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Most of you probably have no idea who Karl Stevens is. His first book, the Xeric grant winning graphic novel, Guilty, has not yet shipped through Diamond (though it's due in September). I first met Karl at the MoCCA Arts Festival in New York City back in June, and after chatting for just a few minutes, I had a sense that he was a very different type of cartoonist. Stevens sees comics not merely as vehicles for storytelling, but an extension of "real art" that can and should explore the subtle and profound complexities of life. Guilty focuses on perhaps one of the most universal themes in literature, the complicated and often times frustrating nature of human relationships, in this case, between ex-lovers. But what makes Guilty stand out from the pack is its painstakingly detailed artwork, a photo-referenced crosshatching style which Stevens confessed "made me want to stab my eyes out." It's hard to look at these pages and not appreciate the level of craft on display, especially from such a young artist, barely out of college.
First off, tell me about the cover. Why did you decide to go with no logo?
I decided to go with the no logo for purely aesthetic reasons. I felt a guy getting kicked in the nuts was a powerful enough icon to grab the potential readersí attention - and the added mystery of having no explanation. I had been looking at a lot of Saturday Evening Post Norman Rockwell covers at the time as well, and wanted to convey that type of simplicity and humor. I also wanted to make it a comic, which explains the inside and back covers. Ingrid feeling bad and helping Mark up, and then him chasing after her.
Yeah, in a way, the covers, in and out, read like a 4 panel comic strip. Is there a story behind the guy getting racked?
I thought it would be a nice symbolic bit for the overall theme of the story. Two people that couldnít really connect romantically and all that.
For those who havenít read Guilty, what is the story about?
Guilty is a study in the idea of being friends with someone after youíve been with them romantically. Iíve never personally been able to do that, and Iíve always kind of been fascinated by the notion. So the story is about a girl named Ingrid who bumps into her old boyfriend Mark while riding home from work. They make plans to catch up and the readers find out all sorts of things about them in the process.
Is the story based on real life events?
What is it that fascinates you about ex-lovers attempt at friendship?
I think itís the idea of being that intimate with somebody and then suddenly not, and then pretending like nothing happened. Or rather pretending that youíre different people now that youíve stopped sleeping together.
Have you had any experiences similar to Markís, where youíve had an encounter with an ex?
Yes, in a sense. In the last scene of Guilty where Mark is confronting, rather awkwardly, Ingridís current romantic endeavor. Iíve been in that spot a couple times, trying to bring up the present while still living in the past. Itís a very difficult thing.
Do you think itís ever possible for exís to have a real, lasting friendship? Obviously, in Mark and Ingridís case it didnít work out so well, butÖ
Sure of course, but I think something is definitely lost. The friendship is developed more from the outside, rather than through each other, because of that agreement to not be in a certain level of intimacy. The baggage I think never goes away, youíre always going to have that in the back of your mind. ďI used to be in love with this person, she was once the only one in my life I treated this way, now sheís just like the guys I hang out with.Ē I donít know. Iím too sensitive. When Iím in love with somebody, Iím IN LOVE with somebody. So when it ends, I canít bear to be around that person again.
Are these characters friends of yours?
Yeah, I got my friends to pose for the characters.
How did they feel about posing for you?
They were pretty agreeable. Iím not that picky about lighting and all that, so the shoots didnít really take long.
How did they feel about the finished story?
Cristina, who posed for Ingrid and was/is my girlfriend hasnít read it yet.
Really? Is she afraid she wonít like it?
Maybe, or sheís afraid that itíll resemble her personality too much, which isnít totally untrue. Thatís also the reason why I prefer to use my friends as models, because I know their gestures, facial expression and can riff off that to give the characters more life.
And what about the other characters?
Andy who posed for Mark was kind of scared about the pot references. All in all, I think everyone else was pretty happy with the story. Theyíre all my friends so of course theyíre not going to tell me what they really think.
You also make a cameo appearance in the book. Was it difficult to draw yourself?
No, Iím a pretty angular, chiseled and all around perfectly constructed human specimen, hence easy to delineate. I spend a lot of time in front of the mirror too.
Now, like Mark in the story, you actually do work at the Fogg Museum, right? What do you do there?
Security! The greatest job ever for the beginning, struggling artist. I get to look at (and draw on some of the nighttime back door posts!) beautiful masterpieces for twenty five hours a week. Plus I have dental insurance.
You mentioned in a thread on The Comics Journal message board that the curator of the Museum actually bought several pages of original art from Guilty for the permanent collection. How did that come about?
A few people in the museum suggested that I approach the drawing curator of the Fogg to see if they would be interested. So I did, and originally the drawings curator declined, saying it wouldnít fit in to the contemporary collection. Then the prints curator decided that she would like to purchase some of the pages for herself. So a deal was made and she immediately donated them to the museum. Sheís probably one of, if not the most influential person at the Fogg, so the pages were accepted without much controversy. They can be viewed too in person in the Mongan Center (the drawing and prints department of the Fogg) Tuesday through Saturday between 2 and 5pm.
What strikes me about the art is how painstakingly detailed it is. What was your overall approach to the art and what was the process from concept to completion?
I started out with a basic written script and a few sketched out doodles for pages ideas, I then just evolved the story with quick page layouts and such until I got it pretty close to where I wanted it. I then got my friends to pose in the various positions dictated by the drawn page layouts, and then the backgrounds too. Then I got the photos developed and began compiling that huge mess into the final cohesive story. The crosshatching almost did me in. Lots of binge drinking after I finished.
Yeah I can imagine! How long did it take to complete each page?
