Panther by Brecht Evens

Panther Brecht Evens

A lot of children’s books are pretty creepy when you think about them. Many of them involve child abandonment or characters who seem whimsical on the surface, but reveal themselves to be agents of chaos. Think of the Cat in the Hat. He’s funny, but also incredibly destructive and unsafe. The new graphic novel by Brecht Evens takes the unsettling nature of many children’s books and turns that up a notch. But interestingly, he never tips it over into pure horror. Everything remains unnervingly ambiguous. It’s a horror story told as a children’s book.

Panther is about Christine who lives alone with her father. Her sickly cat, Lucy, has just been put to sleep. Into the midst of this childhood sorrow, held by a larger sorrow connected to her missing mother, steps the spotted form of Panther. Panther charms Christine and seems to be the answer to her loneliness. But from the outset, his predator’s eyes and ever-changing visage let us know that things are far from okay. Then Christine’s stuffed animal Bonzo goes missing, obviously connected to the appearance of Panther. Bonzo returns, but is it really Bonzo? And why doesn’t he corroborate Panther’s story? Events culminate in Christine’s birthday party, where Panther invites a few more of his friends into Christine’s world. Like the new Bonzo, none of them seem to know what is appropriate to say and do in front of a young girl.

The art here is really gorgeous. The color choices harken to the primaries of children’s books, but they are often paired with murky blacks. The effect is art that is both vibrant and unsettlingly dark. The focus in Panther is much tighter than in Evens’s previous books, so there is not as much breadth of setting and character. Yet in some ways, the character of Panther makes up for that by his constantly changing form. He is usually recognizably a cat, but the style shifts. Many times, the style echoes that of some children’s book artist, but it also changes to match the mood of the dialogue. The changes are beautiful, but also unnerving. They make you feel early on that Panther is not a creature to be trusted. There is something dishonest about his very appearance. Then there’s Panther’s dialogue. The sickly green cursive shows both his desire to sound refined and the rotten, ingratiating nature of his speech. He is desperate to charm Christine. Whenever he says something that she doesn’t like or that disturbs her, he changes his story immediately. And yet, we get the idea that he truly cares for Christine in his own way. The question is: what is his intention? But this begs another, deeper question. From whence does Panther come? Is he from inside Christine herself, or her version of a real person in her life, or is he a denizen of some fantastical world?

Panther shares a bit in common with Evens’s earlier short story “Bad Friends” in Night Animals. That story also involves a young woman, though older and just entering puberty. It also involves a growing cast of fanciful characters who become increasingly bestial and lecherous. Yet Panther doesn’t follow a clear trajectory. While things definitely get more and more out of hand, the character of Panther seems to want to try to keep control of events and protect Christine even though he is the one introducing the chaos into her life. Also, “Bad Friends” is more obvious about what happens to the main character. While Panther does show things, it still remains ambiguous.

This ambiguity means that Panther is less satisfying in terms of plot. The story opens up more possibilities than it answers. On the one hand, this lets the reader figure things out. Again, is Panther Christine’s creation or the mask of an abuser? On the other hand, this ambiguity means there’s less to hold onto. Yet the beauty of the art makes me want to pick up the book again and again and try to unlock its secrets. If they can be unlocked. What Evens has managed to do is create a tone that hovers between the creative joy of childhood imagination and the unfathomable terror of barely contained amorality. The fact that most the book walks that line without falling too heavily into either camp makes for a captivating, if completely unsettling, reading experience.

The Making Of by Brecht Evens

I was pleasantly surprised by Brecht Evens’s previous book, The Wrong Place. When I first saw his beautiful color work, I was worried Evens was like many of those fine artist types who want to create comics but who have no sense for character and plot. Luckily, I was wrong. The Wrong Place demonstrated some supple and subtle characterization. This remains true with The Making Of. The cast is wider in this book, but none of the members fall into simple categories. Nor does the story itself.

It’d be easy to say this book is the tale of a fiasco, a moral fable about artistic hubris. The main character, Peterson, definitely thinks he is more important of an artist than he is. This is made clear from the beginning. Yet the amateurs in the art festival he’s invited to look up to him. Maybe it’s a case of a one-eyed man being king in the land of the blind, but the excitement Peterson inspires is real. Even if it doesn’t result in much practical effect.

