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Oh, Youth: An Interview with Brecht Evens

Brecht Evens’ characters judge, love, party and gossip, in his lauded 2010 graphic novel, The Wrong Place. Most of us who encountered the work last year had little context for its author, but lately he’s been on everyone’s lips (almost literally, according to Pascal Girard’s recent diary comics, where Evens’ penchant for cheek-kissing and his party antics at MoCCA 2011 are recounted with fascination and bemusement). Despite what readers may think (between the setting of The Wrong Place, and Girard’s diary), Evens did not produce his lengthy graphic novel between drinks, in the bathroom of a nightclub. We’ll hear from Evens himself about work and play in Belgium, but first there’s the medieval city where his painting came to life.

I had the pleasure of visiting Gent completely by accident in 2008. Eating dinner at a squat in Amsterdam, I saw a poster for an Alternative Bookfair. On a whim, my traveling companion and I decided to go, and after locating Gent on a map (it’s in northwest Belgium), we found some hosts online and hitchhiked there a few days later. The fair was a bust, but the sleepy town captivated me completely. A river runs through the city; lampposts are topped with St Michael the dragon slayer defeating his foe; and a castle sits at city center. We walked past Sint-Lucas Visual Arts as our hosts showed us around town; “This is a very well respected art school, but I think you have to speak Dutch…” We wandered on and visited a comic shop. Meanwhile, back at Sint-Lucas, Brecht Evens was hard at work. His lengthy commitment to making comics has led him through many styles; but it was his enrollment in Sint-Lucas, and in particular the critical guidance of his mentor, the painter Goele Dewanckel, that really pushed him to explore alternative tools and methods and eventually ditch the pen for a paintbrush. In his five years of study, he went from making comedic genre fiction to a 180-page dance of characters and colors, his final school project; what we in the English-speaking world have come to know as The Wrong Place.

Evens is hesitant to call himself a part of a “scene,” citing his international outlook. However, this outlook seems to characterize a group of young, upcoming Belgian cartoonists, whose work is cross-pollinated by many art forms and locales: Evens’ former classmate and friend Brecht Vandenbroucke has found an international presence online and in various publications through the likes of England’s Nobrow Press and the Latvian anthology KUS!; former Brussels inhabitant and fellow Belgian Olivier Schrauwen is poised for the release of a full-length English graphic novel through Fantagraphics; not to mention Evens’ friend and another mentor, Randall C, whose book Sleepyheads has just been translated and released by Blank Slate. With an implicit cultural immersion in the Franco-Belgian comics tradition, access to modestly priced public arts education, and the ability to make a living through their work and state grants, these artists are able to explore their own voice and potential to the fullest. Multilingualism abounds; Evens’ own ability as a polyglot leaves almost no work unreadable and no opportunity lost. Within this framework, Evens has produced magnificent comics, of which I’m sure there are only more to come.

Born in 1986, Evens is a young artist. Part of what makes his youthfulness significant is that he belongs to a generation that grew up with the Internet, and thus one can follow almost his entire artistic formation through his website and blog, with commentary in Flemish. With online translators these days, even that is not a huge impediment. Evens candidly displays his past work in a timeline on his website, from childhood scribbles to genre fantasy to the “stoner” comics of his adolescence. Evens’ online presence certainly contributed to his international rise. The Dutch edition of The Wrong Place, Ergens waar je niet wil zijn (Somewhere you don’t want to be), was published by Oogachtend, which had already published a few of his previous works. His entry into the French market was another story. Thomas Gabison, an editor at Actes Sud BD (the comics division of a larger publisher), found Evens’ work on an American website, and followed a path of links back to Evens’ blog, where he saw images of the Escher-esque staircase that would eventually grace the cover of The Wrong Place. Evens was still in school at the time, finishing work on the book under the guidance of Dewanckel. Gabison inquired as to whether Evens was working on a graphic novel, and was shown more work soon after, at a book festival. Impressed by what he saw, and with help from the Flemish Literature Fund, the book was published in 2010 as Les Noceurs.

