The Winner, Karl Stevens new book from Retrofit/Big Planet, is a beautifully rendered, cranky celebration of the power of inspiration. While autobiographical in nature, it is ultimately a book that explores as it reveres the healing power of the creative muse, while questioning the concept of what one has to give up in order to be “saved”.
One could easily fill a thousand word review of The Winner just lauding Stevens’ art. Ranging from meticulously crosshatched pencils to vibrant and alive watercolors to delicately inked brushwork, Stevens’ cartooning is, by far, some of the best work being produced in the industry, hands down. His fine arts background shows itself well in The Winner, and even becomes a central part of the narrative, at one point he even asks his wife, “Am I a painter, or am I a cartoonist? I need to choose. The fine art world thinks I’m just an illustrator, and the comics world thinks I’m a painter.”
This question of place, of where one fits in, circles back to the larger themes surrounding creativity and connection that suffuse The Winner. While Stevens often mocks his own pretentions surrounding notions of being an “artist”, deep down this book is a powerful statement about the importance of art itself. Stevens fills The Winner with images of his wife, Alex, the person that acts as his foil, his muse, and, most interestingly, as his savior. She provides Stevens with material to explore, a subject to scrutinize, and a reason to be better to himself. In the narrative of The Winner, Stevens admits having had a problem with alcohol when he first met Alex. She provided him the inspiration to give up drinking and to lead a more healthy lifestyle. His love for her gave him the incentive to move away from self-destructive behavior and move into a more modulated space.
And yet, even throughout his embrace of a more life-affirming attitude, Stevens constantly complains about the world, its hypocrisy, and his lack of a firm footing in it. There is an insular tone to The Winner as a result. The claustrophobic interiors of Stevens’ job as a security guard at a museum only add to this, pulling the space in. The wall of monitors watching patrons as they walk through the museum adds another layer of distance between Stevens and the world around him. The idea of watching people as they look at art increases a further dimension and commentary about the nature of art itself and Stevens’ own place within.
Much of the book is about the interactions Stevens has with Alex. He even casts her in the lead role in one of the fantasy stories that operate within the book. Through these interactions, Stevens gives the reader a filtered access to the small moments of his life with his wife, and in doing so, shows the power she holds as a creative force for him. Essentially, Stevens casts his wife as a muse and a large part of The Winner is an artist learning to understand both the possibilities of interacting with his inspiration and becoming worthy of that spark. It’s a love story to his wife, it’s an honoring of his craft, and it’s a cry against the insecurities people feel that keeps them from connecting to the world.
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