Karl Stevens' Failure is a real success.
Collecting about 150 freeflowing strips that Stevens created for the Boston Phoenix, Failure is a wonderful portrait of middle-class, post-college, kid-free urban dwellers. Some of the strips make fun of Stevens's or his friends' self-absorption, alcoholism, or annoying obliviousness. Others are more observational, simply reporting his buddies' conversations in an almost Harvey Pekar-esque type of detached observation. Still others are imaginative or satirical – a space robot rock band appears a few times and always made me smile.
More than anything, these strips show the range of Stevens's art skills. As you can see from the images included with this review, Stevens is an accomplished cartoonist with an eye for observation, adept at bringing ordinary people to life in creative ways. He has a realistic, painterly eye for detail and nuance: the odd light in a dark bar, or instance, or the shrug on a woman's shoulder as she gets annoyed at you, or (as frequently shown) the very painful face of a person dealing with a terrible hangover.
It's all very sharply taken from a gently satirical mindset that also somehow seems more reportorial than judgmental. By including himself in many of his strips, Stevens takes away any sort of ironic distance or finger-wagging at his subjects; instead, it feels as if we're being invited to spend time at an interesting party having sometimes wacked-out discussions with a group of former art students and their very creative friends.
Stevens never minds making fun of himself, like when he drags his lazy ass to the gym for a change but then lets out an obnoxious fart, or when he chronicles his Facebook timeline by noticing what booze he got drunk on in what pictures. He doesn’t mind showing himself fighting with his wife or puking on St. Patrick's Day or arguing with publishers about checks. By being so self-disparaging, Stevens makes us like him and his stories more than we might otherwise do.
Maybe my favorite strips in the book are the ones that portray dogs and cats as extremely smart, literate creatures who look down on their owners' very plebian lives – or on their own lives. Those strips are a charming inversion of what we expect, which makes them typically creative strips from this collection.
Failure is all about the inner self becoming real or often unreal. Characters (including disaffected urban dwellers, dogs, even Garfield and Jon from the Garfield comic strip) express themselves on the page by revealing their inner thoughts and fancies. Juxtaposed with Stevens's very detailed and specific artwork, this gives the book a really beguiling dichotomy: part photorealistic strip, part wildly imaginative strip, it ends up feeling like nothing more than what it is: the very accomplished work of a cartoonist who is well worth following.
This is a helluva fun book, wonderfully drawn and smartly written. I don't think Failure is a failure at all.