Hyperreal: The Lodger

Posted by on December 4th, 2010 at 6:05 AM

Rob reviews Karl Stevens’ recent book, The Lodger (Karl Stevens Art Publishing).

Karl Stevens made a mark in the comics world a few years ago with his hyper-realistically rendered, Xeric-grant winning comic Guilty.  While most cartoonists try to create the illusion of movement and life by simplifying their rendering style to something more iconic, Stevens goes in the opposite direction.  By employing a dense hatching and cross-hatching scheme and focusing on tiny details in each drawing, Stevens deliberately embues his work with a stillness that borders on stiffness.  What makes The Lodger superior to his earlier work is the understanding that a so-called “realistic” drawing is still just a drawing, and Stevens is extremely playful in the way he explores different colors of paper, full color paintings, strips with color and fantasy sequences done in that realistic style.

The Lodger is pretty much a weekly diary strip like so many others out there, only it’s less an exercise in the artist talking about the quotidian details of his life than it is a sharp, self-deprecating wit trying to create gags that work on multiple levels.  The Lodger is a mix of his work for alt-weekly paper The Boston Phoenix with paintings and other drawings that give those strips a larger context, both in terms of emotion and narrative. The book isn’t a traditional narrative in the sense of having a real through plot, nor is it strictly a week-to-week look at a particular person’s life.  Instead, it contains an emotional narrative about life lived in a transition point.  Karl goes from his comfortable life as a typical slacker twenty-something artist living in the “land of empty beer cans” to moving in with the family of an old art professor after his girlfriend broke up with him.  Living with that family brought its own set of joys and weirdness, not the least of which was the way he anthropomorphized the family’s pet dog.  Halfway through the book, he gets a girlfriend, which brings its own sets of joys and transition points.

One of the keys to understanding Stevens’ work is something he alludes to hearing off-the-cuff in art school.  The painter Andrew Wyeth, well-known for his wintry forest drawings, described his paintings as “nothing more than strictly abstract formal compositions”.  That lies at the heart of the tension in Stevens’ work: he wants to drawing cartoons that have rhythms any reader can understand, drawings that get across body language, emotion and humor.  He further wants the option of injecting a dose of the hyper-real into his proceedings, like a realistically rendered “magical marijuana guinea pig” that offers him advice.  At the same time, he wants the reader to look at his drawings as drawings–as an abstract series of lines and colors on paper that we as readers must interpret and give meaning to.  Stevens gets at the heart of that tension in the strips that feature him drawing a figure in various phases: pencil sketch, detailed pencil drawing (both as part of the comic strip), Stevens drawing himself draw a figure, a single-page finished color rendering (in itself abstracted by cutting out details of the room), a montage of images of seeing and being looked at, and finally the figure in a field of pink.

Those pages have thematic resonance as he drew & painted a desirable young woman in the depths of his own loneliness and need.  While he was enjoying his new life, he denied just how lonely and empty he felt, even if this is strictly a sub-rosa reading of the text.  It’s no coincidence that the next strip is about the disgust he feels being out with a couple, and the strip after that is about meeting the woman who will become his girlfriend.  Stevens follow that up with two pages of full-color, densely-detailed paintings of her that zero in on her eyes and mouth, giving her an expressiveness unlike any other character in the book (including himself).  The second half of the book changes the focus from Stevens to his girlfriend: he illustrates anecdotes she tells him, he paints her and includes her in depictions of his adventures.  By the end of the book, she’s simply a part of his new steady-state, an understanding that carries a slightly wistful understanding that the days of his youth have passed, and he’s entered into a new phase of life.  The book doesn’t require a spelled-out moment of epiphany, nor is there any attempt by Stevens to include some artificial strip about closure.  He simply points the reader in the right direction and lets his visuals tell the story.

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One Response to “Hyperreal: The Lodger

  1. vollsticks says:

    Sorry to “trot out the party line” but to me that’s not comics… undoubtedly the lad’s really talented from a technical standpoint but to me it just reads like frozen static DEAD image after frozen static dead image…and yes I have read his comics and not just the examples here! And I don’t think they’re humorous at all. But I’ll say it again, guy can draw…just please tell me he’s not tracing or copying photographs!