Realism gets a bum rap in some circles of both fine art and cartooning because trying to represent the visual world accurately through drawing is, by definition, doomed to failure. That, though, was exactly the quixotic gesture at the core of Karl Stevens’s weekly comic strip, which ran for seven years in the Boston Phoenix under several names. Its final two years are now collected in this very odd, thoroughly charming volume. “Failure” is about failures that look like successes, or vice versa, in the impecunious life of an artist in Stevens’s Boston neighborhood.
Many of these strips, especially in the book’s first half, are observational, slice-of-life gags: overheard bits of bawdy conversation or vignettes about Stevens and his friends getting drunk, lounging around in bed, dealing with petty humiliations. The baseline style of Stevens’s artwork is exquisitely rendered, with micro-fine pen lines that capture the slightest gradations of light and shade. A lot of these strips make some kind of reference to the history of representational art. In one, we see a typically precise image of Stevens’s hand drawing a nude model, side-by-side with his preparatory contour sketch. (He wittily undercuts it with dialogue about embarrassing himself by making an inappropriate joke in front of the model.)