BRUSSELS Dec 10 Comic artist Brecht Evens
decided to break away from the traditional comic strip images of
clear lines and pencil sketches developed in Belgium more than
half a century ago.
After surviving at first on government subsidies, in 2010 he
produced a graphic novel featuring vibrant watercolours and
smudged scenes of sexuality and riotous nightlife, with
characters blurred into their surroundings.
"The Wrong Place" - a graphic novel about the angst-filled
night-time escapades of Robbie, a mysterious party animal -
became an international success and made Evens the darling of
the new wave of experimental comic artists currently sweeping
Traditional comics "seemed limited in what they could do and
show", 26-year old Evens told Reuters. "They couldn't suck you
in and just looked like toys laid out, or puppets."
His new style "lends movement and hustle and bustle".
Evens's success comes as graphic fiction, or comics, search
for a new direction.
Traditional comic strips - with speech bubbles and clear
pencil lines giving shape to the characters - are seen as
old-fashioned. Even though they have die-hard fans in Belgium,
that market is declining and was anyway tiny.
In big comic markets, such as Japan, South Korea and the
United States, fans have long since moved on to new media,
starting with television and now taking in smart phones and
tablets. But these new media have flopped in Belgium, as readers
are attached to the book-and-picture format.
Without new styles, the industry will not survive, says
Johan Stuyck, professor at the Sint-Lukas School of Arts in
Brussels and publisher at Oogachtend in Leuven.
"Those who stick to the old fashioned way of making comics,
they are doomed," he says. "They will disappear."
Reverence for the past is perhaps unsurprising in a country
with such a glorious history in comics.
Georges Remi, who worked under the pen name Herge, created
Tintin in 1929 while working at Belgian newspaper Le XXe Siecle.
"The Adventures of Tintin" series became an immediate
success and remained a top seller until the 1970s. "Spirou", the
eight-page weekly magazine that disseminated comics to the
Belgian public and gave artists exposure, was created in 1938.
Belgian artists pioneered the use of clear black lines to
outline characters precisely and make them stand out against the
background in the earlier half of the 20th century. Belgian
comics went through another boom with the advent of the Smurfs
But when new electronic and animated media emerged from the
1980s - and Hollywood eventually turned Tintin into a movie -
Belgian artists largely shunned the new forms, as their
conservative readers at home weren't interested.
Recently, however, Belgian artists have innovated in their
own ways. Traditional comics required solid plots, like Tintin's
traditional, documentary-style. For strips appearing in
newspapers, artists had to provide a daily cliffhanger.
These are now disappearing in favour of vaguer, more
"Artists used to think more about their audience, what will
work and what won't work," says Koen Van Rompaey, general
director of Strip Turnhout, a Belgian comic festival. "Artists
don't do that anymore. They do whatever they want."
They no longer stick to orderly strips to arrange their
stories. And they sometimes don't outline their figures. That
leads some illustrations - like Evens's - to lack structure and
clarity, giving them an appearance of modernist paintings.
"Some are just drawing without tracing," says Stuyck. "The
text is not necessarily put in balloons. It's experimental."
The new experimental styles are commercially risky, and
publishers need to be patient with new artists. Most first works
flop, selling just a few hundred copies and losing money.
Success often comes only with a third book.
"Without those first two, the artist wouldn't have made a
third," says Stuyck. "The publisher must take risks."
Even then, the Belgian market is saturated, with comic book
production at a historic high, even as overall sales decline.
Around 800 professional comic artists currently live and work in
Belgium, says Willem De Graeve, director of the Belgian Comic
One source of support is the Flemish Literature Fund, which
provides government grants for illustrators working on the
national art form in the Dutch dialect spoken in the northern
half of Belgium.
"Without support from the Flemish Fund, this new wave of
Flemish comics would not have been possible," Van Rompaey said.
"It would have been five to 10 percent of what it is now."
During his final years at art school, Evens survived with
help from this fund as he struggled with early drafts of "The
His new style consisted of broad swathes of colour with
minimal line work. He then adds details in a series of layers.
"There are no pencil sketches. It differs from traditional
comics because the lines and surfaces are independent," he says.
"Traditionally, artists will make a pencil sketch, then trace
over it in ink and add detail, then add colour."
Critics loved "The Wrong Place", which has been translated
in six different languages, placing Evens in the elite group of
young, experimental Belgian artists that achieve more success
globally than locally.
And now Evens has found a winning formula... he's going to
"I wouldn't be happy with the feeling of pedalling in
place," he said.
(Editing by Sebastian Moffett and Paul Casciato)