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January 3, 2009


CR Holiday Interview #11: Karl Stevens

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imageIn some ways I think comics is less prepared these days to focus attention on cartoonists like Karl Stevens. I can certainly imagine him 15-20 years ago having his own name-above-the-title comic book effort through which to serialize his various works on young people and their interactions in and about Boston. That's not to say that such avenues were financially rewarding in any significant way, only that I can imagine a time when more people in more places interested in comics would have heard of Stevens than have at this point, on the strength of his Xeric-winning periodical from a couple of years ago (Guilty) and a new, little-discussed work from earlier this year supported by Alternative Comics (Whatever).

There are compensating virtues. His work seems to be well-received locally. He just finished a serial with writer Gustavo Turner, and is on the verge of starting a new newspaper comic for 2009. Whatever collects a run of strips bearing the same name done for area alt-weekly consumption before the Turner collaboration. The feature's haphazard qualities -- a joke this week, a character study next week, a meta-fictional portrayal of an artist on deadline the next -- seems to me to provide Stevens a much more appropriate vehicle to explore a certain quality of living common to those from about 23-32 than sustained soap opera narrative might allow. I think the thing I like best about Stevens is I have no idea what he'll be doing five years from now. I can't tell you why that's so appealing, but there it is. Stevens was very nice to do this interview in a way that facilitated its almost instantaneous publication. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Can I ask what you're working on right now? Because if I remember right, while Whatever is a collection of your newspaper strip, you were also at one time working on a color graphic novel. Are we still going to see that? Were the color pages in Whatever from that project? Is there a new project?

KARL STEVENS: I was working on a larger color book for a while but have since abandoned it for the time being (Indeed some of the color work in the Whatever collection are from the story). I kept being distracted by problems both personal and professional -- partying too much, too many all-nighters trying to meet deadlines and what not. Recently, I feel like I've settled into a steadier professional routine.

imageAt the moment I've been working on a new weekly comic for the Boston Phoenix. To give you some background I quit working on Whatever last April. I felt I needed to do something different for a while so I asked my writer friend Gustavo Turner if he would be interested in collaborating on something new that was the exact opposite of what I'd been doing. We came up with Succe$$, which was an ongoing melodrama concerning four young businessmen and their start up eco-financing company. There were a lot of topical and obscure popular culture references -- Gustavo being what I would call a "natural critic" has a particular knack for that kind of writing -- and I drew it in a very traditional black line and flat color style common to comics. We set out to do something surreal and over the top with Steranko undertones.

After a while I started to miss writing alone and in the more personal Whatever style so we decided to end the strip. The last one runs the week of January 1st. The new comic starting the week after will be called Failure and be similar to Whatever in drawing style. The set up is a broken down young painter who moves into a room at his former painting teacher and family's house in Jamaica Plain -- a neighborhood in Boston that's known for it's high level of cultural diversity. There will be jokes and have a kind of Curb Your Enthusiam/Peter Bagge tone to it.

I've also been working on other strips that relate to Failure that I'm hoping to turn into a larger cohesive book. I would like to do a quarterly 32-page floppy comic or something to serialize it in the meantime. That is if I convince a publisher my work will fit into their line.

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SPURGEON: Can you give me the core information on how Whatever was started, if it's still running, how long it ran, where...? My sense is that it was ongoing by the time you had released the Xeric-winning Guilty, so that there was some overlap there.

STEVENS: Guilty came out before I started working on Whatever. Actually Guilty is the reason Whatever exists. The Phoenix had written an article on the book when it came out which was around the time they were redesigning the paper. The Design Director Kristen Goodfriend -- whom I previously worked with doing freelance illustration work for -- approached me about doing something that was similar to Guilty but in a weekly format.

SPURGEON: You said in your Comic Book Galaxy interview that you had greatly reduced the amount of time between what you spent on pages for Guilty and what you were doing for the Whatever installments. How were you able to do that? You have what looks like a time-intensive style, how are you able to improve your speed given the demands of that style?

STEVENS: I was able to improve my speed by working smaller. The pages from Guilty were drawn on 10"X15" boards where as the Whatever pages were drawn 7"X10" -- less space to get kinky with the crosshatching.

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SPURGEON: How long does it take you to write? How do you write? Is it full script, an idea, breakdowns...?

STEVENS: It's a combination of all of those. I, like most people in this game, keep a sketchbook. Usually I sketch out the dialogue first and then do some rough visual breakdowns to give myself and idea of the pace. Then I'll use that as reference to pose the models -- lately though I've been forgoing this detail and have been improvising with the camera using the dialogue to see what the situation gives me and choose the best references from there. When I start the final page I write the original dialogue from the notebook outside the frame -- sketch in the location and size of the word balloon-and meditate over the wording while penciling in the visuals. More often than not I've made up my mind on the final script by the time that's finished and then proceed to break out the Hunt 102. Only to change my mind with the white out the next day and then poor Kristen needs to photoshop over my dumb spelling/grammar mistakes.

SPURGEON: It's my understanding having gotten it wrong before -- and I'm counting on you to correct me if I'm wrong again -- that you do take photos for reference but that's as far as the use of photos goes. Has that approach pretty much remained the same for you on this project as opposed to the last one?

STEVENS: Yes. I take photos of my models for reference to get that naturalistic look that I get. Let me just say for the record -- no matter how absurd it really is -- that I don't trace over the photos on a light table or something. To me that approach makes the realism look stiff and you can always tell when it's done. I find that if you "eyeball" the thing and draw from observing your line tends to look more fluid and natural. The little mistakes are what give it personality and all that.

