Over the past few years, cartoonist Brecht Evens has become one of the great Belgian imports thanks to books like The Wrong Place and The Making Of. Evens has a fascinating eye for color, a unique sense of design, and the ability to juggle a large cast of relatable characters. Those fascinating, thoughtful stories though will not necessarily prepare people for his new book.
Panther, out now from Drawn and Quarterly, is perhaps his strangest and most unsettling book to date. In some ways it looks like and sounds like a children’s book–a girl’s pet cat dies and a magical panther crawls out of her dresser drawer to befriend her. Slowly but steadily, the book grows increasingly dark and treacherous–something that Evens freely admits and takes some pleasure in.
Alex Dueben: What was the initial idea for the book?
Brecht Evens: It was pretty much all there in the first sketches. A girl visited by a magical “panther” who is cute, monstrous-cute, and actually monstrous at the same time. A creature disguised.
Dueben: How did the book change from its original idea to what we’re seeing on the page?
Evens: The basic idea was solid enough that it seemed I could just fill in the blanks and play with all the possibilities of a creature who has unlimited tools for subterfuge.
Dueben: Do you typically write the story out in some detail to start, or does the story change a lot as you draw the book?
Evens: I don’t have a constant method as yet. My other books did tend to change shape a lot in the doing.
Dueben: Why did you decide to make the book in this particular shape? Were you trying to echo the shape of picture books?
Evens: Exactly, a book disguised as a children’s book. Which is not to say that I don’t want children to read it–I do.
Dueben: I’m curious how you think about color and how you decided what colors to use in this book. And did the fact that the book is fantastic change what colors you used?
Evens: There are three color schemes in the book: There’s red and blue for the scenes where Panther is out of the picture. Then whenever he turns up he ‘adds yellow’, making all color combinations possible. That’s meant to make the reader miss Panther when he’s not there, and rejoice when he arrives, as Christine does. Then there’s the pure black and white pages, where we know that all bets are off.
Dueben: Reading Panther I was reminded of one of your earlier books, Night Animals, where there are monsters, it’s a plot that could be a children’s story, but it’s not for children. You see to be interested in those sorts of stories.
Evens: It’s not unusual for me to pick up an old theme and rework it. Night Animals is a two-part book, and the first story, “Bad Friends,” is indeed the progenitor of Panther. “Bad Friends” is at the same time rougher (the girl menstruates and her body changes in a few seconds time, She gets dragged out of her room by a Satyr, her clothes are stripped off and she’s body painted..) and much lighter, more of a parable, since there’s no text and no slow, tense manipulation and seduction going on as there is in Panther. It was more of a bare-bones comment on the modern children story, where monsters are never real monsters.
Dueben: When you were younger did you like fantastic stories? Did you have imaginary friends?
Evens: There were no imaginary friends, but tons of fantastic stories.
Dueben: What has the response been like to the book, because it is different from your previous books? Did people respond well to a fantastic tale of a panther?
Evens: The response had been about what I wished for, moving on a spectrum from charmed by the disney-cute merchandizable aspect, to troubled and moved, to disgusted, with some grandmothers returning the book to the store, proclaiming it an “apologism for pedophilia, zoophilia and incest.” I disagree with the incest, but I don’t interfere with reader’s interpretations.
Dueben: I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone but I’m somewhat at a loss to describe it. Can you talk a little about finding that right moment to end the book because it doesn’t entirely resolve.
Evens: Well, let’s not describe it at all, and maybe not even talk about it!
Dueben: Fair enough, but can you at least talk about the endpaper of the book, which folds out. Why did you decide to end the book like that?
Evens: The endpaper continues the ambiguity. There’s a dark, abstract image, but when you fold it open you see Pantherland–“It exists! All the animals and creatures are there! It was all true!” And when you close it, you’re again left with the dark image.