And so this is an artistic document about creating art that ends up with no art being created. Yet this book hints at the idea that the final product may not be the true function of art. To complicate that though, the hope that the characters feel is expressed in trite inspirational-poster phrases. Still, the enthusiasm expressed by the characters overpowers the cynical eye with which we can look at them. Yes, this is a comedy and we laugh at these characters. But in the end, the innocent earnestness of their endeavor is the dominant emotion in the book.

Visually, Evens deepens the style he presented in The Wrong Place. Characters are represented by limited color palettes or single colors, and these colors are used in their dialogue. This makes it possible for Evens to dispense with word balloons and yet always make it clear who is speaking. He also tends to use a half or full page to establish setting, while leaving the individual panels without backgrounds. This allows the dialogue and character movements to have priority while making the establishing panels all the more striking. In some cases, they look like watercolor paintings one might find in an art museum. This could, of course, be taken as a thematic connection to the story, calling attention to art while presenting a story about art. Either way, it’s an effective approach and the sense of space in The Making Of is clearer and more specific than in The Wrong Place.

Overall, it’s clear to me that Brecht Evens is one of the current must-read comics artists. Not only does his work open up new possibilities for the medium, it manages to just be a good read. What more can one hope for?

***
I really like this review of the book by Michelle White.

pilot namiki soft extra fine

So I got a new pen.

pilot metal namiki soft extra fine sapphire

I have been on a quest to find the perfect sketching pen, and gradually I’ve been acquiring more and more expensive pens. Enter the Pilot Namiki.

pilot namiki metal soft extra fine sapphire

This pen is often referred to as the Falcon, but that name is nowhere on the packaging. The pen I purchased is not the resin body nib, often called the Elabo, but the metal body version. This makes the pen very solid, which I prefer. It’s also slightly bigger than the resin version. The nib is a 14 karat rhodium-plated gold nib. Some people have complained that the nib is a bit scratchy and it isn’t as smooth as my Platinum DP-1000 AN, but the nib offers a lot more line flexibility.

This is why I splurged on this pen. The flexibility it offers is very controlled and the line returns immediately to its normal width once the pressure is taken away. So it is responsive yet sturdy. The pen feels like it will last a long time. And the metal body makes it feel very solid to write and draw with. So far, it’s always worked as soon as Ive started using it. I’ve never had to wait for the ink to load. Also, it doesn’t matter how fast I move the pen, I never lose the line. I was using a Lamy Safari (which is a nice all-around pen) for check writing awhile ago and noticed that when I wrote my signature I lost the line. The pen couldn’t give me ink fast enough to keep up with my hand. Well, I don’t have this problem with the Pilot Namiki.

pilot namiki platinum dp-1000 an lamy safari

Looking at the image above, the Platinum DP-1000 AN has a thinner line than the Pilot Namiki. Yet I’ve found the Platinum line is sometimes a bit too thin and it doesn’t offer much variation. And the biggest problem with the Platinum is its leaking. So far, I haven’t experienced that with the Pilot Namiki. I’m about to take it to Yosemite so we’ll see how it handles the trip and the altitude change.

The pen I received came with a Pilot Con-70 ink converter, which is bigger than the Con-50 which comes with the resin model. I’m using Platinum ink in mine.

Anyway, I love this pen. It is so fun to use. I love the weight of it and the flexibility of its line. It’s not as flexible as a dip pen, but for a portable fountain pen, it’s really nice. And yes, the nib isn’t as immediately smooth as other pen nibs, but that hasn’t bothered me. This is just an awesome pen that I’m finding myself taking everywhere.

I got mine from The Goulet Pen Co.

Apica Premium C.D. Notebook

Apica Premium CD NotebookI just finished a notebook that I’ve been using for almost an entire year. It’s an Apica Premium C.D. Notebook. I’ve talked about how much I like the Apica notebooks (here and here), but I think this one is the best. It has the same very smooth, but thin paper that all the Apica notebooks have. Yet the paper is even tougher and can stand up to heavier layers of ink. The paper is not really good for ink wash or watercolor, but thicker gouache is fine. But really, it is outstanding for pen-and-ink. Highly, highly recommended.

