Emanata: “The Wrong Place” and “Hewligan’s Haircut”

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There’s scarcely a black line to be found in the Belgian cartoonist Brecht Evens’ graphic novel The Wrong Place, which is a little bit startling. It’s almost entirely executed in watercolors and ink-wash–blobs of color floating in space. There are no panel borders: some panels just sort of fade into the page, others end at a particular invisible line. There are no word balloons: as with David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, most of its characters are associated with a particular color scheme, so Evens attributes their dialogue by lettering it in their respective dominant colors. And there aren’t many lines-as-contours–there are no specific boundaries between one person or thing or place and another, which ends up being vital to the way the book’s story unfolds.

(More on Techland: Emanata: Bad Alchemy)

The plot concerns a pair of near-opposites: the sexual lightning rod and bon vivant Robbie, who floats through life casually commanding the adoration of everyone around him and being talked about for his absence as much as his presence, and his friend Gary, a near-nonentity who’s lost hope of ever achieving his desires, and now only longs “not to have to want anything.” Most of it takes place in social spaces–a party and a club–and the density of color Evens gives each character seems to suggest how much fullness and gravity they have in those particular spaces. Robbie barely appears until a third of the way through the book (aside from a couple of set-pieces where other characters are describing his radiance), but when he turns up, he’s painted in solid, electric shades of blue, becoming the focal point of every image in which he appears. And Gary is scarcely even present in the world: he’s painted in translucent gray shades, so dilute that we can see through his body.

It would be easy enough for Evens to be taking sides–Robbie and Gary are both exaggerated types, and there’s more than a bit of observational satire in the way he paints their worlds. But it’s a nice touch that he perpetually tries to humanize both of them. (Robbie’s not really a blowhard, just very charismatic and sometimes a little bit creepy; Gary’s not really a schlemiel, he’s just a basically good guy who’s been crushed by degrees.)

The most impressive parts of The Wrong Place are the set-pieces where Evens gets to play with color and transparency: a public park where some people are wholly commanding their space and others are barely shadows, a strobelit nightclub where everyone’s melting into the colors projected on them, an oppressively empty room set up for a cocktail party. There’s a remarkable sex scene in the middle of the book in which the brushstrokes that form the bodies of Robbie and his paramour don’t melt into each other the way clothed bodies do elsewhere in the book. Instead, their forms seem to shake apart, finally unraveling into colored pencil lines that twist around each other near the space of their intersecting bodies, his always blue, hers always red.

(More on Techland: Emanata: Adam Hines’ “Duncan the Wonder Dog”)

Color is also one key to Hewligan’s Haircut, a new collection of a brief, absurd serial by writer Peter Milligan and artist Jamie Hewlett that originally appeared in 1990. The portmanteau-named title character is in a mental hospital at the beginning of the story, and gives himself a peculiar haircut with a pair of plastic scissors–a gigantic, waving pompadour with an enormous hole in its middle. When he gets out of the hospital, he discovers that his haircut has caused the world to go “out of tune,” which is to say that everything’s vividly ceased to make sense.

As in a lot of Milligan’s other comics, the idea of madness is a license to pour anything and everything onto the page, and Hewlett–who’s probably best known to Americans as the co-creator of Damon Albarn’s band Gorillaz–signals the shift from the quotidian world to unlimited possibilities by switching from black and white to supersaturated, psychedelic color. That’s the Wizard of Oz scheme, of course, but Hewligan returns to the black-and-white world at one point, then retreats into his colorful derangement again.

Still, even Hewligan’s maddest hallucinations (and the early MAD comics are, in fact, a major antecedent of Hewlett’s artwork here) are bounded by the black ink lines that signal “cartooning.” Those omnipresent contours developed out of the requirements of mass-produced printing when modern comics were young, and they’ve stuck around–the literal lines that separate one form from another. (Any artwork that uses color inside black outlines is either comics or alluding to comics.)

In one scene near the middle of Hewligan’s Haircut, Hewligan and his girlfriend Scarlet O’Gasmeter (don’t ask) suddenly turn into Cubist versions of themselves, geometrical color-forms whose contour-lines have partly disappeared, then Andy Warhol-style versions. Finally, they escape into white space–“could be a real timid art dimension,” Scarlet explains–and make their getaway by drawing the outline of a door. That timid art dimension is comics, of course, and both Hewlett and Evens’ approaches to their medium suggest a few ways in which it might become less of a Gary and more of a Robbie.

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