Zine Scene: Night Animals

Night AnimalsBrecht Evens: Night Animals (Top Shelf, March 2011, $7.95)

Equal parts Edward Gorey and Where the Wild Things Are — surreal and yet completely honest — the newest work by Belgian graphic novelist Brecht Evens makes one hell of an impression without saying anything at all.

Night Animals, described on its title page as “a diptych about what rushes through the bushes,” charms with two very different wordless stories. In the first, a man waits to meet a blind date and is compelled to search for her through the sewers and underground, encountering a vast array of monsters that live there on his way. The second follows a young girl as she undergoes puberty (all in one day) and is later kidnapped by similar monsters for a wild party in the woods that soon turns sinister.

The first story, “Blind Date,” playfully recasts the uncertainty of waiting for an unknown woman into an epic quest involving sewer diving, spelunking, and fending off various beasts. Ultimately light and funny, it contrasts sharply with the second story’s comparative darkness. In “Bad Friends,” a young girl gets her first period during the school day, and while feeling ashamed later at home, is carried off by monsters. A bacchanal ensues in the forest, celebrating her new-found womanhood, but the monsters’ dark intentions leave the reader with a final sense of dread.

It seems fitting to use the word “phantasmagoric” for Evens’ sprawling, intricate visuals, considering his debt to the many artists that the label has also been applied to, and his obvious debt to most of them. His pen drawings obviously recall Gorey, as mentioned, or Tim Burton’s doodles, and even some more creative children’s books (although a celebration of a young woman’s first period would likely not be found in most of those).

Night Animals

Evens is a major talent in his own right, though. His monsters fill and crowd each page, draw the eye and draw the reader in, and some panels, such as the final scene of each story, are frighteningly evocative and will stay with you for days.

The use of watercolor is also worth noting; it sets Evens apart from the legions of pen-and-ink scribblers that he could otherwise be compared to, and it shows his knack for highlighting certain moments and creating a tone with color. Each page of the first story features a watercolor wash with varying tones to pick out details, while the second uses red paint judiciously in an otherwise black-and-white world (red is, in the context of the story, at turns ominous, frightening, and empowering). There is so much to look at on each page, but color helps to clarify and organize the narrative each step of the way.

In his past works Vincent and The Wrong Place, and in the variety of artwork to be found on his website, Evens has cultivated a fresh, personal style that also draws upon childhood associations for the reader (the man of the first story wears a bunny suit, undoubtedly a reference to the similar costume in Where the Wild Things Are) and reminds us of how terrifying and striking those early stories are. His collection of illustrations online reveals the same mixture of color, dreamlike imagery, and simplistic shapes with enormous attention to detail.

Night Animals

In Night Animals, a sure step forward in the development of his style and career, it seems that Evens has found a narrative structure that both fits his intriguingly vibrant artistic style and, crucially, overcomes the need for translation with touching graphic stories that should feel immediately accessible to anyone, anywhere.

Top Shelf Productions has found a real winner in Evens, who has already received acclaim in France and his native Belgium. The March release of Night Animals might help him find some here in the US as well.

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