Penny: A Graphic Memoir. by Karl Stevens. Chronicle Books. 2021, 152pp. $19.95
As a cartoonist myself, and a longtime observer of the comics scene, I am utterly delighted to read this new book by Karl Stevens. It strikes all the right notes. And it will definitely do the same for you as a fan or newcomer to his work. Some of us in comics may indulge in hand-wringing over where graphic novels stand today as compared with the great boom in alt-comics nearly twenty years ago. But I say that things are evolving nicely in many ways. This book is a perfectly fine example of that. In fact, the audience for a good indie-spiked words ‘n’ pictures book is always going to be around and ready for the next worthwhile book. I think, in regards to Karl, he’s one of these very special talents who has found, over time, just the right set of factors to get to where he is now as an artist. This particular collection spans a good chunk of time as it was one of the last great comic strips to enjoy being published within the grand ole alt-weekly format (The Village Voice, The Boston Phoenix) that simply doesn’t exist anymore. This book is, in a sense, a testament to some glory days for comics. It’s certainly not lost on me that it is dedicated to the memory of Tom Spurgeon, one of the great advocates for the comics medium. Here you will find a sort of cat version of Little Nemo: an in depth exploration of the philosophical observations of a former alley cat-turned-house pet. Penny is one part enigma; one part uncanny entity; and one part one of us!
I am going to push a little further on the notion of there being any of us cartoonists, or aspiring cartoonists, who might feel entitled to having their graphic novel project eventually picked up by a publisher. It’s best not to worry about such hypotheticals and just keep on truckin’. It dedication to the art of creating good comics that will have to rule the day. I look at all these pages of our hero, Penny, pondering existence, and it’s breathtaking, joyful, and inspiring. It’s a very beautiful feeling to be able to see your work all together, creating a whole. You don’t get there by bitchin’ and moanin’ that you’re entitled to anything because you’re not. And, sure, I suppose even folks who have never drawn any comics at all might fancy they’ll someday create a graphic novel. Well, it takes a special skill and a special drive to create something truly compelling and of lasting value. That’s why this book is special.
You start down a road of creating comics about a philosophical cat and you must get into this zone. I think, at some point, you lock onto the next page of bristol board, get to penciling, and, as if in a fever dream, you end up knocking out another completed page. And then, as another deadline looms, you do it again. And then again. Maybe, only after a while, you’re a little startled to find your main character has, by all counts, come to life. Arguably, still a work of fiction, without a need for sleep or being fed, but still alive: full of quirks, impulses, and contradictions. How does one, upon reflection, explain how Penny can be so relaxed and friendly towards a mouse one day only to revel in a good and bloody mouse kill the next? How does Penny justify being so jaded about cat toys one day only to be utterly mesmerized by cat toys the next? And, perhaps most chilling of all, how does Penny know how much her cat food costs? Yes, you start down a road and you find yourself sometimes with far more questions than answers!
Karl’s intricate drawing style is a perfect breeding ground for his droll humor. Most of us cartoonists are attracted to the droll like a cat to catnip. Within those lean deadpan lines and low-key watercolor washes lurks a cartoonist with a hearty appetite for the macabre and the obscure. It is the sort of humor that co-workers at some day job never understand or, more likely, only pretend not to understand. I am drawn to it and take the bait. I wonder about Penny. How can such a troubled soul be so easily baffled by mere shadows and yet comprehend the deepest levels of existential angst? With a flourish, as if flicking a mouse from one paw to another, Penny grieves over while also mocks all human activity and ostentation. Ah, mere mortals. Is the universe playing out within the skull of a house pet? That–and even more. This isn’t just a bunch of pithy wry jokes. This cat gets shit done. Penny even escapes her tender trap for a while. And who knows exactly what transpires when she finally responds to that portal and does enter another dimension.
Is it a good idea to take Penny too seriously? It’s not like we haven’t done this to ourselves before. Sometimes, you just can’t help but want to overanalyze and who can really say if some things are just too precious not to give that added level of neurosis? The Marx Brothers. Krazy Kat. Why not Penny? So, yes, to Penny and yes, to Karl Stevens. Few cartoonists are in the same league as he is.