Have you ever revisited things that used to frighten you as a child? Often, they end up being sillier than you remember and you wonder how you ever found them scary in the first place. Childhood is full of such contradictions, where one's wild imagination and lack of worldly knowledge and experience can imbue normal concepts with a menacing aura. In Brecht Evens' graphic novel Panther, this idea is expounded upon and explored thoroughly.
The story begins with a little girl named Christina coming to terms with the death of her beloved cat Lucy. While grieving in her bedroom alone she meets a mystical cat who calls himself Panther (though he is actually a leopard), and he tells her magical stories from his homeland Pantheria. What starts out as an innocuous relationship between a seemingly friendly imaginary friend and a young child coping with loss slowly transitions into a dark and unsettling situation. The fact that a leopard refers to himself as a panther already shows that he is capable of being a liar, and he continues through the entire book to show signs of manipulative and narcissistic behavior. There are ghosts of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are (1963), but it is not nearly as whimsical or reassuring.
Panther delves into the realm of magical realism quite often, and it reminds me of the universe of Gabriel García Marquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1970) because of its propensity to shift over to darker themes. Panther himself is quite the devious cat and it's heartbreaking to watch him exploit Christina's naiveté and good-natured intentions. There are hints of sexual exploitation, not full on rape, but more suggestive and symbolic. This could be taken as a metaphor for the young girl's sexual awakening as well, but it is incredibly unsettling. The narrative becomes even more frightening when Panther's "friends" decide to pay Christina a visit for her birthday party, as they are quite bizarre and shady. Of course, this could all be taking place inside Christina's imagination, but Evens leaves everything just ambiguous enough that it could go either way.
Evans' art is absolutely sumptuous and I have not seen anything quite like it in a comic book format before. It looks like Picasso's Surrealism period but with influences from modern cartoon artists and animation. Panther's face and form changes constantly and he morphs from affable to sinister in an extremely fluid way. He probably has over a hundred different forms and facial expressions on this story and it's amazing to witness the transformations. There are also no panels to separate the story beats and everything melds together into one cohesive painting only separated by pages. the colors are fantastic as well--lots of amber and red dominates the palette. Sometimes Evans' uses stark black and white pages to punctuate certain scenes and it's always surprising when it pops up. I found the lettering to be interesting as well, because everything Panther says is written in cursive which correlates with his overly fancy way of presenting himself.
While the presentation of the graphic novel may look like it's a simple children's story, do not be fooled. It's as ominous as any Grimm's Fairy Tale and may leave the reader with a sick feeling in their pit of their stomach.