Cartoonist & illustrator Karl Stevens rejoins the show to celebrate his new book, Penny: A Graphic Memoir (Chronicle Books), in which Karl explores the inner life of his eponymous cat Penny. We get into the challenges of realistically drawing a tortoiseshell cat (and writing her existentialist thoughts), the book’s origins in his Village Voice strip, and how he avoided plenty of cartoon cat cliches while crafting a book that can appeal to non-comics readers. We also get into his new work adapting another writer’s script for a comic, the experiments he’s doing with different drawing styles, his productive pandemic, and how he’s trying to create book about his father’s Vietnam experience. And we talk about our respective running habits, the virtues of Transcendental Meditation, his learning curve with New Yorker comic submissions, and his deep-dive into back issues of Heavy Metal. Give it a listen! And go read Penny: A Graphic Memoir!
Karl Stevens is a graphic novelist and painter whose comics have appeared regularly in the New Yorker, Village Voice (where Penny premiered), and Boston Phoenix. Stevens’ graphic novels include Whatever, The Lodger, Failure, and The Winner. He lives in Boston with his wife and their overlords cats, Penny and Pepper. His new book is Penny: A Graphic Memoir.
“I love finding people who are obsessed with things. People who devote their lives to things are my obsession.”
Writer and Twitter provocateur Hayley Campbell joins the show for a conversation about her inability to describe her job (don’t call her a “content provider”). We talk about growing up in comics royalty (her dad is the great cartoonist Eddie Campbell), Alan Moore’s magic tricks, nearly losing a comic-shop job because of her lack of a college degree, the celebrity retweet she’s proudest of, and having an accidental career path, no fixed home, and a traumatic brain injury that gooses with her memory (and whether those three things are somehow connected). Also, we get into how she recently embarrassed Jonathan Safran Foer, and more! Give it a listen! And go buy her first book, The Art of Neil Gaiman (Ilex/Harper). And for God’s sake, go follow her on Twitter!
“I think I’m more of a loser in real life than I am on the internet.”
We also get into her obsession with obsessives, becoming the oldest person at her BuzzFeed office in her early 30s, the insanely creepy Moebius comic she read as a kid, the glories of Australian dentistry, digging through old girlie magazines to research her book on Neil Gaiman, and why she loves writing about boxing. We also compare notes on doing interviews with people whose work you love. Now go listen to the show!
“Dad won’t join Twitter because he’s afraid I’ll have more followers than him, and he’ll be ‘Hayley Campbell’s dad.'”
It’s entirely possible that I have brain damage. In the main, I see virtually everything abstract in terms of geometry and/or symbolic logic. Listening to a baseball game on the radio, I’m rarely visualize anything more than a standard scorecard diamond. Any hit to right or left field only travels along the foul line.
Storytelling, I make some pretense at imagination, but I usually over-engineer stories to make them “airtight,” to ensure they fit unobtrusively in the world at large. I spend so much time considering the implausibilities and details that the stories themselves end up lifeless. Maybe that’s why I’ve gained some interest in photography; at least there I’m capturing something that already exists.
(Maybe I’m also still guiding myself through depression and denigrating myself a bit much.)
In my Salinger post two weeks ago, I included a video excerpt from Crumb, the documentary by Terry Zwigoff about Robert Crumb and his brothers. If you haven’t seen it, go check it out, even if you’re not into cartooning. It’s one of my favorite movies, exploring notions of art and sex via unforgettably and entertainingly messed-up characters. (There’s also a cringe-worthy segment with Trina Robbins complaining about Crumb’s cartoons’ meanness toward women, but it was 1994, so hey.)
This recent post by Frank Santoro put me in mind of one of the best scenes in Crumb. Santoro writes about a 1992 NYC in-store appearance by the great French cartoonist Moebius. At first, he was amazed at how perfect and quick Moebius’ sketches were as he illustrated the front pages of fans’ books. But then he noticed some of Moebius’ sketchpad pages:
The loose pages were finished pages for a new Major Grubert story. I knew he drew â€œautomaticallyâ€ out of his head, with no pencils, but I wasnâ€™t prepared to see how precise and loose his originals were. They were made without ANY discernible hesitation.
There was one page and one panel in particular that really stayed with me. It was a canyon rock wall that curled away in the distance. Floating along in it was a boat with a shadowed figure in the front. I remember it so distinctly because the marks that comprised the boat were like an intricate latticework, like a wicker chair. The sheer number of lines made the boat dark and it stood in relief of the canyon. It didnâ€™t look drawn and shaded, it looked etched into the paper. Did he lightbox those lines? There were no pencil lines at all. Even the handwriting was eyeballed in straight pen. The page was perfect. I was in awe.
Read the rest of it, which includes Santoro’s encounter with that very page when he picked up a Moebius book on a recent trip to France. (Oh, and here’s my pic of Frank from the 2009 Toronto Comic Arts Festival. Hey! You all should come to this year’s TCAF! Amy & I will be wandering through!)
Which brings me back to Crumb. I hesitate to call this segment the centerpiece of the movie, but it is one of the more illuminating examples of what art is, and how it differs from whatever it is I do. In the scene, Crumb looks through the sketchbook of his son Jesse and the two of them compare drawings they’ve made from an old photograph.
Clip copyright 1994 Superior Pictures, “Crumb“, until they make me take it down.
At the end, we get the following exchange:
Jesse: YOU didn’t go to art school and look, you’re rich and famous!
Robert: [laughs] We’re not talking about rich and famous; we’re talking about learning to draw.
Unspoken â€” or just barely hinted at in Robert’s “heh” preceding that comment â€” is, “Well, son, I’m a genius and you’re not.”
“Genius” isn’t a shorthand way of describing Crumb’s art is naive or unschooled. He possesses a virtuosity that comes from countless hours of labor (instigated by his brother Charles, shown in that clip I used for the Salinger post), but his genius, as displayed in that clip, comes in knowing what to exaggerate, in knowing how to see.
How does the eye then see inward? How do artists like Crumb and Moebius reach the point where the imagined is evoked so surely and beautifully?
Sometimes, I think they’ll examine my brain after I die and discover that I was missing some important piece, like the way Pete Maravich turned out to be missing a chamber of his heart.