Brecht Evens' gorgeous pamphlet Night Animals is one more entry in the Little Nemo column: a surface-level book that hints frustratingly at greater depths which prove difficult to actually access. Night Animals is a bedeviling thing, a sex comic that obviously wants to be a lot more than just porn, but offers up an oddly brusque take on sex and sexuality. The comic is split between two wordless stories, the first about a rather schlubby man's quest for a bed partner, and a second, slightly longer one detailing a very young girl's sexual awakening. The simplistic treatment of deep themes marks it out as a young man's work (the artist is 24, and was 21 when this material was first published in Belgium), but it also carries the energy of youth, a vigor of craftsmanship that makes up in large part for the almost careless quality of the story content.
The greatest appeal of Night Animals is undoubtedly Evens' art, a strongly compelling fusion of fanciful Edward Gorey linework with an almost S. Clay Wilson-esque impulse for sprawling vistas and maximalist composition. If that mixture sounds appealing, Evens' work is almost definitely for you; if not, well, you might still want to give it a look. Myself, I found Evens' elegant pen-and-watercolor cartooning a real treat, always certain of its forms and careful with their placement, but loose and spontaneous in the application of the actual media they're made of. Evens' lines are too frenetic and clustered to be called "slick," but they never cross into messiness, either. There's a jittery, tightrope-walker control at play in the pages' scratched black marks, a push and pull between wildness and grace that at its best recalls a young Robert Crumb.
The coloring is similarly accomplished, and it functions in a far greater capacity than the simple adornment so many black-line cartoonists relegate it to. Evens shows a refreshing willingness to draw in color rather than merely shading with it, and the result is something much more tangible than most color comics art. Evens brings a very light touch to his chroma-blasted scenes, creating deep shadows and brilliant glows by brightening and darkening the values of the single tones he spreads across the pictures. Page by page, Night Animals is fairly monochrome, blacks drowned variously in red and yellow and blue, but the cumulative effect is a rich full-color one.
Evens seems to understand his strengths well enough, and he keeps his pages moving, with a complete change of scenery taking place over pretty near every page turn. The book's title might be a cute euphemism (for, um, "people who have sex," I suppose), but there is no shortage of actual animals between its covers -- clay-yellow swamp rats and crocodiles slither through subterranean sewer kingdoms in long trails of delicate hatch marks, blue fish-women and octopi float through waves of watercolor, and crimson monsters straight out of Ralph Steadman people the depths of the forests after dark. As environmental-exploration comics this is good stuff, full of fantastically designed creatures that keep the eyes roving around the corners of Evens' double-page spreads for great lengths of time. It's as sexual allegory, which is a difficult thing to accomplish with even the most gorgeous art, that the material shows less surety of purpose.
The first story, the man's story, is so simple and straightforward that it seems more a vehicle for Evens' drawing than anything else. A chubby bald guy zips on a fluffy rabbit costume for the night, produces a bouquet of flowers, and begins following a series of glowing arrows that lead him through a night club, into its toilets (literally), down the sewers into the sea, up a cliff face and through a woods, down an underground tunnel, and into the waiting arms of a cute girl in a bunny-eared headband and a cotton-tailed leotard. Whew! It's rather insubstantial, but pleasant and visually engaging, and though the point of the thing doesn't have much more to it than the average Playboy cartoon -- look at what we fellas'll go through just to get to a willing gal, I tell ya -- it's constructed well enough to feel worthwhile.
(It is interesting to note, though, just how closely the pages of the rabbit-suited man squirming through dark tunnels resemble a similar scene in Josh Cotter's Driven By Lemons. Night Animals was first published a year in advance of Cotter's book, and it was only available in Europe until now, so it seems quite unlikely to be case of either artist ripping the other off -- but it's still odd to think that protracted sequences of burrowing rabbit-like humanoids are one of those ideas that are "just in the air.")
The second story has much more meat to chew on, and it's where Evens' casual treatment of sexuality begins leaning away from innocuous and, if not directly toward problematic, at least closer to that general territory. A prepubescent schoolgirl is suddenly struck by physical maturity in a body-transformation scene that recalls Winsor McCay at his most animated, complete with elegantly numbered panels, and which culminates with the onset of her first period. From her stuffed-animal-surrounded sickbed she's whisked away by none other than The Devil Himself to a dark forest full of nightmarish creatures in the middle of a wild sex party. The girl joins the furry throng and is promptly stripped, painted with bright red designs, and... well, the last thing we see before she disappears forever is a giant hummingbird-man with a two-foot-long erection rushing at her, but it's not too hard to guess. The remaining pages show the girl's parents discovering her empty, menstrual-blood stained bed the next morning. Police and dogs search the forest. Nothing is found.
It's a cold, cynical ending to a book that until its last few pages seems concerned only with presenting idiosyncratically drawn Roald Dahl-ish sex farces -- a sudden note of pathos that's hardly earned, but memorable nonetheless. While the piece's storytelling could certainly benefit from some added subtlety, it's neither exploitative nor didactic, the two traps sex comics fall into most frequently. This is no Alan Moore screed about the wonders of teenage sex and the prudes who would keep anyone from experiencing them, but it's not a moralistic condemnation either. The girl's wild joy at her erotic awakening is as clearly present as her distressing fate; and there are no words anywhere to tell us how to feel. The audience must make up its own mind, and if it feels a bit like a cop-out, it's better than something that tries to be both sexy and preachy.
As a visual object, a pure sense experience, this is very successful work, enthralling and gorgeous in a way not many other comics are. I'd argue that surface beauty is the most important thing for a sex comic to carry, but Night Animals reaches for more, and it's unsatisfying at the deeper intellectual level it seems to want to engage readers on. Still, it's an immersion in something very pretty and very weird and occasionally even thought-provoking, which is a lot better than most comics manage. No instant classic, but certainly worth a long look, or two.