The pressure to do something a little more than make a transcript of your life seems to build on autobiographical cartoonists as they get older and realize that the lives of most people who sit down to capture this stuff are not that remarkable. Not that they are bad lives or unworthy lives or anything like that, but they are often lives that just like their reader’s lives. And if one of the points of autobiography in context of an audience is to express what is unique about the life portrayed, then there are a whole lot of autobiographical comics that are perfectly nice, but not even remotely crucial.
One of the things I like best about Boston-area artist Karl Stevens’ semi-autobiographical The Winner is the lack of context with the comics creative universe. Often in autobiographical comics work, great pains are taken to lay out the life, particularly in the context of the comics community — and very often, the presentation is one of an insider. Many are the meta-story that unfortunately covers cartoonists meeting with other cartoonists, at shows, at signings, with the idea that this is a lonely profession, but that doesn’t mean the creator is lonely. In some ways, Stevens’ whole book is an answer to this trope, and a powerful one at that.
Stevens, however, is an island. Well, almost. Most of the attention in The Winner is paid to his wife Alex at least in so far as the visuals go. She is everywhere, a dominating presence whose placement is meant to give us the context for Stevens that we lack, often through challenging the context that Stevens gives himself. She is muse and devil’s advocate combined, and her responses moving from one role to the other keep Stevens on his toes and challenge him to make this very work that she appears in the best it can be.
We also know that Stevens works in art museum security, and that raises the initial thematic point of the book, the difference between Capital A Art and popular commercial art and where he fits into all of that. I don’t know that we ever get an answer, but I also don’t know that it is answerable. Autobiography is only one means of expression in the book. Stevens also includes a few fantasy-tinged short pieces interspersed between the memoir bites that he provides, and these are some acerbic efforts that take the genre Stevens is approaching and mixes it up with surprising candor. If the intention is to make you want more of these segments, then Stevens’ succeeded.
But the bulk of the book is made up of conversations between Stevens and Alex, isolated slices from their life, in a multitude of art styles, from the most traditional of newspaper comic strip style to intense painted portraiture studies. This graphic journey charts Stevens’ conundrum as much as any of the words, which are also preoccupied with his former alcoholism and the commemoration of how much time has elapsed without a drink.
Alcoholism is about alcoholism, of course, but it’s also about losing control, and Stevens’ visual work is all about precision and command. He’s so accomplished graphically that it’s hard to imagine the challenge that alcoholism posed to his talent.
When not examining his alcoholic past, he’s dissecting his relationship with the rest of the world. Always seeking control, always lamenting the lack of it. But this quest is through the filter of Alex, and it becomes apparent that she is a key component not only in regard to the universe but also to his work and to himself. Her presence in his fiction drives this home. Stevens might be presenting this as autobiography, but it’s really the examination of a duality that is crucial to his mode of creation.
The rest of the comics community doesn’t appear because he has Alex. She is the key to this entire book, and it’s a stunning and mysterious tribute to not only her but them as a unit.