Karl Stevens isn’t your typical artist, comic book or otherwise. From his 2005 graphic novel Guilty to his weekly comic in the alternative Boston newspaper The Phoenix, Stevens’ work is concerned with the minutiae--and sometimes the drudgery--of everyday life. His latest book Whatever, a collection of work previously serialized in the alternative weekly the Phoenix, is set in the Boston suburb of Allston, a place overrun by students from the city’s numerous colleges, as well as the post-collegiate set who haunt the same bars and diners. The book was published in the spring by Alternative Comics.
In Guilty, his heroine, Ingrid, runs into an ex-boyfriend, opening a Pandora’s Box filled with buried lies and frustrations, prolonged bouts with drinking and drugs and, as the title suggests, lots of guilt. In Stevens’ world, there aren’t superheroes or mad scientists out to decimate the globe. Life doesn’t hang in the balance, but with each painstakingly detailed and delicately cross-hatched panel, the reader is immersed in a world of twenty-somethings just trying to make it through each day.
The publication of Guilty landed Stevens the gig at the Phoenix. After seeing Guilty, recounted Stevens, the Phoenix art director, Kristen Goodfriend, pitched the idea of a weekly feature; and that weekly eventually turned into Whatever, which began appearing in the Phoenix in the spring of 2005.
In the new book, Whatever, Stevens moves beyond Ingrid’s life and gives the reader a glimpse into the lives of, among others, Cybal Lee, an aspiring rocker; Olaf, a grammatically-challenged, quick-tempered friend of Stevens, who also appears as a character in the book, trying to shake off a perpetual hangover. Stevens, a native of Concord, Mass., said it was a challenge creating complex social characters within the constraints of a newspaper serial. “It’s hard to get away with the slow paced style of Guilty in a week-to-week one page installment,” Stevens said of newspaper serialization, but he also enjoys just being able to write self-contained jokes.
Despite its comic post-collegiate, Massachusetts setting, any reader will be able to relate to the characters’ dilemmas, which range from the frustratingly mundane (will the 66 bus ever show up?) to the poignantly tragic (a drunken Stevens slips on an icy sidewalk and ends up with a black eye). And Cybal Lee, rocker chick extraordinaire, faces the eternal challenge of the musician: to sell out or not to sell out.
Stevens first started working on Guilty in 2003 and in 2004 received a Xeric Grant, an award from the Xeric Foundation that allows indie comics artist to self publish. The Xeric Foundation was founded by Peter A. Laird, the co-creator of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Planet Racers, in 1992 to provide assistance for up-and-coming comic book artists. Stevens said the Xeric grant gave him “a big push by gaining a little recognition for [his] work, as well as the confidence to move forward.”
An admirer of the Old Masters of art, especially the Dutch genre painters of the 17th century, Stevens tries to incorporate this same “slice of life” approach in his own work. “I have lofty ambitions,” he admitted, “to achieve a technical mastery in the same way they did--be it pen and ink, watercolor, oil--to achieve a similar narrative end.” His appreciation of the work of prose authors such as Bret Easton Ellis is apparent in the undercurrent of tragic absurdity that runs through Guilty and Whatever.
“I see the idea of the style of drawing comics as not just being limited to twentieth century comics artists,” Stevens said, noting that this also applies to other artistic mediums, from books to film and TV. For Stevens, “drawing is still drawing even if has the word ‘comics’ after it.”