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.)
In the later strips, though, Stevens plays with the form he’s established, illustrating episodes with watercolors or more “cartoony” techniques, or printing deliberately unfinished-looking rough drawings. He also shifts from showing moments that might well have happened to moments that definitely didn’t. There are scenes involving the giant foot from Monty Python, parodies of “The Family Circus” and “Garfield,” and Stevens’s future descendant riding an enormous rabbit.
He often suggests that he’s reporting from the fringes of the class war. The cultural “failure” he’s documenting is the one to which the very rich have consigned everyone else.
Wolk is the author of “Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.”
By Karl Stevens
Alternative Comics. $21.95