide, empty panels. A quarter of the story is Nilsen alone in the frame, releasing her cremains; after that, just the lake and the sky and the land. The narration is a private letter to her. In a way, it seems like it shouldn’t be read: the drawings themselves are heartbreaking enough.

This restraint marks the whole book’s tone. It also illustrates how Nilsen’s practice as a comics artist informs his work here. Comics works as an accretion of panels and the spaces between them, and Nilsen leaves the most important events and emotions in the spaces. In a fine example, the photos from France look like an album but work like a comic. This series of snapshots opens with establishing shots of the city, then jumps to four pictures taken from the car speeding through the countryside to Angoulême. After a portrait of its comics festival, the section ends in a deserted resort town. Captions fill in the details we need to understand the place, but they also fail to tell us that France was where Weaver first began to suspect something was wrong. Instead of revisionist history, we get throwaway details, like the fact that the “cut-out silhouettes” that appeared along the French highway “ presumably … mark[ed] the site of a fatality.”

Even the climax of the story appears as a sideways glance. Rather than documenting her death or his emotions, “The Hospital” ends with a diagram of the tubes and wires in Weaver’s body and a quote from the Tao Te Ching. Then “The Lake” begins. Perhaps revisiting her death was too like staring into the sun; a portrait a few pages earlier shows the same difficulty in looking. His drawing of October 12 shows Weaver in her hospital bed, her face determined and clear. Her arm, however, is drawn with starts and stops, a few lines delineating it and the tubes piercing it. It remains unfinished. Like her death, that arm is left to the imagination. Reading between the lines, we may find ourselves and our sorrows; in a sense, we’re invited to.

There’s an important precedent for his artistic strategy. In the 2006 interview with Karl Allen quoted earlier, Nilsen cited Chester Brown’s Ed the Happy Clown as a primary influence on his career. Brown, of course, went on to create the first masterpiece of quiet in North American arts comics, I Never Liked You. That book makes for a fascinating comparison to Don’t Go in its use of negative space. Brown emphasised each panel in isolation, sometimes floating on an empty page. Nilsen has done simliar work here, in part through tone, in part page design; he hasn’t suffered from the Horror Vacui in years. Brown’s work has endured. I expect Nilsen’s will too, as an influence on artists looking to bridge the gap between comics and the book arts even as we watch such distinctions fade away. More importantly, Don’t Go will endure as a both a memorial and a work of art, at once sad and beautiful.

(This article originally appeared in the April 2007 issue (no. 282) of The Comics Journal.)

Previous post:

Next post: