Panther by Brecht Evens. Translated by Laura Watkinson and Michele Hutchison. Drawn & Quarterly, 2016. 9781770462267. 120pp.
Gene: Evens is a Flemish graphic novelist, one of the two I’ve read books by, and he’s is the more upbeat. I love his The Making Of, which is the story of an artist who goes to a small town to help put together an art exhibition. Evens’ art, which I want to show you before starting to talk about this book, is see-through. He uses transparent inks or watercolors — I suspect he uses ink because I don’t see watercolor texture much, but that could just be the paper he uses.
Sarah: But yeah, you can see through things.
G: When I first looked at his art, it looked insane. It was visually difficult to make sense of, it was hard to tell what was happening. But then I fell in love with it. It adds a level that I don’t know how to explain, but it’s beautiful in the way it shows bits of a scene that would normally be hidden behind other bits.
The other thing that Evens does, each character has a different color. There are no word balloons in his comics —
S: Oh! Their words are spoken in a matching color.
G: So I love his art but it took me a few tries to fall in love with it. But when it clicks, you’ll agree he’s a genius.
This book is creepy as shit. There’s another book Drawn & Quarterly put out called Beautiful Darkness, which is all the little cartoony creatures that live in and around this little girl’s dead body in the woods (which isn’t overly emphasized or gory). Very strange but creepy, and it’s kind of a kids book about darker things, so it reminds me of this book.
So back to Panther. Here’s the girl Lucy trying to get her cat to cheer up.
S: The scene — things are see-through, so you see through her legs. It’s almost like a cutaway where things are still there. It’s this weird flattened almost Escher-esque feeling to tesselations and stairs.
G: You look at it and ask yourself, “What’s going on there?”
She goes to her room to cry alone for a bit and out of her drawer comes a magical panther.
S: It’s terrifying! It’s wearing a suit jacket and a bow tie.
G: It’s scary looking. “Are you crying little girl I heard crying?”
He says he’s the Crown Prince of Pantherland. Asked how he got into her dresser, he says that panthers go wherever they please. He knows her name. She wants to know how he knows her name. He ignores her.
S: …while smoking a cigarette in a long holder.
G: He kind of tries to charm her with dancing, but he swings her around too much and makes her sick. Then he lays down with her and tries to look as cute as possible. The Panther will say anything to make her like him. He’s in her room alone with her. I kept asking myself if this was a metaphor for abuse. I read it a few times and I’m still not sure. It’s not an obvious book.
S: Oh my god!
G: He tells her stories and tries to comfort her, telling her about Pantherland. She asks if there are bad guys there, and he goes on and on about how the mermen there can drag you down into the depths where you can’t breathe. After she says mermaids are good he backpedals a bit. And then he tells her about the real bad guys, the meat men who, if they catch you, will pull your skin inside out and make you one of them. Then he curls up around her and watches her while she sleeps. He’s gone in the morning.
I don’t have a better pitch for this other than to say that it’s got all the creepy parts of old kids books. Every time I’ve picked up an old Oz book, I feel like I’ve hit an “oh my god!” moment. “Why did they put THAT in this kids book?” This has that quality, like the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales — it feels like something terrible is going to happen. And it sustains that sense throughout the whole book. It’s really hard to read the Panther’s intent…
S: There are parents who don’t want their kids to read books that have content that’s emotionally difficult or frightening or that shows the world is not a perfect place. But there are kids that need to read that because it’s their experience. I can think back, and I don’t know what caused it, but I’d get some terrible dread in the night and didn’t know how to tell anyone about it. But I saw that reflected in books because my parents didn’t keep me away from those things.
G: My daughter would have loved this when she was about five. She would have eaten it up. We’d have talked about the meat men a little and maybe drawn them and it would have been fine. She would have both liked and been creeped out by the panther.