You can get one from JetPens or The Goulet Pen Company. The size I have is a B5. It’s a little bigger than a standard comic book.

How to hold a dip pen

Not like this.

When I was learning to play trumpet as a kid, I was told to never let my cheeks puff out when I blew. But take a look at almost any picture of Dizzy Gillespie. What do you see? Huge, puffed-out cheeks. So watch out for being too precious with the “rules” that you hear. Yes, you should listen to the advice of those who came before you, but “rules” are just lessons that another artist learned to help them create. The goal of all these rules is to eliminate potential problems that might hinder you from doing the art you want to do. But if those very rules are getting in your way, then you have to break them. However, breaking rules won’t make you a great artist, just as obeying all the rules won’t.

That being said, pen-and-ink can be an unforgiving medium at times. I remember lots of moments of frustration over the years and most of those could have been avoided if I had known the correct way to do things. Most everything I learned was through trial-and-error, including how to hold my pen. But I’ve seen a few photos and videos recently that have shown me very different ways of doing this. So what is the correct way? (hint: the first paragraph is a spoiler)

In the classic pen and ink book, Rendering in Pen and Ink, Arthur Guptill says that you should “hold the pen naturally, much the same as for writing” (21). So basically, hold a dip pen the same way as you would hold any writing instrument. Yet he warns you to “keep your fingers far enough back from the point to prevent them from becoming daubed in ink, and above all, don’t cramp your fingers tightly onto the penholder.” George Carlson says basically the same thing:

George Carlson how to hold a pen

This seems like sound advice to me, yet the manga artists showcased in How To Pen & Ink: The Manga Start-up Guide all hold their pens choked way up on the holder. Here’s Oh!great:

And look at Nightow Yasuhiro here. He’s choked up so far his finger is on the nib itself:

These are professional manga artists so obviously this way of holding a pen works for them. That being said, I would really not recommend holding a pen this way. I saw Jeff Smith talk at the TCAF a few years ago and he said that when he was done with Bone he had a slew of health problems, all of which stemmed from a rigid drawing posture. I want to be able to draw till I’m old, so I don’t want to develop cramped habits that may cause problems later. So take Guptill and Carlson’s advice and hold your pen in a relaxed, natural way.

For instance, I rest my pen on my ring finger with my index and middle fingers on top. Yet I’ve seen other artists rest the pen on their middle finger. I don’t think either is “right;” it’s just a matter of what feels comfortable to you.

The more important consideration is the nib’s orientation to the paper. In general, the pen should be angled at about 45 degrees. This will vary as you draw, but you should never hold the pen completely perpendicular to the page. Not only might the ink drip out, the tines of the nib are more likely to catch and send a spray of ink. Basically, if you rest your hand on the page, the angle from the height of your hand to the paper makes for a nice working position for the pen. I recommend having some kind of blotter or other piece of paper beneath your hand so that you don’t smudge your drawing or get your hand oils on the drawing paper.

Also, the pen needs to be in a position that you can draw with it. And I mean draw in the sense of pulling. The nib is made to be pulled down the page in the opposite direction of the tip. Never push. Not only will you get ink splatters, but you may also ruin your nib. Some nibs can be moved sideways, creating very thin lines. But the drawing motion unlocks the full potential of the nib, allowing lines to swell from hairlines to broad strokes. Catherine Slade shows this in her Encyclopedia of Illustration Techniques:

All kinds of how-to videos exist on YouTube and they vary widely in quality. In one video, the artist Dan Nelson holds his nib completely upside down. This seems to work for him and it does allow him to get very thin lines. Still, it goes against the very intent of a nib’s design. If a nib is upside down, you can’t use pressure to vary the line. Basically, it would be like drawing with a rapidograph, which means you are depriving yourself of the expressiveness in your chosen tool.

Overall, there is a lot of variation out there in how artists hold their pens. What we are all looking for is that sweet spot where things feel comfortable but where we are also accessing the full potential of our instrument. And in the process, not developing bad habits that keep us from creating or even harming us in the long run.