Are You Headed Straight For Failure, Friend?
What Stevens doesn't seem to know is how to create sequential art without rendering almost every panel with such accuracy and meticulous draftsmanship, such a multitude of natural shadings and crosshatchings, such seemingly OCD perfectionism that a reader's mind begins to boggle.
Why, a reader might wonder, would a man spend so much time doing this when such autobiographical material can be successfully rendered with the sort of minimalism purveyed by, say, Chester Brown or John Porcellino? These are comics being created here in Stevensville, after all. These are definite sequences of action, not just some random series of disparate figures with word balloons added. So why … I mean, a reader – a viewer – is glad to witness the results of your painstaking inky labor … but, as the man who's doing all this intense work … are you out of your mind, dude?
"I was blown away by Rembrandt's etchings when I encountered them in art school," says Stevens, "and since then I developed a notion that comics could reflect that same kind of mix of technical prowess and ethereal warmness. It would give weight, I believed, to the stories, making the drawings more integral and abstracted in the process. Also, Scott McCloud – and later Matt Madden and Jessica Abel – warned us against that drawing style because it made the work look too static. It sounded like a challenge to me, because those Rembrandt etchings don't look static to me at all.
Wait, maybe that is crazy."
Note: Not all of Karl Stevens' work is autobiographical. Some of it comes from almost journalistic observation – observation commanding the same precision & insight with which the man wields his pencils and pens and watercolors in depicting it. And the work is often funny, too: It's whimsical and arch and fucking hilarious at times, in the way that Kevin Smith's Clerks was hilarious the first time you saw it, the way your young stoner friends struggling through college can be hilarious even when they're vomiting on your sister's shoes.
The Whatever collection of strips and portraits was released through the former incarnation of Alternative Comics. What we're mostly concerned with in this blogpost is Stevens' latest volume, Failure, which comes to us through the current incarnation of Alternative Comics. Although maybe "concerned with" is too hifalutin' a phrase. It's just that we're Stevens boosters here at the Austin Chronicle and this is the newest thing he's done and we want to pimp it to you.
Because aesthetic appreciation.
Because this is the shit they're talking about when they say shit's getting real.
Failure is a collection of two years of Stevens' comic strips from the (dearly departed) Boston Phoenix altweekly newspaper. It's much like his previous work from earlier Phoenix runs: "Achingly familiar scenes from the lives of twentysomething artists and assholes, dreamers and drinkers, lovers and losers. Change the faces, that's you and your friends right there, that's me and mine – but with an arch whimsy sufficient to cut any angst to manageable splinters." And that's what Failure offers, too, in 160 full-color pages as squarely formatted (8.5" x 8.5") as a tiny pizza box: Just the sort of thing you want lying around your house or apartment to distract you, several pages at a time, from the potentially hungover but definitely mind-numbing bullshit of another quotidian day.
And so, yes, Failure is highly recommended. But we can't play favorites here, because each of the collections of the artist's work boasts similar qualities, each set of strips-and-panels-and-portraits hums with a similar demeanor (even when not comprising a single narrative arc as does Guilty's chance-bus-stop-meeting-of-a-pair-of-romantic-exes), each volume is worth adding to a solid library of graphic literature. Whatever is no less recommended, nor is Guilty, nor is The Lodger, nor – we're suspecting – the project Stevens is currently working on with Dylan Horrocks. It's just that, see, this new book from Alternative Comics is the man's most recent success.
And so we invite you to celebrate Failure with us. Maybe over a few rounds of indie beer somewhere. Maybe with a couple of naked artist's-models and a domestic feline dressed up in a pope hat. This town isn't quite the suburbs of Boston, but … no matter where you go, right? Here you are.