(A)rt and (a)rt in Karl Steven's The Winner

The first two images in Karl Stevens’ The Winner are a lovingly delicate pen drawing of a woman in an open field and a harshly lit portrait of a man. Both pictures are looking out at you, the reader, and are composed very similarly. Both are portrait shots, starting from just below the neck. Both are just slightly turned to the left and have shadows falling over their face, her from her hat and him from some unseen source. The pen drawing is warm and caring; the painting guarded and accusatory. These drawings echo the cover of the man standing on guard between two portraits of the woman, both looking at him. In The Winner, Karl Stevens asks us to explore his relationship to art with him. Creator, gallery guard, portraitist, teacher, cartoonist, snob and audience, Stevens uses his relationship with his wife as an entryway into trying to figure out who he is when it comes to art

Every page of Stevens’ book is composed of images that you’re just going to want to get lost in. More drawings and paintings of his wife fill a large chunk of the first third of this book. Each one is a study of her that makes you feel like you know her and are falling in love with her the same way Stevens is in love with her. In his artwork of his wife Alex, Stevens captures the intimacy in these moments, catching her in these small instances of their lives together as seen through Stevens’ eyes. Hardly any drawing is posed or artificially staged. Reading the parts of the book that focuses on Alex feels like flipping through a photo album of a photographer who is either very lucky in clicking the camera at just the right moment or someone who is so in love with their subject that they can’t look away.

Alex gives Stevens a much-needed grounding in his life. Through her words and actions, she’s the steady rock of this book. While Stevens wrestles with the grand concepts of capital “A” Art and his own relationship with it as a creator, Alex’s presence in this book provides a solid foundation that lets Stevens go off in any direction that his muse or neuroses take him in. The drawings of Alex create a stability in this book amid Stevens own questioning of his work. But it also provides that stability as Stevens’ story transitions from a questioning of the value and validity of art into a work art itself into stories about aliens, werewolves, and giant rabbits into the book. As a story about artwork goes down the path of creating that artwork in its pages, Alex returns again and again as a north star for Stevens, guiding him along the path of the real world as his artwork tries to pick that real world apart and reorganize it in a way that makes sense to him.

These moments of fiction and fantasy placed within this larger, more personal piece is part of Stevens’ story, just as his shifting artistic choices are. It feels too easy to disregard this pieces as just the whimsical fancy of the artist but they are so illustrative of Stevens struggle to define his life’s work. “A glorified ‘pencil pusher,’” Stevens jokes when his wife asks him what he is. It’s a punchline to a joke but it’s also a possible answer to the many questions in this book. The ways that Stevens pushes his pencils expresses moments in his life where he is questioning his calling. But as a glorified pencil pusher, he’s capable of expressing the mundane and the fantastic in life with both feeling as real and true as the other.

Just as much as his artistic eye loves his wife, it also seems suspicious of himself as an artist. For every image of his wife drawn in a relaxed and natural way, Stevens’s peppers in a number of self-portraits where he’s not smiling and is staring straight out of the page, toward the reader. It’s hard not to feel like he’s staring at you, judging you for reading his comic and probably judging him for what he’s drawn and written. Approaching the fourth wall, Stevens never quite fully penetrates it but acknowledges some kind of barrier exists between the creator and his audience that he remains suspicious of. 

With Alex as his solid rock, Stevens explores the artist’s relation to art as an act of creation, an act of commerce, an act of entertainment and as an act of life. Employing a number of different artistic styles, narrative techniques, and genres, The Winner becomes a statement about art that is also a piece of art. During the book, he’s a teacher, a museum guard, a practicing artist, a cartoonist and a storyteller. Between his moments of doubt and frustration, his story diverts into these other stories, stories within the story, which help establish Stevens as a true creator. He’s not someone who ponders the meaning of art without ever practicing it and he’s not some esoteric philosopher with grand ideas about High Art and Low Art but he is someone who, through his work, thoughtfully considers the value of the art and the artist and their place in the world.

The Winner reveals the complicated relationship that Stevens has with his artistic endeavors. Reading this book, it’s difficult to pin down just what kind of artist or cartoonist he is. The opening pages make you think that this may be some throwback autobio comic from the 1990s but Stevens’ shifting artwork and his caring eye toward Alex helps move the focus off of the artist and toward his subjects. Through that diversion, Stevens goes down the rocky road of questioning the value and act of creation, diving into some heady ideas that threaten to overwhelm him and the reader. But his wife Alex is always there to guide us all back to what’s important and real in life. Even in the final made-up story of the piece, when the two characters look like Alex and Karl, he’s the magical sprite and she’s the silver-haired heroine that carries him into the proverbial sunset.

The Winner
Written and Drawn by Karl Stevens
Published by Retrofit/Big Planet