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SPURGEON: The other question I have about your art is that I remember you saying that when you take photos you're not picky about the lighting -- that this helped make your shots go really quickly. What is it you're primarily getting from the photos, then, if not things like the way the light strikes the figure you're shooting?

STEVENS: What I meant by that is I'm aiming to achieve is a natural sense of place. I prefer to caption the natural lighting of a particular environment as opposed to some more controlled. Another effort the make the work look less artificial and thus add to the naturalism. That said I've been more interested in starker depictions of light and shade these days.

SPURGEON: There's an appealing restlessness to Whatever, a move back and forth between presentational modes: telling a story, telling a gag, making an autobiographical point, strips that exist it seems to primarily depict a single scene... was that just a byproduct of how you were working, do strips week in and week out.

STEVENS: I would like to say no that I planned it that way but yes it's a total byproduct of the deadline. I started out thinking that I wanted to make Whatever a fluid continuity but soon realized that I didn't know how to do that in a weekly serial correctly. It takes a certain amount of early basic character establishment and simple thematic scores. I feel with the new strip Failure I'm able to do this.

SPURGEON: Did you design the book? It looks like a little book one might find on their parents' bookshelves that haven't been touched since 1974... what was your inspiration and idea there?

STEVENS: Ha ha -- that's great! No, my friend Garrett Kramer designed the cover for me. He was fresh out of art school and he emailed me offering his services for any future projects. I liked his approach and asked him to help me with it.

imageSPURGEON: I think your work can be quite funny. As someone that's a MAD Magazine fan, and is familiar with how a lot of those artists approached humor, and also with how most humorous artists approach humor comics today, do you think working your fairly detailed, handsome style afford you different opportunities, or make for different obstacles when it comes to telling a joke? I apologize for the clumsiness of that question. Basically: when most people think of a humor cartoonist they don't think of someone with your style. I wondered if you thought what you do with style was different in any way than the kind of thing a Peter Bagge or a Johnny Ryan is able to do with their respective styles.

STEVENS: Yeah, obviously it's different -- I don't think the exaggerated facial expressions that Bagge and Ryan excel at would translate well in my style. There's the problem of what I call 'over-acting' in realistically drawn comic strips -- I feel like I see it at lot in the Marvel/DC product -- the "Alex Ross" effect. Unfortunately that's a real roadblock for me when writing humor -- but at the same time I welcome the challenge. Mad Magazine is interesting -- I probably wouldn't be drawing comics if I hadn't been exposed [to it] at an early age. I was always drawn -- believe or not -- to the Mort Drucker and Angelo Torres TV/Movie parodies the most because of exactly what you're describing. I found it really fascinating that they were able to pull off those subtle yet realistic looking expressions that worked so well with the dialogue -- typed and cold looking as it was. When I compose a funny strip I tend to err on the side of what's going to be drawn and then try to tune the dialogue and pacing around that. The lighting, facial expression and or environment play the major role in how the dialogue is presented. I guess what I'm trying to get at is there are a million ways to tell a funny joke but you just need to find the right way in the right situation.

SPURGEON: A hometown strip in a well-read publication brings with it a lot of instant feedback -- and a level of local notoriety, I'm told. Is there any frustration moving from that world and into this kind of unforgiving national scene with so much work out and odd distribution trying to get noticed in that framework. Because I imagine that you know your work appeals from what you've heard back on its serial publication.

STEVENS: I have gotten quite a lot of flattering and excitable feedback from fans of the strip over the years -- from all kinds of sane people who read the paper. I remember a friend who works at the Million Year Picnic in Harvard Square telling me about someone coming into the store and asking if they had that book by that guy in the Phoenix saying it's "a graphic novel but drawn" -- probably their first time in a comic shop. This is frustrating to me in the larger international graphic novel market because of my status of doing work that I don't see anyone else doing at the moment. It seems to make marketing the product difficult for publishers. How can you sell it as comics if it don't look like comics? I should ask Matt Madden and Jessica Abel about this.

SPURGEON: Something I thought was interesting about your first work is that it set out to explore a specific kind of relationship, whereas Whatever seems to set out to depict a general way of conducting one's life, a milieu. Is that fair? Have you learned about your relationships and lifestyle choices by making them a part of your comics? Have you been to able to garner another perspective by making art out of things close to your life?

STEVENS: That is fair and correct. Guilty was conceived as a single idea and with Whatever I was and -- in its current form of Failure -- am intending as a long fake-diary of sorts. Unfortunately my ability to learn from the real life mistakes I've drawn that happened is slow moving-like the art style

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SPURGEON: There seems to be a conflict in Whatever between regretful memories and the desire to live right there in the moment, which seems to me something really appropriate to explore in comics. Is that a clash that you experience in your own life?

STEVENS: Yes, especially with the forthcoming project of Failure. I'm getting as close as I've ever come to exploring the more personal elements of my life in comics memoir.

SPURGEON: How do you think you'll feel about the life and times depicted or filtered through Whatever ten years from now? What kind of art do you think you'll be making then?

STEVENS: I'll probably think I was an idiot that fucked off too much but did the best I could in the situation I was in. I imagine I'll still be making comics about man's relation to the world in some way. Ultimately though I just hope I get to be better as a draftsman.

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* cover to Whatever
* crappy photo by Tom Spurgeon, 2008; this is the only time I saw Stevens at his Stumptown table all day. I had to make it black and white because the photo was so bad his skin was bright pink.
* doesn't everyone get advice from the floating head of Don Draper? Panel from Succe$$
* a random page of Whatever I happen to like a lot
* random panel from Whatever
* faces and light sources
* a comedic interlude
* I just sort of like this moment
* [below] half of all artists in the world have some version of this dream at some point

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