“Say you don’t know me or recognize my face, say you don’t care who goes to that kind of place”
This comic is a few years old (from 2018, it appears), but it’s new in English, so there! Evens is Belgian, but other than that, the title of this book has no relevance – the city in which it takes place is not named, and the only place that is named is Berlin, where one of the characters is moving. But that doesn’t matter, does it? It’s set in a big city, and that’s all we need to know! Evens begins with Jona, who’s leaving for Berlin in the morning to join his wife, who’s already gone there to start her new job. He can’t wait to leave, but he decides to call all his friends to have one last night with them … but they all bail on him, so he decides to just take a walk. He ends up at a restaurant, where Evens introduces us to the two other main characters – a woman named Victoria and a man named Rodolphe. For the rest of the book, he follows these three characters on their separate adventures through the city. They don’t actually officially meet, but their lives do intersect vaguely as they go. Finally, the morning comes, and everyone moves on with their lives.
So, plot-wise, there’s not much. But that doesn’t matter, because Evens does so much with everything else. I’ll get to the dazzling art, but the way he gives us the story is interesting, too. I’ve long been a fan of fiction in which people simply talk … as long as the talk is interesting. My Dinner with Andre is probably the classic example of this, and I like that, but I’m partial to Mindwalk, a 1990 film in which John Heard, Sam Waterston, and Liv Ullman stroll around Mont-Saint-Michel talking about deep topics™, and one of my favorite books is Vox, Nicholson Baker’s smut book which is simply a phone-sex call that lasts forever. So I’m a bit inclined to like a well-written comic in which a bunch of characters sit around and talk. There’s a bit of action in the book, as the characters get involved in some sketchy stuff, but none of it lasts very long and none of it feels too serious (in terms of escalating; some of it has a great impact on the particular character), but generally, it’s just Jona, Victoria, and Rodolphe wandering around the city and meeting people. But Evens is far more interested in these interactions than any action, and the conversations the people have in this book are superb. Jona sits down with two people he doesn’t know and chats with them for a while, then he meets Buzz, a guy, we eventually learn, who was his cellmate in prison. Buzz is the kind of personality who overwhelms people, and he drags Jona around the city looking for drugs and girls for most of the rest of the book, and we slowly learn that Jona has secrets that he doesn’t want to deal with. It’s interesting watching him throughout, because he’s somewhat pathetic, and the fact that he managed to get married seems like the only bold thing he’s done in his life, and it’s clear he’s conflicted about that, as he seems to be trying to sabotage his own happiness throughout the book. Victoria, meanwhile, is out with her sister and two friends, a married couple, and we learn soon enough that she and the man used to be lovers. Victoria is a bit unhinged, and as she gets drunker, she gets more manic, until her sister tries to have her taken away to a hospital. She manages to “escape,” however, and goes on an adventure with a woman she doesn’t know very well but is willing to indulge her behavior. Rodolphe, it seems, was once the life of the party, and when he meets a friend at the restaurant, she talks about how much he’s grown up, but when she leaves to go home, he goes on a wild bender, reverting to what we assume is his “old life.” Evens ends the book with him on the beach in the morning, talking about life with an old man. Each of these people is damaged in some way, and they’re trying to figure their lives out, and Evens does a marvelous job bringing that out slowly and subtly as they navigate the city. They’re all scared of growing up, and Jasmine telling Rodolphe that seems to act as a catalyst for him, as if unconsciously, he just can’t handle it. Victoria sees her ex-lover happily married and can’t handle it. Jona thinks about his future isolation in Berlin, away from everything he’s known, and he’s not sure if his new wife is enough for him. But Evens does a clever thing, too – despite the surface happiness of the characters when they cut loose (Victoria and Rodolphe especially, as Jona seems harried from the moment he hooks up with Buzz), there’s that tinge of sadness and desperation – Victoria scratches her own palms obsessively, while Rodolphe sheds clothing as he moves through the night and the city until he ends up on the beach, naked and alone. Evens does a very good job mixing the highs and the lows of the night, so that even when the characters are enjoying themselves, there’s some sadness there, and even when they get depressed, there’s beauty there. It’s a very good portrait of life.
Evens doesn’t focus solely on the three main characters, although their stories are what he follows. Whenever they interact with others, Evens makes sure to give those characters interesting and unique personalities, too. Buzz seems like a typical thug, but he has odd depths that come out at certain times. Michael, Victoria’s ex-lover, has a long quasi-monologue about a zombie project he’s thinking about, which has a funny pay-off. Rodolphe meets a man called Sultan at the restaurant, and in only a few pages, he makes an indelible impression. Jasmine, the woman Rodolphe is at the restaurant to see, also disappears from the book early on, but she has a big impact on Rodolphe. All three characters end up in the same taxi at different times, and the driver is extremely eloquent and lies constantly, which makes for some nice caesuras in the main action. The book is packed with these fascinating characters, and Evens does a wonderful job bringing them all to life.
His art helps, as well, as it’s dazzling. He packs every page with amazing details and color, creating astonishing perspective to force entire buildings onto the page so he can show how the characters move through them and how crowded they are. In every crowd scene, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of characters doing their own thing, and just by the way they dress and are interacting with others, Evens implies an entire life for them outside the pages. His main characters are marvelous-looking, each with their own unique style. Jona looks like he’s trying too hard to fit in with the cool people, while Buzz is a hulking dude who doesn’t care about damaging the landscape. Victoria has beads braided into her hair, and she gives off a deliberate Cleopatra vibe. His details are exquisite, as the city is a living, pulsing creature, full of weird clubs and restaurants, gorgeous lighting, and odd shops. His most interesting artistic journey is with Rodolphe, who’s wearing a superb suit and hat at the beginning of the book but becomes more Dionysian as the comic moves along, his clothing becoming looser and freer and finally non-existent, his hair haloing out from his head like a sun (and, at one point, literally catching on fire), and his face becoming more and more manic. It’s an impressive achievement in a book packed full of them. Wherever you open the book, you can see something interesting – the way Evens uses negative space to contrast the cheery lighted areas with the darker corners of the city, the black-and-white pen drawings that make Rodolphe’s blazing red stand out more, the amazing clothing he puts on every single person – and it’s a pleasure to simply randomly open the book and just examine whatever page you happen to see. It’s a beautiful comic.
The City of Belgium is truly a stupendous book. Yes, not much “happens,” but you can get a big stupid plot anywhere, can’t you? It’s so interesting following these people around as they try to figure out their lives, and Evens does a wonderful job not allowing them to figure it all out, because that would be too easy. We get a bunch of people that would be fascinating to hang out with (maybe not for too long, but for a while!) in a city with seemingly endless possibilities. The art is stunning, and even more endlessly interesting than the story. Give the book a try!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