Saturday, November 20, 2010
When I was in Angoulême last year, the best looking book I found at the festival was Brecht Evens’ The Wrong Place. It was in French, but that was okay; it was just so beautiful, I didn’t care that I couldn’t fully understand the story. I read it backwards and somehow I got it. I think. Something about friendship. Painted in watercolor, this book really grabbed my attention. It was soft, but very powerful. Charming, but without too much fancy. Very direct drawing, painting, and proportions. Very skilled.
So, it was with great pleasure I read the new translation of the book in English and loved it. I was hoping the story would match the execution of the art.
Thankfully, there is a match. Art and story content are both on equal footing.
The story concerns a group of friends and their attachments to each other. Specifically everyone’s attachment to Robbie – who seems to be a heroic dancing fool who can charm the pants off anyone. There’s a party at a boring apartment owned by Gary, the boring party host. Everyone, including lots of cute girls, wanna know where Robbie is. So after sitting around we switch scenes to the Disco Harem where Robbie hangs out. Robbie is indeed there and the story takes off.
Robbie is definitely a charming fool and we are treated to a visual showcase of exquisite skill when the author Evens lets us see Robbie at work. He picks up a girl in the disco and takes her on a carriage ride with musicians and then off to bed where Robbie gets back in the saddle with the girl. The author mixes tight sequencing with panoramic views and fleshy close-ups – all in gorgeous watercolor. Quite a sight to behold. Evens is really good. And so is the story.
There are different POV’s and stories within stories – but essentially it’s about the contrast between Robbie and Gary. The way the different POV’s are introduced and weaved into the story is interesting. One of the POV’s is female – and she, of course, is the girl Robbie picks up at the disco. It’s an interesting narrative device that provides a wider, clearer picture of the story and the contrast between the male leads.
It’s a very European story, and I mean that with respect. It’s less a story about an individual and more about a group. There’s something mythic too at work here. Robbie feels like the god Pan. And Gary is the poor human who pouts while watching all the pretty nymphs fool around with satyrs. Maybe that’s a stretch, but that’s the feeling I got. There’s something archetypal to the story that I really like. It’s about adulthood and play and responsibility and creative thought. Myth.
Brecht Evens interview – images in gallery below – scroll down
1. Would you describe your working method a little bit? Are you composing directly with watercolor? Do you make preliminary studies for the pages? The pages seem very controlled and emotive at once.
Brecht: I make a small linear thumbnail sketch before drawing, to see where to put the most important elements. Then I take a relatively wide brush, and repeat this sketch in big strokes on a big sheet of Steinbach paper. Now it’s a very crude drawing, but light in tone (I mostly use ecoline, a transparent color ink). Then come many subsequent phases of detailing, starting with the space and the light. Every new layer is darker or more opaque than the one below. When drawing an interior, especially dark interiors, I will leave the light sources either white or a very light hue. A lot of the shapes and figures are drawn this way, by darkening the background around them.
I spend much more time staring at the drawing than drawing, to spot possibilities hiding in the unfinished image. Rough shapes are combined with fine detail. I avoid coloring in a line drawing, or drawing a contour around a shape that is already there. Ecoline’s transparency allows for many things to stay visible even though they’re in the background; A handsomely patterned floor will still be visible in the finished drawing even though the room is bustling with people. ‘A man with a hat’ will be drawn as a hat with not much below it, ‘a women in boots and heavy makeup’ will have those two things shown in detail, and the rest of her body only suggested. Especially when drawing people I avoid realistic shadows and highlights, unless it’s relevant: for example, an african face is defined by its bone-structure, the nose, cheekbones.
This approach felt like a leap from my earlier work. When I look at the drawings, the fun I had making them is still very palpable, and I like how it contrasts with the bitterness and awkwardness in how the characters interact most of the time.
You could say there’s three phases in developing a drawing style. You start with experiment: The purplish traffic scene just after the prologue was the first drawing deemed usable, and it felt entirely new while I was making it. Then comes method; consolidating your trouvailles and applying them for a reason. They become part of a toolbox. Then there seems to be a more joyless phase of applying all these things because they have become a second nature, trademarks – a style. Style seems to be made up of all the things you repeat without thinking. My illustration work suffers more from this than my comic-book-work. I’m making a new comic book, so I try to avoid this reflex.