In Les Noceurs, characters traipse through dazzling nightclub scenes and bedrooms, appearing many times per page in a Winsor McCay like manner, foregoing bounding box and gutter. Rhythmic, gridded passages creep in and out through the book; small personal moments are foregrounded on pure white. Evens’ transparent inks layer to show movement, ambience, passions and chills, as color-coded voices are thrown across the page. His work displays both subtlety and visual intricacy, with the intent of a practiced artist.

Les Noceurs quickly gained critical acclaim, and was soon published in English by Drawn & Quarterly as The Wrong Place. At Angoulême 2011, the French edition took home the “Prix de l’Audace,” a relatively new but fitting prize for “audacious” works. Evens has also been nominated for an Eisner for Best Painter/Multimedia artist for The Wrong Place.

Evens was kind and patient as we conducted this interview via e-mail over the course of the last two months. Evens now lives and works in Brussels.

– Sophie Yanow

SOPHIE YANOW: Can you talk about your early exposure and forays into comics?

BRECHT EVENS: My sister Sara and I read and reread our Franco-Belgian comics every day after school. She’s four years older than me and she taught me to read and write. She’s a language teacher now, like my parents. I started drawing comics in kindergarten: the characters were stickmen. Sara re-drew some of these more pretty and elaborate, until I felt I surpassed her as a draftsman. After that, we still worked together sometimes, but I was a very arrogant and difficult little artist to work with.

YANOW: Which comics were you reading?

EVENS: Tintin, Suske & Wiske, Kiekeboe, Urbanus,…

YANOW: Did your parents encourage you on your path as an artist and cartoonist?

EVENS: I couldn’t imagine more encouraging, supportive parents. Also, we read and traveled a lot. My mother draws well, and my father, Jos, wrote some stories and plays, which I couldn’t bear to read (because of sex scenes written by my dad). He improvised stories to tell us on camping trips, ending every daily installment with a cliffhanger, until we became too adolescent an audience and had to switch to Whist. We even had to stop mid-story then. I think the story was about mysterious natural phenomena, omens and premonitions of we’ll never know what.

YANOW: Whist, as in the card game?

EVENS: Yes.

YANOW: So do you find traces of these early stories creeping into your work at all?

EVENS: If they have anything in common? Maybe… They were always stories about failure.

YANOW: Do you feel connected to a particular “old guard” of European cartoonists?

EVENS: They probably have a big unconscious influence, having read them so much as a kid. But now I mostly look at painters and writers — and maybe cinema, though I’m more suspicious of cinema’s influence. As much as possible I want to avoid making cinema on paper, with frames, “camera angles” and images that are photographic.

YANOW: Which painters and writers are you excited about right now?

EVENS: Lately I’ve been excited about David Hockney, Saul Steinberg and medieval/Eastern drawings, and I’m reading Albert Cohen’s’ Belle du Seigneur (for what must be months now).

YANOW: What excites you about them?

EVENS: The original forms, shapes: the tweaking of perspective to serve the picture, to show more. In Hockney and the medieval artists there’s a personal, unconventional synthesis of nature.

BELGIUM

YANOW: I want to help readers further contextualize your work a little bit. Describe a day and a night in Belgium. Feel free to take the train between Gent and Brussels.

EVENS: I take that train a lot: it’s only 30 minutes. But let’s stick with a lonelier day in Brussels. Get up around 1pm: read e-mails and ponder over occasional paperwork. Do shopping. Breathe deeply and go to the atelier around 5pm. Pace back and forth on the roof. Work picks up speed at sundown. Work loses speed around 1am. Go home, maybe a drink in the very late-night bar on the corner, strike up or avoid conversation. At home, watch series and eat. Fall asleep reading/digesting around 6am.

YANOW: You’ve mentioned your mentors in Gent, Goele Dewanckel and Randall C, were responsible for “kicking open doors in [your] head,” as well as your former classmate Brecht Vandenbroucke, and nearby cartoonist Olivier Schrauwen. How important is an artistic community to you?

