Friday, July 26, 2013

The Imitation Circle: The Making Of

Belgian cartoonist Brecht Evens has carved out an interesting career to date by eschewing line and instead focusing solely on color to form that backbone of his comics. His most recent book, The Making Of (2012 Drawn & Quarterly), is a book about artists and artist wannabes (and really, everyone in this book is an artist wannabe whatever their reputation might be) where Evens differentiates them less by forms and shapes (though those are present as well in surprisingly subtle ways) and more by a particular bright watercolor. The story is a classic farce: a struggling painter, jealous of the success of his peers, is invited to a small Belgian country town to create a piece for the town's biennial celebration. His comrades for the art show are a group of amateur locals, most of whom have limited ability. As the big fish in a very small pond, the regard he gets starts to go to his head a bit as the piece he intends to create taxes the abilities and interest of his fellow artists. That's pretty much it as far as the plot goes, but Evens is always more concerned with scene and character than story.

Evens has fine comedic chops. The artist, Peterson, is pretty much constantly thwarted by life; it's as though Charlie Brown grew up to be a fine artist and somehow managed to grow an ego along the way. Going to the town of Beepoele is like that one time Charlie Brown drew the admiration of an entire summer camp's worth of kids, to his constant wonderment and even bemusement. Of course, in the case of Peterson, he eats the attention up with a spoon, as the townspeople trip over themselves to make him feel welcome. That includes a sexy teenaged girl who volunteers to document the making of their art piece through photography and is more than willing to throw herself at him. The scene where they finally hook up is deftly set up (as they leave behind Leslie, a local who has essentially become Peterson's shadow) and hilariously interrupted as a real disaster befalls their piece. Evens could have used any number of approaches to tell this story, and it still would have been funny.

However, the approach that Evens chose is what makes this book so interesting to look at. Every character is depicted with a single color, carefully brushed on to each page. Kristoff, the man running the biennial, is a nice ruddy red, which sets off his huge frame and hands nicely with dot eyes. Leslie is blue and ghostly, with an elongated head. The damaged artist Dennis is a mostly brown smudge. Peterson himself is a translucent green, and he looks elfin with his slightly pointy ears and long sideburns. Evens uses a gridless open page that allows the characters and events to flow and seep into each other. When Evens wants a hard stop or to really get the reader's attention, he suddenly pulls back and puts the characters into a dense, rich realistically painted setting. Indeed, Evens repeatedly shows the reader that the most beautiful thing in the town is the actual setting: the trees, the flowers and its people. It's very much the same principle as the common practice of using iconically drawn figures up against a realistically drawn background. Peterson is the emperor with no clothes, as his idea of a worthy project (a giant garden gnome) is denounced by a clown (!) as kitsch, before Peterson "corrects" him. The only worthwhile thing Peterson does in the whole book is calm down the artists after the gnome gets ruined and makes them feel good about their efforts. In a sense, he's trying to convince himself of this as much as he's trying to convince them.

What I like most about this book is that Evens turns the notion of art imitating life on its head in the way he depicts his characters. It's as though this comic was about the figures in a static painting coming to life and interacting with each other on page after page; eventually, the novelty of this wears off as the reader becomes completely immersed in Evens' approach. The fact that this "painting" is about artists creating art, trying to think about art and understanding how and why art is important to them further complicates that art/life circle, with the proper response (in Evens' eyes) being to do a send-up of art and artists. That said, it's a gentle and affectionate send-up, where even Peterson gets a bit of redemption. Incidentally, I thought the way he used the teenager, Cleo, was quite interesting. Far from a simple doe-eyed groupie, she has real agency as a person and in many ways is the most successful artist in the town. The final sequence of the book, where she dresses up as a flight attendant at the senior center for which she volunteers, shows her commitment and devotion to a performance that actually makes a difference. This is simply a beautiful, funny and humane book that shows Evens really showing off his chops as his style evolves and matures.

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