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Belgian graphic artist breaks with comic tradition

By Madeline O'Leary

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - 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 across Belgium.

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' 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 in 1959.

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 favor of vaguer, more psychological themes.

"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 Strip Centre.

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 Wrong Place".

His new style consisted of broad swathes of color 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 color."

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 change it.

"I wouldn't be happy with the feeling of pedaling in place," he said.

(Editing by Sebastian Moffett and Paul Casciato)

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