Monday, September 30, 2013

Unreality: Karl Stevens' Failure

Karl Stevens is known for his photorealist comics, using a dense amount of cross-hatching, shading and color to bring his drawings to life. However, his latest (and last) collection of comics from his gig at the Boston Phoenix shows off a wide range of styles and approaches. There's one thing that's consistent in all of them: Stevens is very funny. Indeed, his comic timing has only sharpened as he wandered from standard autobio tropes to reality-bending imagery and events. At heart, Stevens has a real ear for funny anecdotes and how to relate them. Some of them are provoked by his own weirdness or silliness, but others are simple sharply observed and rendered so as to provide the funniest outcome.

For example, in the strip above, it's presumably Stevens who's rambling on about living in a dystopia. The woman in the strip is watching TV (made clear by the light flashing on her face) and barely tolerating his nonsense until she finally tells him to shut up because her show has come back on. The humor in the strip is derived not so much from Stevens' out-of-context and possibly drunken babble, but from the way her eyes move back and forth at Stevens and the way her lips wrinkle up. Stevens employs that realistic style but pays close attention to panel-to-panel transitions and small movements, and that's what gives life to his drawings. That's what sets him apart from other photorealist cartoonists or cartoonists who fully paint their comics: he may be working from poses, but he transforms them into fully active, breathing comic strips.

Stevens seems to have a particularly good time drawing the adventures of his "descendant", Karl VIII, in the year 2312. It's a hilarious lampoon of privileged white frat boy culture, as the bored and dissolute Karl is unimpressed by an array of wonders and miracles. Riding giant bunny rabbits, visiting the mermaid planet and having a tree cat that can teleport him anywhere is dull, especially if anyone he encounters is slow to accommodate him or entertain him. It's also an excuse for Stevens to draw crazy stuff. He's not afraid to deviate from his usual formula from strip to strip, as when he starts to draw a Garfield-style strip like Jim Davis, There are other pages where he features what looks like a quick preliminary sketch as a final product, pages where his figures have far less detail, and other pages featuring realistic drawings of fanciful creatures, like Pope Cat.

Throughout it all, Stevens displays a restlessness that borders on the existential. He isn't interested in providing context or backstories regarding the people who appear in his stories but instead is more interested in capturing singular moments in time. That includes the awkward and funny interactions he has with his nude models, as his attempts to crack jokes or introduce weird topics of conversation with them frequently falls painfully flat. Stevens slips between black & white and color images as though to tell the reader that they're all just pictures, "realistic" as some might seem. That extends to reproducing precisely the same image as a black and white and then as a color painting. The other thing that sets Stevens apart as a cartoonist, as opposed to an illustrator, is that his understanding of gesture and the way bodies relate to each other in time and space is nuanced and sensitive. This all allows him to depict spaces inbetween, the moments between Big Moments in our lives, and the cracks between meaningful events. While the strips are not directly related, they nonetheless gain a sort of forward momentum, detailing a narrative that's not story based or even emotion-based, but rather one based on one man's imagination. It's as though the reader is made privy to Stevens' stream-of-consciousness ideas about what's catching his attention at any given moment, and Stevens captures that snapshot with that mixture of fidelity and strangeness that's a part of all our daydreams.

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