Penny is the new graphic novel by Karl Stevens. I reviewed it recently and now I provide you with an interview with the author. If you go on to see the video below, you’ll get to know a bit about a most engaging and talented artist with quite a distinctive style. As a cartoonist, he finds himself in a unique place as a champion of realism in comics, something of a lost art, certainly not as common today as it used to be in Alex Raymond’s day.
There’s a point in my conversation with Karl Stevens where he really gets to the heart of his motivations as a cartoonist. Karl was discussing where he was heading with new projects and that got him to thinking back to the process in general. He started looking back at the artists who influenced him, like Fragonard and Rembrandt. Currently, he’s been exploring genre comics, including a lot of work in Heavy Metal from the ’70s and ’80s, specifically the work of Caza and Moebius.
The point is that Karl was thinking about his attraction to a certain crisp line in the service of realism in cartooning. It’s not for everyone. In fact, it’s relatively rare. Thinking back on it, I’ve always loved exemplary cross-hatching from such greats as Thomas Nast, Edward Sorel, and David Levine–or, for something finer, Goya. Anyway, Karl went on to share:
“The history of comics has always been based on other comics or commercial illustration. It’s rare that you have a cartoonist who has studied art history in a serious way. A lot of comics look like they’ve been commercially made. They have that slick line to it. It’s different from a fine art line. As a younger artist, I was trying to bring that sensibility to comics. I did try to draw in a more cartoony way. But I found realism to be more complicated, and more interesting.”
Karl, took a pause. He laughed a bit, and said he realized it might sound pretentious to be speaking this way. But what’s an artist supposed to do, really? This is how we explain things. And so he continued.
“The history of realism in comics died in a serious way in the ’60s, along with representational art in general. You had people like Art Spiegelman and Scott McCloud railing against realism, stating that realism was antithetical to comics. I don’t believe that’s true. I just don’t think realism has been fully explored.”
We chatted about a lot of other things, including the great art heist at the Gardner Museum, but I think what I’m quoting here is probably the best gem. As far as representational art goes, I think the death of figurative painting is something that is perpetually declared in art circles. And, as for realism in comics these days, well, I think there are some fine examples that pop up here and there but you really don’t often enough see realism in comics, at least not in the United States. What came to mind as part of my response in the moment to Karl’s comments was just that, as much as I like to play with quill pen points, I don’t tend to have the patience to pursue realism. I’ve gotten some nice results but I really need to be motivated. Clearly, Karl is very motivated!
With that said, I do hope you enjoy our full conversation. I provide a number of images that help round things out and give you a better sense of the man and his art. For now, it’s Karl’s latest book, Penny, that’s the main focus. Do check it out! For more details, be sure to visit Chronicle Books.