Interviewed in April of 2014
Hometown: Boston, MA
Current town: Boston, MA
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Email: Click Here
1.) Karl, tell our readers a little about where you grew up… and how that influences the type of art you’ve found yourself making?
I grew up in a couple towns near Gardner, in the northern central part of Massachusetts. A very depressed area; a classic former mill town that had dried up from it’s heyday in the early twentieth century. Completely isolated as far as exposure to the canon of western art. No museums, or trips to the museums happened. The only exposure to anything artistic were the Sunday funnies, and the random comic book or MAD magazine I would find at the grocery store. I devoured these bits of commercial garbage like a ravenous dog and began to copy and imitate them in an effort to learn their techniques. Eventually I began to write and draw my own stories, as I discovered comic book stores and there the history of the medium.
2.) Are there any specific locations in New England that have had a profound affect on you or your art? Anything that jumps to mind? i.e. any neighborhood, museum, park, bar, coffee shop… etc.
I remember going to the MFA for the first time after high school and being coming blown away. Here were the paintings that I had been looking at in books in the flesh! I still get that charge sometimes, especially if I haven’t been there in a while.
3.) Most of our readers will recognize your work from the back pages of The Boston Phoenix where your weekly comic strips “Whatever”, “Succe$$” and most notably “Failure” ran for over 7 years. Such an unabashed, and fearlessly honest depiction of daily life is a pretty rare thing these days.
From dive bars, cramped apartments, public transportation, and a steady stream of sex, drugs & rock ‘n’ roll… your comic strips represent what is for a lot of readers a look at their own lives. How has living in and portraying the people within Boston impacted your life? A certain level of welcome & unwelcome celebrity in your day to day life?
Living in Boston has only affected my work in the sense that I happen to live here. I like to think that it isn’t really about place, but more about people. It’s easy to be honest if I’m just writing about myself and the lifestyle I find myself in. Keep it simple, look for the humor in things, that’s the basic formula. Though I did go out of my way to not write about the stereo types that the city has come to be known for; Macho dudes with hearts of gold from Southie, sentiment towards those corporate sports franchises, phonetical spelling of words with ‘ar’ etc
4.) Your art has a sense of realism not typically found in comics. Most comics skew towards exaggerated line work and form whether “cartoony” or “hyper-detailed.” Many illustrators narrow in on a ‘style’ and push it for a sense of identity within the industry. In your case, there is a very traditional approach that almost seems more at home in a gallery or museum. What’s it like being able to draw actual anatomy, texture, and light better than most people in the comics and staying so quiet about it?
Thanks. It’s horrible, I wish I had more money.
5.) Your graphic novel ‘The Lodger’ gives readers such a close look into your personal life it truly reads as an illustrated autobiography.
Just like real life it comes with it’s highs and lows.
From sudden break-ups and homelessness to blueberry pancakes, karaoke, and new-found love. How hard is it being so honest about yourself, and sharing it with not only those you know, but hundreds of thousands you don’t know?
Thanks, that book was a work of fiction, I’m glad you found it so convincing. Unlike documentary film, comics are just drawings and words that can be manipulated to say anything the author wants. I’m glad I was able to fool you!
6.) When most people think of comics they think of either Garfield or the usual slanted political satire. But all the good stuff falls under ‘adult’ or ‘alternative’. Any underground or indie comic artists that really inspired you early on?
From the old school: Harvey Pekar or R. Crumb?
To any of the new voices: Farel Dalrymple, Craig Thompson or James Kochalka?
Crumb was and is a big influence, I like how he’s been working and refining his technique over the years. I love his sense of humor too. Pekar always left me cold because he was only a writer. True comics are done by one cartoonist, I’ve never read a collaboration that I enjoyed as much as one artists vision. Dalrymple, Thompson, and Kochalka are all sickeningly twee. I get nothing from their work except maybe a headache. The cartoonists whose work I look forward to these days are the British cartoonist Joe Decie, the Canadian cartoonist Joe Ollemann, and my fellow American Compatriots Vanessa Davis, Lauren Weinstein, Gabrielle Bell, Bishakh Som, and Kevin Mutch.
7.) With everything these days needing to be categorized and labeled, a large portion of your work would fall under ‘illustration’, yet that would be ignoring the other side of your career as a traditional painter that falls closer to ‘fine art’.
Is the title or label ‘artist’ too loose for you? Cartoonist not enough? Do you feel you’re more an illustrator than say a painter? More painter than illustrator? Or is it simply ‘both’?
I usually go by artist or cartoonist. I dislike the term ‘illustrator’ because it implies commercial art, which I’ve never sought out or am qualified to do. I wonder what you mean by a large portion of my work would fall under that term and how the work relates to the current state of editorial and commercial illustration.
8.) - Drawing vs. Painting -
We’re a bunch of illustrators and painters here at Tryptic Press… and we know it can get pretty boring just doing one or the other. You seem to have a nice balance worked out.
Are you typically working on a larger painting or two while bouncing back and forth to the pen & ink stuff?
All the mediums have fused together to form comics these days, there are no more separations. But, yeah, one day I’ll work on a pen and ink page, the next a watercolor or oil. Gotta mix it up!
9.) Lets talk about the studio: Total and utter disaster littered with empties and ashtrays? Or obsessively organized with clean brushes and everything?
The former, though with less empties and ashtrays these days. Just a big clutter of mess that is a total eyesore to anyone that comes over for a visit.
10.) What medium or product is your secret weapon when you’re working? Even down to the brand name. Any specific ink you swear by or brand of oil paint? Give us the goods.
I’ve been way into this oil paint and watercolor maker Robert Doak for a couple years now. He’s based in Brooklyn and makes these really beautiful colors, his pure lead white is pretty indispensable.
11.) Animals always seem to consistently pop up in your work, and you’ve had some pretty great sidekicks to illustrate over the years from “Cookie” the beagle to “PopeCat”. If you had to pick a favorite…
Hmmm, that’s a tough one, I’ll go with Cookie the beagle. She was my friends dog and was totally spoiledand would always crack me up. She passed a couple years ago, and am still sad she’s not around to steal food off the table and escape the backyard.
12.) Give us an artist out there right now that you think our readers should know more about & why? Anyone just killing it we should shine a bright spotlight on in volume 3 of Chroma?
Joe Decie, the British cartoonist I mentioned before. He’s doing these one page autobiographical stories that are funny and well drawn. Check ‘em out: http://www.joedecie.com/ Also Lauren Weinstein’s been doing some great stuff again too: http://www.laurenweinstein.com/
13.) Lastly, we’re all really looking forward to the new book, and have been eating up all the sneak peeks on social media.
Anything you can reveal yet or plug? Shameless self-promotion… GO!
I have a forthcoming book coming out from Candlewick Press due out late 2015. No release date yet. And another book that’s similar to the Lodger that I’m going to force my primary publisher Alternative Comics to publish next year too.
14.) Extra credit double bonus question: It’s 2:04 AM in Allston on a Saturday night… Where can a guy get a drink, and make some bad decisions after everything is closed?
Ask the 25 year old Karl Stevens, the 35 year Karl Stevens has been asleep for 4 hours.
“Hi it’s the 25 year old Karl, hey come back to my place, I think I have a half drunk bottle of wine and maybe some Jager no one drank from the last party. Hey, you wouldn’t happen any weed on you, would you?”