EVENS: It keeps me sharp. I need people who look at my work with a skeptic frown, slightly biting their lower lip, so I too take a fresh, worried look. But it’s only natural that a lot of my friends are artists or the like, work and social life go in the same blender. Conversation in my artistic community is roughly 80% love life, 40% art (there’s overlap). I sporadically seek out Goele, my former illustration teacher, to get a proper evaluation. Randall and Brecht are important. Olivier, alas, lives in Berlin, and he mumbles.

YANOW: You went to school for illustration, despite the fact that there are many comics-oriented programs in Europe. You’ve said that you would encourage others to avoid these comics programs in favor of illustration programs. Can you elaborate?

EVENS: It’s not so much about studying illustration vs. studying comics. You need your education to give you a wide scope. In illustration we also looked at comics. You just need to find good, demanding teachers wherever they are. At Sint-Lucas Gent, illustration smelled like more of a challenge, and it was. I only started getting it right in the final (fourth) year, when I started to work on The Wrong Place. Night Animals was made before that, in 2007, and is still a bit sterile in comparison.

YANOW: I imagine “getting it right” must have involved a lot of experimentation. You drew a 24-Hour comic in between Vincent (2006) and Night Animals (2007). Was that your first “performance comic” of this type? Did it change your process on later projects?

EVENS: Which comic are you talking about?

YANOW:  I believe it was called Droom Met De Zeevruchten (“Dream with Seafood”). I know you also had a later one that was painted on a long scroll.

EVENS: Oh, yeah! It was a dream I had, with seafood as the fruits of freedom. A very tall girl in a police uniform offered me a plate and said, “Take a mussel, you have to taste it once in your life.” But the mussel got blubbery as I tried to pick it out of the shell. I’m forgetting what the question was… Ah, process! Working at high speed is a useful experiment; you stumble upon new solutions. I stopped making elaborate pencil-sketches around that time.

YANOW: So you transitioned to a more immediate way of working. What happened instead of the sketches?

EVENS: For Night Animals I started drawing directly in ink. For The Wrong Place I worked in direct color, working my way up from light colors to darker colors, making many little decisions on the way. When I make a drawing now, I don’t know what it will look like until it’s finished.

YANOW: You produced Night Animals while you were studying abroad. What was it like making work in a new environment, without the same support structure?

EVENS: I studied in Barcelona for six months. A lot of people in that class made comics, which probably helped to erase the imaginary border between comics and illustration.

YANOW: Were these students also interested in a non-cinematic approach?

EVENS: I can’t remember discussing it, but their work did not have any annoying camera-effects. In Barcelona I got to know the work of Clara-Tanit Arqué, Alberto Vazquez, Martin Romero, …

YANOW: The opening scene in The Wrong Place was based on one of your earlier short stories, which you’ve said was “more judgmental.” Can you talk about the first iteration of the story and its origins?

EVENS: The original short story was called “Waiting for Robbie,” published in Hic Sunt Leones 2 in 2007. It was what I had in mind for the rest of The Wrong Place that was more judgmental, not that first scene. “Waiting for Robbie” had only three characters, the host and two guests, plus every time the host calls Robbie you hear Robbie’s voice and enticing sounds in the background. And it had more of a gag-punch line ending.

YANOW: Your love life is clearly pretty important to you. You’ve said, for example, that the story for The Wrong Place changed drastically after you began having one-night stands. So why did this change affect the story and the way you felt about the different characters?

EVENS: Of course my love life is important to me! But I was making a broader point, I hope: I started dreaming up the book in 2006, when I was 20 years old. By the time I got to actually making the book, I had lived more nightlife and gathered more real, lived or overheard chunks of dialogue and anecdote to replace the more outlandish, noirish parts of the story that no longer rang true. And it has to ring true: you have to believe in the world your creating.

YANOW: In The Wrong Place, you’ve said you feel that the characters’ identities are often made up for them by others. Do you feel that way about your own identity? About identity in general?

