LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZES
Last year, “Asterios Polyp” won as the graphic novel category was introduced at the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. The five finalists in the category this year have been announced and the winner will be named Friday. Leading up to the awards ceremony, we will be looking at each of the finalists. Today: “The Lodger.”
“The Lodger” by Karl Stevens is an illustrated account of the author’s experiences after dropping out of art school, being dumped by his girlfriend and moving in as a boarder with his former teacher’s family. Stevens, whose previous titles include “Guilty” and “Whatever,” is a regular cartoonist for the Boston Phoenix. Hero Complex’s Noelene Clark caught up with Stevens.
NC: How did this project come about?
KS: I wanted to do something that was more like the first comic strip I did [for the Boston Phoenix], which was kind of autobiographical, sort of like slice-of-life, so I came up with “Failure.” There were things happening in my life at the time that I kind of wanted to write about, so I thought it would be interesting to do. The books consists of the first year of the comic strip as well as paintings and other work that I was doing at the time, like other comics. It’s kind of a loose diary of sorts.
NC: How true is it?
KS: It’s pretty true. It’s strange because there are parts [that are] like writing dialogue. I’m not like tape-recording every conversation that I have. There were things that happened that I would just tweak to make it more interesting or more funny. They’re all real names. There was a girl I dated named Ann. Cookie’s real. She’s outside my door right now. They’re fantastic. Tony was great. After I dropped out of art school, Tony kind of took me under his wing, and I would come over here all the time for dinners and stuff, and he would introduce me to other artists and teachers, and he would come by to the place I was living in a different part of the city, and kind of like mentor me. It was really sweet. And when I needed a place, it just happened to coincide, because they would always have people living in the house, cause it’s really big, and I think it’s good for their marriage.
NC: Your artistic style is very photorealistic. Can you share a little bit about your art process? Do you recreate real scenes from your life?
KS: For for the most part, I would just come up with it on the spot. I always carry a little pocket camera on me and a notebook, so more times than not, I’d just be hanging with good friends, or Tony, and we’d think of a funny strip, so I’d just whip out the camera, and just jot something down really quick. I wouldn’t be able to like get all of those little background details without that.
NC: “The Lodger” showcases your work in multiple mediums, with oil paintings and watercolors alongside cross-hatch drawings. What prompted this variety?
KS: I’ve always kind of struggled with the balance between how my painting fits in to the comic work. I guess I’m kind of moving toward merging the two, and “Lodger” is the first statement about that. Where there really isn’t anything different between what I’m doing with the oil painting and the comic strips. The oil painting is just part of this ongoing narrative that I’m doing. It keeps it interesting for me, visually. I’ll get sick of using the cross-hatch, pen technique. I’m sure you can imagine just spending hours on that. It’s really just to keep me motivated and excited. I like going back and forth. It’s interesting, too, that people are responding to this art, these lines on paper. They want to believe that it’s really happening. That’s why I’m attracted to making art this way, is because it’s the exact opposite of what a comic strip is supposed to be, which is this like, simple, iconic kind of thing. They’re just goofy things. So to do these stories just seemed like a natural kind of fit. It adds a different layer to it and makes it even more real.
NC: You mention not wanting to be too ‘comic booky.’ Why is that? Do you think of yourself as a comic book artist?
KS: I embrace it. But the way that comics look are extremely conservative. They haven’t really changed since they’ve been around a hundred years or so. They’re just, by and large, really abstracted, iconic visual pantomimes. There’s just a weird consistency to them. I would like the words “comic strip,” “graphic novel,” whatever, to be more about a different type of a visual narrative. Wow, that sounds pretentious.
NC: There’s a page in “The Lodger” showing you at a comic convention, promoting your work, and you appear isolated in a room full of people wearing superhero costumes. How do you fit in that world?
KS: That was the Boston Comic Con. It’s fun. I was always really into MAD magazine, like the underground comics. But it’s strange because you find similar art style [to mine] in the superhero world. You don’t find realism in the underground, like Fantagraphics, like Drawn & Quarterly world. I think they’re quite snobby toward it. I don’t think they really understand it. So it’s strange to even be at the comic cons. I fit in well, and I make money, but I really don’t consider myself a nerd. I don’t read superhero comics, or even like a lot of comics. I’m more interested in film or going to art museums and studying art history or reading books. Wow, that’s even more pretentious.
NC: There’s a subtlety to your art that you don’t normally see in comics.
KS: That’s my whole thing. That’s what I was trying to stammer out earlier, that I really want to make comics very subtle. For the past 100 years there have only been a few exceptions, and I feel like that can really be explored. Even the ones that are about just people, even those have a certain kind of exaggerated quality that just seems false. I’m going to shut up before I start ranting.
NC: Who would you list as your influences, then?
KS: Rembrandt. He’s pretty good. He’s pretty amazing. I aspire to be more like him. I like Theodore Dreiser and a lot of those early 20th century naturalist writers. I like the French New Wave movies, like Truffaut. These days, I like a lot of television. Like “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the British “Office,” “Mad Men,” “Californication.” I like funny things more than tragic things.
NC: How do people feel when they see themselves in your work?
KS: Mostly they’re my friends. Most of them object to it, especially my friend Jamie. I’ve known him since I was like 15, so there’s a lot of history, and he’s constantly calling me out about the way I portray him in the comic strip.
NC: There was a page in “The Lodger” of your teacher, Tony, talking to readers and kind of calling you out for not doing the dishes or taking out the trash.
KS: That was my retaliation at him. That’s why I kind of stopped doing it, because it was getting weird. Just being at shows or something and meeting fans of the strip. It was just weird. Now, what I’m doing is fiction. I’m using fictional characters. Not in “The Lodger,” but what I’m doing now with “Failure.”
NC: Do people recognize you from your comics when you’re out and about? Is that awkward or fun?
KS: It’s kind of fun. It depends who it is. Usually it’s guys like me. It’s never cute girls or anything. Just these schlubby guys in their 30s.
NC: You self-published “The Lodger.” How was that?
KS: You know, slow and awful. The way that it actually came about was kind of interesting. I was working with this agent, in L.A. actually, and the agency group, they were like shopping it around, and they couldn’t get any takers, and it was really sad, and they stopped calling me back after a while. I was going to go through the people that published the “Whatever” book, which was this company called Alternative Comics, but they went out of business. It was the last book that he published. … So I was like, “All right, well, I have some money in the bank.” I basically blew my savings to publish it, but I mean, it was good for it to come out anyways, because it was this complete narrative, and I was kind of done with autobiography, and I was really happy with what it was.
NC: It’s getting a lot of recognition.
KS: Yeah, I’ve really gotten what I’ve hoped for. Good reviews, and to be nominated for this L.A. Times Book Prize is way out of left field. I was really shocked by that. Everyone else is published by these really fancy publishing houses. It’s nice to self-publish but — with distribution – really being able to capitalize on it is tough. It’s not possible.
NC: So what’s next for you?
KS: I’ve been moving more toward fiction, more surreal stuff. I want to get dirtier, and do more sexually explicit stuff. I’m just more interested in it. It’s something that I’ve never done. It seems like it would be fun to draw people having sex. … The next big project is going to be the “Failure” strips that I’ve been doing, and they’re all going to fit into three or four different categories, like sex, booze, art, kinda. And there’s this loose narrative that’s going to start to form through them all, so I’m envisioning this book will kind of be about that. I’m envisioning these short little vignettes about these people, and they all cross paths at some point throughout the book. I want it to be longer too, like about 200 pages. The main Karl character will be in there, but it will mostly be about other characters in the city, and we’ll all cross paths.
– Noelene Clark
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