Interview: Karl Stevens
Karl Stevens might be the closest thing to a Charles Bukowski equivalent working in comic art. Except Stevens is way classier, and Bukowski couldn’t draw his way out of a paper bag if the last shot of whiskey on Earth hung in the balance.
Stevens’ third graphic novel, The Lodger, compiles selected samplings of Failure, a semi-autobiographical comic-chronicle running weekly in the Boston Phoenix since 2009. Just as Bukowski wrote about writing and drinking, Stevens draws and paints his everyday goings-on with methodical attention to detail.
Most recently, The Lodger has earned the exalted designation as finalist for the 2010 LA Times Book Prize in the graphic novel category. Not too shabby for a vivid portrayal of Jamaica Plain bohemians drawing, painting, drinking, dating, eating pancakes and walking the dog. Stevens fielded some questions from TOB over beers at James’s Gate.
TOB: I can’t think of another comic strip with a visual style based in realism.
Karl Stevens: There are comic artists who use that style, but they’re mostly in the superhero genre, which seems silly. Superheroes don’t exist, but they’re drawn realistically. I’m definitely pretty alone in the “slice of life” genre. It’s strange. All the books I’ve done have gotten a lot of critical praise, but publishers don’t know what to make of them. Not to sound pretentious, but it’s like any industry where you’re doing something outside of what other people do. There’s some uncertainty as to how well it will sell.
Also, superheroes can be drawn realistically because they’re really hot. Your characters are mostly average-looking.
I’ve fantasized about trying to get work on a superhero comic. But I’d rather draw things I want to draw, like me sitting around, or naked girls. It can be fun to draw Wolverine beating up Sabretooth, but doing it for 24 pages and six panels per page seems like a lot of work.
Do people you hang out with ever ask if they’ll end up in Failure?
All the time. Especially friends I’ve already put in a strip. They’ve asked if I’m going to put them in again. Sometimes I do. The process has grown kind of weird over time. Recently, I’ve just kept a notebook and written dialogue and jokes as they come to me. I think about the setting later. I used to have a specific setting in mind, and I’d try to write around that. There’s no structure to how I design the comics anymore. Now, it’s all about jokes.
All the events in Failure are fairly mundane. If something shocking happened to you, would it go into the comic?
Totally. But I live a pretty boring life. Actually, I’m kind of perversely looking forward to something bad happening, just to see how I would write it. It’s been a conscious choice to stay away from kinds of tragic things. If somebody I knew got cancer or something, I might write about it, but that would be the only case. I’m not going to write about Egypt or something. I mean, what can I say about it that would be interesting? Like an idiot, I just don’t give a shit about what’s going on outside of my world—or at least I don’t give a shit enough to make art about it. I digest it as entertainment. That’s all the news is, anyway. I’d much rather write about sex. That’s more of a taboo. Particularly gay sex. I did this comic about two guys talking about a blow job, and I think it made a lot of people uncomfortable. I’d want to push that more.
The Lodger is available at local comic book stores, includingand .