I was averaging about 15 to 20 hours on each page. It sucked too because I was working at the Fogg more or less full time (40 hours per week) to make ends meet. So I would do the whole nights and weekend thing on the drawings. My goal was to get two pages done a week, but more often than not it was more like a half page or one if I was lucky.
Who would you say are some of your artistic influences?
Letís see. I guess Rembrandt will always be my high water mark in a lot of ways -especially after traveling to Amsterdam a while back. One only has to see the Jewish Bride in person to agree. I have a very dog eared book that collects his etchings (plus the Fogg has a lot of those originals in the collection.). I would stare at those during my morning coffee before working on pages to warm up a lot. Inspiration for the cross hatching and all that. A lot of the Dutch genre painters like Andrew Wyeth, Holbien, Thomas Gainsborough and his ethereal portraits, Ingres, Degas. Actually my biggest influence would be my friend and former painting instructor/guru Anthony Apesos. He encouraged my interest in Art History as well as my interest in learning how to oil paint really well. I owe him so much! His own workís pretty amazing too. I have a couple of his works hanging in my apartment that I frequently study.
Besides those artists, were you influenced by any comics creators? What drew you to graphic novels, as opposed to more classic art, like painting or prints?
Oh definitely! I grew up on Mad Magazine and newspaper comics. Actually I was obsessed with collecting old Mad Magazines in my teen years. I found, and still find it quite unbelievable the amount of intelligence and subversion that was put into each issue. Plus the fact that they were completely independent financially. No advertisements, only really fun parody ones, thatís something that really horrifies me about the husk of a thing they call Mad Magazine these days. Real advertisements! Owned by Time Warner! Yeah, Mad died with Bill Gaines.
I didnít really get into superhero comics that much, although I did enjoy looking at all that Image Comics stuff in the early nineties. I had friends that were hardcore collectors that got me into it. Actually that led me to the underground stuff like American Splendor, Hate, and Crumbís work which had a big effect on me. Oh Dave Simís Cerebus, too. To me itís kind of a how-to for making great graphic novels. Especially the later books like Guys, Rickís Story and Going Home. The innovations that Dave and Gerhard came up with are absolutely unparalleled in the medium in my opinion. Dave is one of the mediumís FEW geniuses.
All in all though I donít really get that much inspiration these days from other comics. I get more through paintings, novels, and movies. Actually Iíve been reading poetry more than I have in the past too. I think my work has a more poetic tic to it than a prosaic one. Thereís definitely a linear narrative, but I think the meat of the work lies in the in-between moments. Like in Guilty where Ingrid is reflecting on Mark, and you just see random memories of him from her past.
Do you follow the comics industry at all? Are you a collector, or more of a casual fan?
I guess more of a casual fan. I enjoyed Louis Riel a lot and Joe Saccoís latest books. I still like Pete Baggeís work, those Reason magazine strips are great! Blankets was okay. Patiently waiting for more Brunetti stuff, as well as anything Dylan Horrocks is doing.
You won a Xeric grant for Guilty. How did the application process work?
It was pretty simple. I just followed the directions as closely as possible. I think the mistake a lot of people make is that they think theyíre being funded as a creator and not a self-publisher. I think they want you to have a good sense of the industry, who the distributors are, how much itíll cost to advertise etc, as well as making something personal and unique. Again, though thatís just my theory. I made sure that my budget was down to the nickel when I presented them with my application.
What were your impressions of the Xeric Foundation as a whole?
I think they are an amazing, amazing thing to exist. Especially for those creators whose work doesnít quite fit in with a certain house style of any publisher. Also for first time artists like me, itís a nice way to get your book out there and experience some of the nuts and bolts of the industry at the same time.
How did you connect with Jeff Mason and Alternative Comics?
I just sent him a copy of Guilty after it was published. I had noticed that he was distributing a lot of Xeric grant books, so I figured what the hey, maybe heíd be interested in mine.
What was his response to Guilty? Is he doing a new print run of the book?
Jeff liked it. I think he called me up a week after I sent it to him to tell me that. We havenít really discussed doing the next print run yet.
Besides the creative process, what was the experience of self publishing Guilty like? Anything you would do differently given the chance?
Yeah, I wouldíve done more promotion. Send out more press releases/freebies in advance before it appeared in the Previews catalogue. Send out some junk mail to retailers. Iím a typical artist in the sense that I sacrifice doing a lot of that stuff so I can have more time to draw. I should really get an agent.
You also do a weekly strip for the Boston Phoenix, right? Whatís the premise of that strip?
Itís called WHATEVER. Itís about young people living in Boston. Thereís no real recurring characters or linear narrative. I get to try out new things and experiment formally so that keeps it exciting. Iíve been using some of the characters from Guilty and some from the next book. When I eventually collect them in a book I think theyíll be a nice little bridge/side story between Guilty and the next work. Mostly theyíre just stand-alone little vignettes.
How long have you been doing that?
Since early June.
Is it difficult to maintain a weekly schedule?
Sometimes. Iíve settled into more of a groove as of late. Iím spending about ten hours per strip a week. I try to confine it to one day, but usually it bleeds into two.
What kind of fan response have you gotten to your work?
Good stuff! People are definitely responding in a positive way. I get e-mails almost every day about Guilty or WHATEVER. Iíve sold almost a hundred issues at the comic store Million Year Picnic in Cambridge alone! So yeah, people are digging it!
What are you working on next?
The next graphic novel. Itís going to be about ninety pages and in watercolor/gauche. Itís really refreshing to work on a comic story in color, thereís so much I want to push with that. Hopefully I can find a publisher though.
Do you have a working title yet?
I have a few in mind.
Guess Iíll have to wait. Any idea when it might be finished?
Hopefully by fall 2006.