Don’t confuse Panther, the new graphic novel making its English-language debut from Drawn & Quarterly, with the heroic Black Panther at Marvel. For that matter, don’t confuse this colorful book and its mischievous title character with Calvin & Hobbes, or any story for children.
Panther is the story of Christine, a sweet little girl whose cat dies. But she gets a “new” cat in the form of Panther, a shifting, smiling being from a magical land, who tells her fantastic stories. Gradually, it becomes clear that Panther and his friends are anything but benevolent, and this tale is not going to have a happy ending.
The book’s combination of colorful, elaborate design and genuinely unsettling ambiguity have already earned it widespread acclaim since its initial publication in Dutch. With the English-language version out this week, Newsarama talked to its author, Brecht Evens, who previously created such works as The Wrong Place and The Making Of, about the roots of this tale, imaginary friends, and much more.
Newsarama: Brecht, where did the initial inspiration for Panther come from?
Brecht Evens: Years ago I had a girlfriend and we lived together. One of the games I came up with to amuse her, or rather to scare her and amuse me, was to incarnate an ever-expanding host of creepy characters.
There was Otto, a little man in charge of cleaning the nipples of the dancers in a seedy 1920s Berlin nightclub. Olaf, a mute goon who just sat in the corner of the room rocking back and forth before suddenly lunging at her with flailing arms. Roberto, an oversexed Latin lover, shirt wide open and legs twisted like a satyr's. Frank, sort of an American accountant/tourist who fell in love way to easily.
And Panther, who ended up in my sketchbooks.
Nrama: How long did the book initially take to complete?
Evens: A year and a half, I'd say, with a one-year bipolar hiatus in the middle.
Nrama: The book's been out for a while outside the United States. What's been the most interesting or meaningful reaction you've gotten to it so far?
Evens: I'll give you two: First, the lady who returned her book to the shop, declaring it an apologism of pedophilia, zoophilia and incest (I disagree with the incest).
And a small child who had me sign the book, and when I asked if he found anything troubling about the book, just said it was sad when the house cat dies in the first chapter.
Nrama: How did you come up with the different shapes for Panther - what were some of the points of reference in terms of real life or illustration?
Evens: There's some old Chinese drawing in there, a lot of Disney, some Calvin & Hobbes, some Neverending Story, some Cheshire Cat, but mostly a whole lot of improvisation.
Nrama: And I'm curious about the characterization of Panther, how you conceived that - I've been calling him "The Cat in the Hat as Humbert Humbert."
Evens: I like it. The character seemed to present itself wholly formed. But there was a general intention of making a children's book where the imaginary friend turns into a monster, and the monster only gets worse, does not turn out to be a friend, as do the monsters in Where the Wild Things Are or Pan's Labyrinth.
Nrama: Tell us a bit about your artistic process for this - how you chose the format and color palette.
Evens: I chose the oblong format because it makes it look more like a children's book. I set a rule for the colors – only shades of red and blue when Panther's not there, and when he turns up he adds his signal color, yellow, completing the palette, making all colors possible. I hoped this would help to make the reader miss Panther when he's not there, like Christine does.
Nrama: What were some of the most challenging sequences to render, both in terms of design and content?
Evens: I set out to make the book visually interesting as a huis clos, without using a lot of decor, saving the decor for dramatic moments, and with mostly only two characters in dialogue. The spectacle had to be mostly in Panther's expressions, movements, and the endlessly varied shapes he morphs into, telling the story with his body.
This actually turned out to come pretty naturally. What ended up being the challenge was maintaining the visual interest once all the other characters start creeping into Christine's room, crowding out Panther. And to bring the rising tension to some kind of climax, some moment of truth, or more lies.
Nrama: Did you have any imaginary friends when you were a kid, and if so, can you tell us about them? I really, really hope they weren't like Panther.
Evens: I had no imaginary friends. I was always the one true God in my imaginary worlds.
Nrama: And what are some of your all time favorite children's stories, dark or otherwise?
Evens: Maybe The Neverending Story, where the whole point is that the fantasy world is spread out endlessly, with an endless variety of creatures and adventures. I would definitely count Peter Pan (much more than Alice in Wonderland), even though I read it as an adult. Where the Wild Things Are was one. There was a children's book with a timid boy who for a day becomes bigger than everyone and better at everything.
I read all kinds of things just because there were swords and medieval stuff in it. It’s a long list and I would have to dig deep.
Nrama: What are some other comic books and creators you're enjoying lately?
Evens: Lately I would say Antoine Marchalot and Nina Vandenbempt. And definitely be sure not to miss Arsène Schrauwen, the latest book by Olivier Schrauwen.
Nrama:What's next for you?
Evens: I'm working on a sizable book called The City of Belgium – this time with a f***load of decor and meanderings. It has sort of a “shared universe” with my older book The Wrong Place.