2. Composing color. I like how you assign colors to characters and to their dialogue. Would you talk about that a bit?
Brecht: This is a code, which makes it possible to do more of the above. A character can become a graphically unobtrusive splotch of color and still be recognizable. You can even not draw a character and have the color of the text still make it clear who’s talking.
3. I also notice you don’t use word balloons. I think this takes away the problem of the balloons obscuring the art or creating floating shapes in the artwork. Have you always worked that way with dialogue? I think it works very well. Although there are times when it is confusing as to who is speaking.
Brecht: I’ve started doing it for this book. It does become confusing, when you have many people speaking and the reader starts having to distinguish between red and oxblood. The book requires a powerful night-light.
4. How did you structure this story? It feels organic as though you made it up as you went along. But it seems to also be divided into halves. There is the scene at the house and the scene at the club essentially. Does the structure tie in with the duality of the main characters at all? To me, there was a rhyme there between the two places, the two friends and the two halves of the book.
Brecht: The book is not driven by a plot. It mostly shows off the characters’ behavior in different escalating scenarios. I didn’t work with a detailed storyboard for this book. The nice thing about that is that most scenes were freshly written out when drawn, and thus vivid in the mind. But it might also be the biggest weakness of the book. I do use a storyboard for my next book, which makes me compose more tightly and avoid repetition. It has one tension arc whipped along by little scenes, while in The Wrong Place the chapters are like short stories – long scenes with their own internal story arc.
The first chapter of the book is static: It takes place in Gary’s living room, his world, where the chairs, party snacks and wine-glasses are neatly arranged. The second and third chapter (I think that’s your second half) take place in Robbie’s world, an outsized night club where he twice takes someone on a joyride ending in separation and anticlimax. This allowed for a lot of play with the changing decors, the infinite spaces of the night club.
5. How did you go about editing? It seems with painted comics such as yours there must be some difficulties when editing because of the sheer work involved.
Brecht: Yeah – you want to do your editing beforehand!
6. I really enjoyed the way you would transition from grid page designs to organic double page spread designs. The sense of place and movement; the movement of the characters was blended nicely and didn’t feel “regimented” or claustrophobic. Would you talk about the way you like to design pages in regards to the story?
Brecht: A grid page allows for rhythm, for a precise timing of the characters little movements and utterances. A big spread emphasizes the setting, the flow of characters moving about in it, the bigger experience.
I make square, filled images when the atmosphere and light is important, and when it’s about how a character moves I like to have it clearly silhouetted against the white of the page.
7. And lastly would you talk about the characters? I think there is a mythic feeling to the story. Robbie is sort of Pan, satyr-like figure, no? One who inspires revelry and beauty and his counterpoint is, of course, Gary. Would you talk about the way you adapted this type of story to a modern stage?
Brecht: Mythical and fairy tale-ish resonances do creep in. One reason is that Disco Harem looks like an Ottoman palace, and the people in it are dressed in a retro style inspired by the Flemish nightlife (I was living in Ghent) where you’ll see a lot of high heels, vintage dresses and nonchalantly worn costume jackets. My then-girlfriend dreamed up a lot of the outfits, so the book shows of her vintage taste.
Another reason is that Robbie is introduced as some sort of party hero, clad in myth, also for the reader who first meets him through stories other people tell about him, and never gets to watch him when he’s alone. This creates a distance, an unattainability, and it’s a vicious cycle: these stories make people project that mythical figure on him, it changes their behavior when they meet him, which makes it easy, and imperative, for him to take on that role. The same goes for Gary, who has a sad scenario written out for him by other people. The characters’ identity is mostly made up of other people’s quick decisions.
This is the subject of the book, which is a bit deterministic in that it has people wrestling to climb some social ladder, only to slide back down (or halfway down) to their assigned place on it, the wrong place.