Cartoonist Karl Stevens, author of three self-published graphic novels and a 2010 finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize for graphic novels, is reporting that Failure, his quirky weekly online comic strip on the Boston Phoenix has been cancelled for insulting an advertiser. However, The Phoenix editor-in-chief Carly Carioli emphatically denies that’s the case and claims the strip was cancelled because it no longer “fit” The Phoenix, which has been relaunched as a weekly magazine.
Failure is an irreverent, satirical and thoroughly eccentric strip that has been published by ThePhoenix.com since 2009. Stevens has had a number of weekly strips published in the Phoenix since 2005. Failure is a one page color strip published weekly online; stories generally feature Stevens and his friends in conversational situations set in everyday life or offers completely fantastical, goofy scenarios that end with a subtle or not so subtle punchline—usually targeting a trend/cultural/political event under the guise of a quirky personal rumination.
In a phone interview, Stevens blamed the cancellation of the strip on a raunchy description of Bud Light, “apparently I offended Bud Light, and cannot be trusted.” Stevens said and added that the editor of The Phoenix, Carly Carioli, “freaked out,” over the Bud Light reference. However, in an email response to calls from PW, Carioli denied that Bud Light had issued any objections to the comic or that he had “freaked out.”
“It is categorically false that Karl’s strip was killed because he offended an advertiser,” Carioli wrote in an email to PW, emphasizing it was “my sole decision to discontinue Failure,” and noting that Steven’s final strip will run on November 30. Carioli said “there were no sponsor objections—zero—to this strip or any other that I’m aware of.” He also said it was “untrue” he was worried that the strip was offensive. “Over the course of Karl’s tenure at The Phoenix, he has been given more creative freedom than any other single writer, photographer, or illustrator we’ve published.”
Carioli emphasized that in September, The Phoenix was revamped from a weekly newspaper to a weekly magazine and that ending Failure is only one of several changes at The Phoenix. He said that “during the transition” he had “forthright conversations” with Stevens about whether Failure was a good “fit for the new publication,” and only ended the comic strip after “months of deliberation.” Indeed, Carioli said that despite discontinuing Failure, The Phoenix intended to continue using Stevens as an illustrator, “In fact, he illustrates a feature appearing in tomorrow’s issue.”
Stevens continues to believe otherwise. He said he was told by someone knowledgeable that the decision was based on a sponsor’s objection. He also disputed Carioli’s contention that he had had “forthright conversations” about the fate of Failure during the transition period, saying he had gone to one meeting about the new magazine, was forced to ask directly if the strip would be cancelled and was told by Carioli that he “hadn’t figured it out yet.”
However, Stevens’ did not dispute the fact that he has had virtually complete artistic freedom during his time at the Phoenix and confirmed that he was offered continued work as an illustrator, though he joked, “I’m not so sure about that now.” Stevens also acknowledged that overall he has had a “great relationship with The Phoenix.”
Stevens has created and self-published three critically acclaimed graphic novels—Guilty (2004), Whatever (2008) and The Lodger. The Lodger was a finalist for the 2010 L.A. Times Book Prize for graphic novels. Guilty won a 2004 Xeric grant to support self-published graphic novels and Failure was named “Best Cartoon” by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies in 2010.
Stevens acknowledged that he wasn’t entirely surprised at The Phoenix’s cancellation of Failure, “I’ve been pushing the boundaries with the strip for a while.” Stevens said ending the strip was a blow to alternative comics and the alternative press and he said the strip’s cancellation was “the end of an era.” Stevens said while the strip often has a political point to make, “I’m a little too esoteric; I’m not Tom Tomorrow. I think the strip is too subversive even for the alternative press.”
Stevens described Failure as “a great experiment. I didn’t really expect to have a strip like this—one page every week—that would run this long. It’s been an interesting challenge to make it work every week in front of an audience of, like, 300,000. But it was good and I’m happy they let me have free reign for so long.”