I certainly hope that artist Karl Stevens never abandons what he’s accomplished in the pages of his latest collection, “Failure,” simply because he might feel compelled to rip apart what he’s done up until now and strike out fresh. He can do whatever he wants, for sure. But I hope he continues to build on what he’s accomplished so far. “Failure,” I dare say, is a success. This collection shows growth but it’s consistent growth. There isn’t a weak page in the whole lot. It’s more an evolving viewpoint: the angry young artist keeps pushing and pushing until he gets what he wants, a reaction; afterward, he finds he’s pushed his way into new terrain and he finds himself breaking new ground.
There’s all that explaining for a couple of pages at the start of the book about how the Boston Phoenix yanked the comic strip in 2012, after an illustrious seven-year run. All because of a joke that maybe went too far. Well, does it really matter at this point? Nope. What matters is the artist and man, Karl Stevens, and his work. He’s had some success with critics with three previous books and, with “Failure,” we can observe an artist evolving with these final installments of his comic strip.
It’s a process all of us artists most go through. There’s a time when you’re acutely sensitive to the fact only a few people will ever get you. They will never get art and so they will easily never get you. It’s a very real time that some artists never get over. This can lead to despair or, if all goes well, it can launch a career, likely to be mingled with despair too but you can’t have everything. Getting back to the point at hand, it is a time filled with one’s first overwhelming feeling of complete uncertainty that will stick with you (cause you never forget your first). You start to think that cats and dogs have a better shot at getting you than your fellow humans. Thus, we find a good share of eloquent cats and dogs in this strip.
Then we get a little comfortable and settle into something but we don’t want it to become too easy, a phoned-in gimmick, something that has already been done in The New Yorker or observed by Douglas Coupland. The above strip is a good example of finding your way within the long history of social satire. The humor is broad and yet there’s a sense of the specific. The young woman claims she was “nerding out” to Chekov. This is an annoying, and perhaps disturbing, prospect to her older friend who wonders out loud about what has become to simply being “intellectual.” The artwork is a refined crosshatch that itself harks back a hundred years ago which just adds to the joke, the tension between the proper order of things and the brashly new.
So, you do keep at it. Listen to your own special blend of neurosis. And it will come out. Stevens has mastered that play between the old and the new, the high and the low. “Failure” offers us a very funny look at an artist growing up. It’s a pleasure to see that evolution, that special blend of Karl Stevens come out.