Karl Stevens’ book The Lodger is so carefully and convincingly drawn from life that it’s tempting to assume the whole thing is fiction. Available from Stevens’ site and a few smart stores, it’s built around a year’s worth of the weekly comic strip Stevens draws for the Boston Phoenix, “Failure.” (The strip’s title is both a characteristic bit of self-deprecation and a sequel to Stevens’ earlier strip “Succe$$.”)
In a fascinating interview a couple of years ago, Stevens described “Failure” as “a long fake diary of sorts.” So I’ll put it this way: the strip concerns a young painter named Karl Stevens who’s hit a rough patch. He’s broken up with his girlfriend and moved into the spare room of his old painting teacher’s house in the Boston suburb of Jamaica Plain; we get to see him put his life together over the next year, as he bonds with his host family, gets a new girlfriend, hangs out in the Boston area and makes a lot of art.
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It would be a pretty straightforward slice-of-youthful-life strip, except for Stevens’ artwork, which is rendered with fanatical care, just about as realistically as it’s possible to do freehand. (He’s noted that most of his comics use photographs as reference, but he draws them from observation rather than lightboxing.) In particular, most of his black-and-white strips are drawn with micro-detailed crosshatched textures, and his color paintings are precisely observed and modeled, too: he’s really focused on depicting gradations of light and shadow as accurately as they can be approximated by hand without that hand falling off.
Variations on the style Stevens is using here have been used in comics before–but almost never for gag strips. The parameters of “Failure” mean that he doesn’t get to “draw funny”: the goofy distortions of most comedy strips are off-limits. So he picks funny-looking moments instead, or turns straightforward images into jokes with nutty lettering, or just puts Karl-the-character in situations that mock him: picking his nose, noticing himself getting fat, catching himself staring at his girlfriend’s cleavage. There’s a running joke involving the family dog muttering longwinded philosophy.
Occasionally, Stevens incorporates things that aren’t real visual phenomena, as in a strip where the “pot fairy” (a glowing light) is tempting him to stay awake and get high. A page where he’s drunkenly singing karaoke with friends has panels that are just a little bit off-kilter, and tiny circles of light around Stevens’ head; in the context of his usual precise rendering, even the smallest “cartoony” gestures go a long way. And the actual comic strips are interspersed with a series of paintings and non-strip drawings where Stevens shows us the same actors and scenes in stand-alone, non-narrative images. (A quick sketch in one strip of someone shushing him on the subway becomes a full-on painting on the next page.)
One way to read The Lodger is as the story–maybe a fake story–of how those paintings and drawings got made; if the book is about any one thing in particular, it’s the way a young artist lives, or gets to live, and the relationship between artists and the people they depict. Again and again, we get to see Stevens from the outside, drawing and painting, but always within the personal and social context of his art-making.
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Sometimes, the narrative is specifically an elaboration on the sexual crackle between the artist’s eye and the model’s body. (As Geoff Dyer put it: “For the writer the artist’s studio is, essentially, a place where women undress.” Here, Stevens gets to be both writer and artist.) In one sequence whose comedy is squirmier and subtler than usual, he asks an old friend to pose naked for him; she mentiones that she was in a bike accident, and peels back a bandage to reveal a nasty scrape and scar that he draws, in close-up, with as much gusto as the actual nude drawings we see on the next few pages. What may be the most striking page of the book is mostly taken up by a pair of paintings of a woman who’s just stayed over, chatting with him and putting on her bra. At the top of the page, there’s an image of sunlight through bare tree branches that could be a close-up of ganglia; the dialogue is in light colored pencil, barely legible, more a design element than anything else; there are a couple of canvases set up on easels behind her, but we can’t see what’s on them.
One consistently fun thing about The Lodger, in fact, is how Stevens keeps playing with what marks an image as genuine or legitimate. There’s one strip where we see him working on a painting–whose image is rendered much more loosely than the Stevens-hand making it and the table it’s propped up on. Then he goes to his computer and updates Facebook: “Karl is painting.” “Ahhh,” he says, “sweet validation.” The strip is blown up to the point where it bleeds off the page a little, so we don’t quite see all of his word balloon: the maybe-real made unreal made real, and then made unreal again.