Brecht Evens, Flemish author/artist of the gorgeously stylish The Wrong Place and The Making Of, is back. Considering that his previous works were dazzling and profound looks at group dynamics, this latest offering is somewhat of an anomaly. Brecht’s brushwork has grown even more impressive but story-wise the cast is purposely reduced. Panther tells the tale of how after young Christine’s beloved cat dies, a panther emerges from her bottom drawer and begins to entertain her with accounts of life in Pantherland, where he is crown prince. Taking cues from Christine as to what she wants to hear, Panther also changes his physical appearance at every turn (Brecht doesn’t use panels per se). Soon, with the arrival of other toy animal colleagues, life in this little girl’s room begins to descend into bizarre and uncomfortable territory. Where it remains well past the final page, for
Panther doesn’t decide, or even resolve, itself so easily. A brilliant book, full of wonder both delightful and malicious, Evens’ has created a masterpiece.
AUG STONE: Tell me about Panther. It’s disturbing, niggling at the brain in a way I can’t put my finger on yet.
BRECHT EVENS: Yeah. I can’t totally put my finger on it and I’m not sure I’d want to. I never really plan any message in my books but I felt like I was toying, that there was something sardonic about doing Panther. I had a lot of fun making it, though I’m not sure that’s the vibe that comes across to people. It’s possible that the book might seem darker than the way I felt about it when I was doing it.
STONE: I saw it as both. Fun, that headed to a very dark place, as fun does sometimes.
EVENS: Yeah, yeah. (laughs) Exactly.
STONE: Was there a particular inspiration for it?
EVENS: There’s two things. It seemed that the basic idea for the story already existed. Years ago I did a book called Night Animals that was translated and published by Top Shelf in 2011. There’s a story in it called ‘Bad Friends’ about a girl being swooped up by a satyr and taken out into the forest. It’s a very short story but there’s already this idea of fun mixed with evil. A very sinister, uncanny vibe. But the Panther character came later. It was actually a character I incarnated for a game with my girlfriend at the time. She was a really fun girl to scare. If I would change my face to something more evil she would right away go ‘oh there’s a very unpleasant game about to start’. I developed many different characters, the cast got bigger and bigger, and the Panther was one of these characters I played, improvising to spook her. Every time she got too frightened, the character might become more humane and get some backstory. Out of all these characters Panther seemed to have a lot of potential and started ending up in my sketchbooks. A lot of the scenes that are in the book were already on paper in 2009. But then I put it away when I started doing The Making Of. Panther might’ve seemed like too simple a story or something.
EVENS: I was just sketching. When you sketch you’re not giving your character a fixed shape anyway and because he’s acting and pretending so much, the sketches came out really differently. A cute one, then a very dark and sinister one. And I saw right away that this would be the way to do it in the book. I think maybe at the time I didn’t have the chops yet to actually do all that in painting, but it came out like that in pen.
STONE: Panther seems quite surreal to me. Do dreams have much of an influence on you?
EVENS: (thinks) Then again you might say that about my other books as well. Panther is in a way magical realism, or not even realism I guess, just a magical concept, an unrealistic concept made banal. There’s a German word ‘entzauberung’ - when you take away the magic of something. And it seems like my other books are realistic plots made magical, made - I don’t like to use the word ‘psychedelic’ – but made dream-like. Panther is a book with a magical subject made too close to the skin, too real.
STONE: Your previous books are all focused on a group of people and the dynamics within that group.
STONE: Why did you move to a more individual focus with this one?
EVENS: It has to be very claustrophobic, just these two main characters. It’s the only way to keep it scary, of course. It wasn’t like I was feeling I’ve got to go this way or that way with my career. It was just after The Making Of I was thinking up some really complicated stuff, with no idea where I was going with it. Then I opened up some old sketchbooks, saw Panther, did some more writing on it, and I just flew. It wrote itself mostly, coming really easily. I think Panther is probably going to be a standalone book. What I like to talk about most, what I usually get more inspired by, is city life, groups, and I guess adults. Panther will be different from the others in this way.
STONE: There is somewhat of a group setting towards the end when the other animals come out of the drawer. But unlike your other work where we can feel and empathize with the character types – something we can even do with the Panther to an extent - these animals are genuinely creepy. Their human qualities, if there are any human qualities present, are very abnormal.
EVENS: Yes. They get less and less human. There’s some that don’t even speak. They just seem like stuffed animals filled up with something…we don’t even really know what’s behind their skin. Panther is the most human one, or the one who has best prepared himself for the human world. When I wrote it I wanted to make it feel like he educated himself a bit, like he gave himself a basic course in children’s stories before popping out of the closet. And then when Bonzo comes out, he’s way less prepared. He didn’t crunch for the exam, he doesn’t know how to talk to a kid. And the other ones are just (thinks) crappily put together. They seem like they just pulled on some shape right before emerging into this world.
