I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more hipster than when I preordered a copy of a Belgian graphic novel in translation. Yep, that’s the kind of life I live now. I was even waiting impatiently for it to be translated (which it was by Laura Watkinson and Michele Hutchinson): Panther by Brecht Evens.
My first foray into graphic novels was actually one by Brecht Evens. I can’t remember quite how it came about. I think the publisher offered me a copy, and I was so struck by his illustrating that I thought I’d give it a go. That was The Wrong Place, but it was the second – The Making Of – that confirmed my love of Evens. The Making Of is about an art installation at a festival, and it’s oddly sweet, while also being a bit sharp and quirky – all softened simultaneously by Evens’ beautiful watercolour illustrations.
Well, ingredients of all that remain in Panther, but things have taken a turn for the dark.
The blurb on the back reads:
A young girl named Christine is grieving over her cat when, suddenly, a talking panther slinks from her dresser drawer. Panther, the self-proclaimed crown prince of Pantherland, entertain Christine and conjures up magical worlds. Then, things start stirring in the dark…
In each frame, Panther looks different. Panther is (if you will forgive me) a chameleon. Christine doesn’t notice, but we do – not only do his colours often change, but he is sometimes feline, sometimes grotesque, sometimes dragonlike, sometimes diabolic, sometimes hypnotic… it is dizzying, but very effective. What always marks Evens apart is his wonderful use of simple colours and complex patterns.
I’ve used the publicity shot of the cover above, but the only way to understand what Evens does with illustration is to go and hunt some out. You can see quite the range on Drawn and Quarterly‘s blog, or simply a Google image search. What it will show you is the way Evens uses unusual lines, repeated patterns – often chequerboard or Escher-like boxes – to fill a space in an intoxicating, overwhelming way. And then, on the next page, he’ll give you little more than a pen outline in the middle of white space. It works brilliantly. He gets so much character and atmosphere into each image – you could easily spend ages looking at any individual image.
This is certainly a fairytale with a difference. And that might be where it was too much of a stretch for me and my reading tastes. Nothing is ever made too clear, but Panther brings with him a group of people from ‘Pantherland’ who – though he tries to hide this from Christine – aggressive, disturbed, and unpleasant. One of these is in a distorted form of Christine’s teddy, a dog who senses something is wrong from the outset and tries to make his escape. I can’t cope with teddies being harmed, guys.
More disturbingly, there is some sense here that Panther has unwelcome sexual interest in Christine; it’s suggested in some of the images, albeit none of them (of course) are indecent. But it’s a pervading discomfort that is, on the one hand, handled very well by Evens – but, on the other, gives the book the same sort of queasiness that made me unable to read Lolita.
So, conflicted! I still love Brecht Evens, and would run to another book by him (and I have found relatively few graphic novelists whose art I enjoy looking at) – but I hope he takes a step or two back in the next one. I certainly don’t need him to be saccharine or charming, but Panther shows that I have my limits when it comes to the amount of darkness Evens will incorporate in his otherwise beautifully portrayed stories.