As a child, I could never understand my brother’s love for Hergé’s clean lines and Tintin’s bland personality. No matter how swashbuckling the hero’s adventures, the crisp aesthetic seemed antiseptic. I holed up instead with issues of Mad magazine, delighted by its chaotic variety and its unsparing sendup of all the things grown-ups took seriously.
Still, how could any Belgian graphic novel escape Tintin’s shadow? Decades later I discovered Brecht Evens’s The Making Of (published in Flemish as De Liefhebbers and in French as Les Amateurs). In contrast to the muted precision that came before it, this work’s vibrant colors swoop and swirl across pages and through bodies. The book’s exuberant style enables Evens to satirize the art world while also leaving room for a sincere appreciation of art’s capacity to generate unlikely solidarity.
All Evens’s books evade easy categorization. In the US, the line from Art Spiegelman to Chris Ware is still very much a straight one. The American market remains dominated by the graphic memoir, a genre solidified by male artists whose stories are their own, whether routed through family members or thinly veiled alter egos. Evens, who won the prestigious Angoulême Festival’s Prix de l’Audace in 2011, stands outside these conventions, inventing small armies of characters and splashing his inks across every hard edge. Though he may stand apart from any traditional lineage of graphic texts, Evens’s allusions to iconic artworks run throughout The Making Of, a metafictional book about art and its making.
While he occasionally sections his pages into panels, Evans’s images usually crowd and bleed together. Multiple discrete scenes give way to full-page paintings of an idyllic countryside, rendered in dots that might have been done by a drunken Seurat. Here, a brightly color-blocked scene of wildlife that calls to mind Henri Rousseau. There, a finely detailed spread that evokes the Unicorn Tapestries of the late Middle Ages.
The book’s main character, Peterson, is a moderately successful artist who has been invited to participate in a biennial held in the tiny village of Beerpoele (as it turns out, he’s the only professional who’s responded to the village’s scattershot invitations). The festival’s organizer, Kristof, a friendly beefsteak of a man rendered in swathes of red, plays the enthusiastic amateur, aided by a band of village misfits. A pinkish clown named Dirk wears a faded harlequin costume and makes balloon animals. Blue, bulb-headed Leslie spins earnest tales of UFO sightings. Dennis, a mustachioed solipsist, obsessively draws spirals. Peterson, vain, sleazy, and painted in a liverish shade of green, sets about to create something great: an enormous, papier-mâché garden gnome that he declares to be “a figurative work, which in its context, Beerpoele, is not only iconic, but also ironic.”
Evens’s watercolors and ink washes are the perfect medium to extol and incarnate art as process rather than as object.
Because The Making Of begins as a sendup of the art world and the hubris of artists, Peterson’s gnome making does not go according to plan. While he’s in an awkward tryst with local teen Cleo, the gnome is swept away by a rainstorm whose force gathers on the page like the Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hokusai’s Under the Wave off Kanagawa. Up until this point, the novel has been largely sardonic. But after the climactic deluge, the book heads in an unexpected direction.
Peterson consoles his crushed collaborators by reminding them that it’s the making of art, rather than the finished project, that holds the most meaning. “And that’s really why we do it, isn’t it? For ourselves? Because it does us good? Because we have to do it?” he asks. “Like breathing!” Though Peterson has been guilty of vanity and narcissism throughout the novel, his affection for the collective process here is heartfelt. It echoes, at the end, what bluff, civic-minded Kristof declares from the start about the making of art: “I love the way you start with people from all different backgrounds and lots of them don’t know each other, but they all share the same dream, and they go for it together, and then the old human chemistry gets to work […] you become a solid unit, a single entity.”
Evens’s watercolors and ink washes are the perfect medium to extol and incarnate art as process rather than as object. In interviews, Evens proclaims his love for watercolor since “at any given moment, there’s a lot of mess in there and, for me, this kind of mess has to stay in.” Vainglorious Peterson thinks art should obscure the incidence of its making, should delete the local flaws of its makers. But Evens uses paint’s translucence to literalize the messy commingling of characters, sites, and objects. When Kristof places a giant red hand on Peterson’s green shoulder, the lines of that shoulder remain visible through the outline of the hand, the colors bleeding together. This is a visual dialectic: ironic green and earnest red collapsing into one another to give us a glimpse of what collaboration looks and feels like.
Still, an epoch of strife is not readily replaced by tidy communal cohesion. Take the case of Dennis, whom Kristof describes as “a bit … different.” Dennis appears inked in a smudgy brown, has long shocks of hair, speaks in all capital letters, and wears a jumpsuit covered in the spirals that he paints on every surface. To prevent Dennis from ruining Peterson’s project, the team builds him a large plywood box—a cage of one’s own, alas—that he can decorate as he pleases. When Peterson enters and asks Dennis why he always paints swirls, Dennis replies, “THAT IS WHAT I ALWAYS SEE EVERYWHERE,” before declaring, “THIS IS MY SPACE AND YOU GO AWAY NOW.” While the spirals are an expression of Dennis’s illness, they are an arguably more neurotypical motif than an oversized garden gnome. They are dynamic, entrancing even, expressing what scholar Nico Israel has observed in a century of whirled images: “The idea of growth and the pleasures of play.” These spirals continue spinning outside the imagined community readers might be tempted to take as emblem of the book’s successful resolution.
There is a second twist, at the book’s conclusion, when Evens shifts our final gaze to 17-year-old Cleo, in her job at a nursing home. We find her dressed in a flight attendant’s uniform, pushing a cart of refreshments, and telling the “passengers” in her care that they are about to land in Mexico. Standing against a projected image of palm trees, haciendas, and Mayan temples, the care center’s other employees don sombreros and welcome the frail residents to “Mexico City, Aeropuerto Benito Juarez!” Evens does not present this scene as tragic or trite, but as an earnest feat of transportation and transformation. Dwelling just outside the ego and agon of art’s fate, the book’s final pages are a double, heavily inked spread in which the outlines of musicians’ arms merge into a colorful phantasmagoria of plants, birds, and butterflies. Unlike both Dennis and Peterson, Cleo makes her vision come true for the audience. She is invested in the making of an imagined community, rather than new aesthetic objects. Cleo’s ability to invent spaces, to conjure a world into being, is not tethered to art critics’ standards, to the rules of realism, or to those forms of self-making that shape graphic memoirs.
Rather than guiding readers through the tidy contours of a Hergé comic, Evens’s technique—the visual euphoria and messy abundance of his images—immerses readers in a primal, joyful world. The satirical wit of Mad kicks this anti-art fable into motion, but the brokenhearted utopian logic of the satirist takes Evens beyond the confines of adolescent protest, to a place saturated with color, where characters literally overlap as they come together. Here, art is not just made, but made visible in its making.
This article was commissioned by John Plotz.
Featured image: A page from Brecht Evens’s The Making Of