Originally I felt the rest of the characters might be the others I played for my girlfriend. But I made it a little more toy-like, a little more Tim Burton maybe. What makes the book interesting and special to me, what seemed necessary, was a reaction to a lot of stories where monsters always end up being part of an escapist world, where they become the friends of the children. That’s probably a modern thing, like in Pan’s Labyrinth, a movie that I love actually. Even in Maurice Sendak for example, the monsters get to be playmates really fast. While writing the story I felt the pull that all these writers must feel of making him a protector at the end. And that would’ve been doing the Pan’s Labyrinth thing, the Sendak thing. And because I love the character Panther it was difficult to keep him away from that. I had to keep him an asshole to the end.
STONE: How do you see the progression of your books, from book to book?
EVENS: There’s definitely a huge leap in Panther with how I did the characters. I never had that much fun drawing a character. Also at some point I was preparing an expo and I had an original page of The Wrong Place lying next to an original page of Panther, and Panther looked sharp, really defined by contrast next to The Wrong Place where it was really blunt, very misty. Panther was really commanding the page more.
STONE: How do you feel about The Wrong Place and The Making Of looking back at them now?
EVENS: A lot of affection. I don’t know if I can read it like a normal reader would because when I look at a page I know where I was, what city I was living in, what music I was listening to. It’s another experience. I love the books. With The Wrong Place there’s a lot of great memories doing the drawing because there’s this clumsiness, which sometimes I regret losing. I feel like there’s always danger imminent in mastering your materials too much and I definitely hadn’t yet (laughs). When I started on The Wrong Place I was really still messing around. And a lot of things that worked out started working out only while doing the drawing, I didn’t always know what I was doing. So it’s exciting for me to look at those drawings. And I have a lot of affection for The Making Of. I really like the story. I put a lot of energy into that. It’s far from perfect but… I did so much more work on the writing than I did on The Wrong Place and Panther. I have maybe six quite defined characters, which in a comic book seemed like an achievement. In The Wrong Place I have affection for the characters too but it’s a mean-spirited world. Very anchored in puberty. I made it when I was 22, with an adolescent view of the world where popular and unpopular are what makes it turn. And this started changing in The Making Of.
STONE: What are you working on next?
EVENS: A big book called ‘The City Of Belgium’. I’m already drawing it and the problem is for every page I draw, I write two more. So the end is getting farther and farther and farther the more I work on it. It returns to The Wrong Place universe, a more adult version of this. We’re in the city again, at night, and we have three different characters having parallel adventures. I’m a big fan of John Cassavettes and his work will probably inspire this new book in some way. With cinema, I take inspiration, not so much visually, but definitely from the storytelling. His characters are never made to go to a specific point, you never know what’s gonna happen in the moment or where you’re gonna be 20 seconds later. That’s really magical.
STONE: In an old interview you spoke of experiencing life to make your stories ring more true. How do you feel about that now?
EVENS: Well, I don’t normally have a very adventurous reflex. I go to the same three bars, I have very routine habits. But in the last ten years adventure found me most of the time (laughs) Which is a very happy coincidence for a writer. So some crazy stuff came and found me, and of course you keep your ears open to any stories your friends tell you. I still feel like I have to know what I’m talking about, I need to give myself the right to talk about something. For example, in Panther, something that worried me in the writing was I’m depicting a kid, and I don’t have kids. So I was checking a lot with people – ‘you have a daughter, would she do this? Is this how she’d say this?’
STONE: Do you find experiencing life to create art dangerous at all?
EVENS: That’s the thing, I’m not provoking it. The book I’m writing now is influenced by the bi-polar episode I had, which I didn’t see coming. It was provoked by taking amphetamines, party drugs. A pretty routine thing to do, just taking drugs, there’s nothing adventurous about it. You arrange your life around these parties with the same people and the same places because that works with your drug. That in itself is not an adventure. The thing is that apparently I am prone to getting manic episodes. So I had this big rebound, and that was hugely interesting. That’s a good example of adventure finding me.
I’ve been living in Paris since about 2013. It’s great, I can just put myself in a chair somewhere where adventure might find me. And I’m getting other cultural influences living in France that I wouldn’t normally seek out. For me, I’m steeped in Hollywood and American culture. Like a lot of people from Flanders, we learned English from The Simpsons. And I listen to a lot of American music. When I draw I really really love hip-hop, party-music. I don’t sit down a lot when I’m drawing, I’m mostly moving around the room, looking at the drawing from afar. The brush on paper is just moments, then I stand up again and look at it from afar. And I dance throughout, something of a tribal thing, to wake me up.
STONE: Do you listen to Nick Cave?
EVENS: Yeah, a lot. He’s a genius.
STONE: I’ve always thought you look like a young Nick Cave.
EVENS: It’s not useful to just look like a genius (laughs heartily). I’d rather be a genius and look like an actor. It’s not really gonna rub off on you.
STONE: I’m always surprised by your endings. You have a knack of knowing where to leave things so a lot of wonder still continues in the reader’s mind. How do you know when your stories end?
EVENS: I wonder if that’s a good thing or not. With Panther especially, I didn’t feel like an ending that ties it up, that explains. Like when you finish a piano piece but you use the pedals, the sound stills goes on a bit. Even though the piece has been played, it has to keep running on. You shouldn’t be able to close the book and go do your dishes without something haunting you.