Drawn & Quarterly ($29.95)
by Jeff Alford
Like a metropolis of vampires, this city comes alive at night, and we join Brecht Evens’s cast of miscreant wanderers in its bars and streets as they stagger towards oblivion, clarity, or a blur between the two.
An intoxicating, meticulously painted graphic novel, The City of Belgium is a technicolor carnival, a visual and formal masterwork that confidently upends conventions with its dazzling artistry. The story takes shape on pages soaked in watercolor and riddled with the clamor of roiling nightlife. Multicolored figures are drawn in what looks like a runny, felt-tip pen layered over the wet base. Packed bars and overbooked restaurants come alive in painstaking detail: checkered floors, floral wallpaper, and sartorial patterns are all lavishly illustrated. Shadows speckle the streets like reanimated ghosts, semi-transparent but bursting with vivacity. The story unfolds without panels or any traditional framing, Evens instead allowing loose scenes to recalibrate repetitively over a white background until their action gets swallowed by densely-rendered, full-page spreads, brimming with woozy marvel.
A web of protagonists emerges, many costumed as if en route to a gala. They each feel like archetypes in some theatrical pastiche: Victoria, dressed in a beaded wig like a Hollywood Cleopatra, grows restless and anxious during a night out with her sister and friends and unravels in the club bathroom; Buzz, a hulking ex-con, attempts to find a stable path forward but struggles with vices and memories from his past; Rodolphe, dressed in a Cordovan hat and a wildly patterned smoking jacket, seeks to shed his shell and find a new beginning; and Jona, the faded party boy, looks for one last memorable night before he leaves town for good. Brilliantly, all the characters are color-coded: each is drawn in a particular palette and their words are written in a unique, complementary hue.
Visually and textually, The City of Belgium is a work of decadence. Page after page of stunning artwork land like endless courses of a Michelin-starred tasting menu, any sense of stylistic temperance lost in the moment. The book’s sumptuous visuals parallel its characters’ tendency to over-indulge, and these intersecting themes create a work that is self-aware and intentional about being too rich and too potent, simultaneously about excess and an excess in its own right.
Evens continues to over-serve and over-stimulate his readers as his characters fall apart. An unshakable loneliness creeps into each of their threads: Jona has no one to party with on his last night in town, Rodolphe leaves a dear friend to wander the night in solitude, Victoria shuts herself away as her anxiety wrestles with (and loses to) her drunkenness. And while this may appear to be a story about desolation and destruction, Evens is careful to pull back from that brink and position The City of Belgium as a hopeful tale instead.
Ultimately, this is a book about gaining perspective and finding a way to see the togetherness that’s inherent to even the most solitary evenings. Evens wants us to expand our sights and notice everything around us at all times. Late in the novel, two characters philosophize about their place in a “city of millions! . . . on a planet of billions! . . . in a universe with billions of planets!” “That’s right kid,” one explains, “We contain multitudes. The voices of a thousand generations. Everything is recorded in us, all the time and for all time.” “Did you know,” he continues, “our molecules are connected to molecules all the way on the other side of the universe? All are but parts of one stupendous whole.”
The Where’s Waldo-esque over-saturation of the visuals in this book isn’t simply there for wow factor; it’s a reminder that there is so much going on in a single moment, so many lives buzzing along in tandem. In one scene, a dollhouse cutaway shows three floors of the club Disco Harem: a bustling open-kitchen restaurant on one floor, a piano bar on another, and, between them, an orgy taking place in a packed, red-lit room, its occupants literally drawn over each other in various states of sordid overlay. To Evens, this decadent beauty is the neon pulse of capital-L Life, for better or worse. Lonely, grimy stories unfold alongside beautiful, glittering ones, colliding at times like drunken, spinning atoms.