Readers of the Village Voice in recent years will recognize the furry subject of “A Cat Lies In Wait” at The New Yorker, even as it’s thoroughly obscured by brushy black shadows. Starring a cat named Penny—a weightless, floating blue specter, wholly dominating eight of the comic’s nine panels—the ink and watercolor strip is the work of Massachusetts-born artist Karl Stevens, and it appears to pick up on the series that ran in the Voice before the New York City alt weekly shuttered in August. If there’s a new home for Penny, that’s good news for Stevens, who won an award in 2010 for a comic called “Failure” that was serialized in the Boston Phoenix years ago. In May, Retrofit Comics published The Winner, a slim collection of autobiographical comics from the painter and comic artist that are either full-color—framed in his thin inked linework and painted with lush watercolors—or black and white, extraordinarily detailed pen and ink vignettes enriched by impenetrable thickets of cross-hatching.
Stevens drops the reader right into the middle of the life he shares with his wife Alex in The Winner‘s inaugural comic, substituting any sort of context for what’s instead an introduction of two themes central to the book—what he sees as a plague of suburbanites who don’t appreciate visual art and a general bitterness about life, usually stemming from his day job as an art museum security guard. When his overzealous gripes and observations don’t exhaust us in their childishness and tiresome sameness, they’re hilarious and admittedly executed with relatable exactitude on some level (“I’m definitely an indoorsman”), even as they’re just one or two lines and tucked into unobtrusive bare caption boxes while the rest of the panel is dense with gorgeous color pairings.
The Winner is question-driven, whether Stevens is looking back at the messy life he had before he quit drinking or the “career” he can’t seem to shape for himself. The book’s comics and free-standing drawings are frequently representative of personal exchanges between the artist and Alex—when the pages aren’t given over to peculiar but deftly drawn surrealist one-offs anchored in horror or fantasy—but you’d be foolish not to stop and smell the flowers, literally. While it’s obvious that portraiture is among Stevens’ most prominent strengths as a fine artist, there’s a charm in getting lost in the magnificent granular attributes of the backdrops here. From the painstaking replication of innumerable flower petals for a strip that has the couple admiring a garden to the red rose that pops amid a wash of ambers and deep browns when Alex visits a grave during autumn, this is a beautiful and funny book. I’m sure Stevens has been complaining about it all year.