EVENS: Yeah. To speak for myself, I feel like my identity is a story that me and a lot of other people made up together. Most adjectives we would use to describe ourselves only have meaning in a comparison with other people. But we should probably say ‘image’? The book has the characters projecting an image on each other, and attempting to control their own image. The image we have of ourselves and the image other people have of us interact. My father is my Father to me, a particular package. When he is with me a part of him is probably looking at himself through my eyes, and this will make him feel like my Father. While answering your questions I feel like the Author, which makes me say things like “I was making a broader point.” An hour ago I felt like the Stranger at the Laundromat.

YANOW: Can you talk about the process of drawing scenes and creating characters for The Wrong Place? Of course you needed to do some planning before painting a page, but did the story flow from exploring these scenes with the characters, or did you already know the ending when you began?

EVENS: I decided on the ending somewhere halfway. Most of the scenes were drawn right after I wrote them, which is good because with the dialogue fresh and alive in my head it was easier to get the expressions and gestures right. I think I gave myself a lot of freedom to just let the story flow from what I thought the characters would do. You can draw out a plot, then write the characters until they come alive, look back at the plot and think, “Nah, he wouldn’t,” and take sides with the character rather than the plot.

NEW WORK

YANOW: You’ve gone back to creating sword-and-sorcery fantasy comics in a strip called Idulfania. After a long break from this kind of work, what compelled you to return to it?

EVENS: I was asked to do short three-panel comics for a Brussels newspaper, for the kids’ page. The target age for these comics is 9-13, and I was easily pulled into any kind of fantasy at that age. I try to avoid making “fantasy-jokes,” parody that only refers to fantasy. But I’m all for dumb jokes.

YANOW: There definitely seems to be a tide of meta-narrative when it comes to fantasy comics these days. Do you think you’d ever try to pursue a more “adult” story in a setting like this?

EVENS: The PictureBox people, like Brian Chippendale, Lauren Weinstein, CF, are great at this. I love their work; they create beautiful worlds. I don’t think I’m going to do a story in a fantasy or SF setting, but in a way the disco in The Wrong Place already is a fantasy world, an infinite, impossible building, like the spaces in our dreams.

YANOW: Have you had exposure to a lot of “alt” comics creators from the U.S.? Is it easy to get this stuff over there?

EVENS: Yes, as far as I know. We have good comic shops.

YANOW: Could you describe the themes or story of your next long book, The Making Of?

EVENS: It’s about events taking place at a small-town art festival, and it’s a more plot-driven story. But the same things have excited me this time; searching how to arrange things on a page (how to “show everything”) and showing people behaving in ways. There’s a lot of plants, that’s why I was looking at David Hockney and the Eastern art.

YANOW: Your comics often take place at parties or festivals; you’ve done plenty of fun experimental comics and you’ve also participated in what I might call “comics concerts,” where you draw while a band plays. How important is “play” in your work?

EVENS: Work is like play, serious play. When a kid plays he’s pretty serious about it. I like what Lynda Barry says about this, about “deep play,” where the puppets come alive. And another thing I read about play, about computer games, also applies: That the fun is in the right proportion of new challenges and doing what you already master.

YANOW: Why is the new project called The Making Of…? Do you usually name your projects before they’re finished?

EVENS: Yes. Someone in the book takes pictures of the buildup to the art festival; she documents the “making of.” And the word has a wider resonance.

YANOW: You received a grant from the Flemish Literature Fund for your last book. Will they continue to help you for the publication The Making Of…?

EVENS: Yes. I can work on the book almost full-time, thanks to another grant.

YANOW: How has your creative process changed for this story?

EVENS: I made a complete storyboard beforehand. (A decoupage, how would you call that?) And then changed most of it in the process of drawing, but with that storyboard to start from. It was fun, making that storyboard.

YANOW: You’ve been nominated for an Eisner. You’ve already received the relatively new prize for “audacious” works from Angoulême. What’s your reaction to these awards and nominations?

EVENS: It’s encouraging. And I love to tell my parents, who keep press clippings.

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