When you read City Paper, you might be forgiven if you jump first to the police blotter, especially if its to look at the hilarious illustrations that accompany the stupid-criminal stories.
That's just fine with cartoonist Steve Stegelin, whose drawings have, for 12 years, illustrated criminal folly along with more general folly in the weekly editorial cartoon.
"The Blotter gets more traffic," Stegelin says over a bright red iced drink at Starbucks. He admits that analysis is based on what people tell him rather than analytics. "I love the Blotter. It's like illustrator improv. With the other cartoon, I sit on it and deliberate for a week. With the Blotter, I just pick one crime and create my own take on it."
Stegelin's work, both Blotter and editorial, as well as earlier illustrations, will be on exhibit starting January 13 at Avondale's 4th Wall, formerly Jericho Arts.
"I have always been a big fan of the comic format," says Josh Silverman, owner of the West Ashley gallery. "I've been a City Paper reader for a long time and a friend introduced me to Steve and we really hit it off. I thought this would be a great opportunity to showcase his new work, but also to go back into history and look at what he has done in the past. He has a long career as an illustrator and artist."
That long career started with doodling, and Stegelin highly recommends doodling and drawing every day to aspiring illustrators.
"As a child, I doodled all the time," Stegelin says. "Have a sketchbook handy and just draw whatever captures your interest. I look back at my earlier stuff and cringe. I can see a definite evolution in my style, I can see where I am learning as I go. You get that from just drawing. Even now with steady deadlines and a steady gig, I try to do things for my own fun so I can experiment and explore stuff."
Stegelin got a degree in psychology and a minor in English, but he says it was his cartoon work at the campus newspaper that gave him his first paid gig in what would become a lifelong career.
"It was the first time I pissed off a crowd of people," he says, recalling a cartoon that made fun of campus fraternities. The frats had hung a poster full of double entendres, but they feigned innocence of the dirtier meanings. When Stegelin's cartoon called them on it, the frat boys emptied every bin of that issue of the campus paper.
"We laughed it off, but we were kind of marveling that a cartoon had that kind of reach," he says.
- Stegelin's style has evolved over the past 12 years
Early Stegelin work was influenced by Doonesbury as well as the now-defunct Calvin and Hobbes and Bloom County, which is making a comeback on Facebook. In fact, the campus newspaper comic strip that Stegelin created, Boondoggle, owed much to Bloom County, with stock characters and social commentary.
"It was kind of comical, not necessarily political. It was the early '90s and alt music was a thing, so we talked about that, about entertainment and social events," he says.
After graduating in 1995, Stegelin revamped Boondoggle into a small press indie comic book. By the time he moved to Charleston in the late 1990s, Boondoggle had morphed into an occasional web comic.
And then 9/11 happened.
"It was a big event. It felt weird to do Boondoggle. It was creatively difficult to do a socially aware humor strip in the face of death and destruction. I shuttered it," says Stegelin.
Boondoggle led to a request that Stegelin contribute to a cartoon anthology about 9/11 to benefit the American Red Cross.
"The cartoon wound up poignant, family-friendly," he says. "It was not my response to it, but my response as a parent. It was about me wondering how to explain it to my daughter, then coming home to realize she already heard about it in school and switching gears to helping her tune it out."
Original art from both the early Boondoggles and the web version, as well as the 9/11 cartoon and a page from an unfinished project done in the wake of 9/11, will be in the exhibit.
September 11 would not be the last time that tragic world events would be processed with pen and ink for Stegelin.
After terrorists killed French cartoonists and others in the Charlie Hebdo incident early last year, Stegelin says the terrorism had a profound impact on his work.
"It made me think. It was the moment when satire became a big question mark," Stegelin says. "It made me realize the importance of what I do as a satirist. That you could elicit that kind of response shows the power of what we do. We didn't silence that because of terrorism. It gave more impetus to what I do. It made me a little more proud to do what I do."
And later, it hit even closer to home with the Mother Emanuel shootings in June.
"9/11 was tough," he says. "It was the reason Boondoggle took a hiatus. It's hard to do comedy with sharp commentary. Even AME was not laugh-out-loud punchline cartoons. It was more like irony was the punchline. That Charleston was united."
- Stegelin struggled to find humor in his illustrations after 9/11. This piece was a poignant look at the event that ran in a 9/11 cartoon anthology
Stegelin says that 2015 was a rough year for Charleston, and his strip reflects that.
"We had AME, Walter Scott, police violence, flooding in October," Stegelin lists. "My takeaway is that these are really tragic topics. At the same time, we came out as a stronger community. Some of the best ironies ...AME was motivated by trying to start a race war. Instead we saw the entire city come together. Same with Walter Scott. We've all seen the race riots in other cities, but here the Scott family is telling the city to chill out and be kind to one another. The best irony is we didn't follow the script."
Stegelin is already getting his ink ready for 2016.
"Donald Trump is a gift to all satirists," he says.
And he is still refining his approach to Charleston's new mayor.
"This has been interesting," he says. "It was the first time voting for a mayor in 40 years without Riley on the ballot. But voter turnout was abysmal. All the candidates said the same thing. I think it was interesting how they all started off running a clean campaign, but by the end there were negative attack ads. It's like you can have a nice guy like Riley or an excellent politician like Riley, but you can't have both. I'll miss Riley as a subject. He was fun to draw, a little elfin character. Tecklenburg is still evolving. He's very white bread. But we'll see."
No matter what his take, Stegelin is bound to offend someone.
He recalls a strip he did several years ago for City Paper. Several Chinese takeout places had been robbed.
"Everyone was theorizing that it was North Charleston people coming across the bridge. Turns out, it was a bunch of Wando High School football players. Now comic strips use a lot of visual shorthand. You have one minute for people to read your strip. So, I thought ...kids, football players. I wound up with the old Charlie Brown/Lucy football joke. Only instead of pulling the football away, Lucy pulls out a gun and Charlie Brown empties his wallet. I got angry letters," Stegelin says, shaking his head. "People were mad because they somehow thought I was making fun of the Wando High principal, who happened to be named Lucy Beckham, who died last month. It had nothing to do with her. People layer their own weird take into it."
Stegelin says that, although many of his contemporaries have gone digital with their artwork, he sticks with pen, ink and Bristol board. "I letter everything by hand. A lot of people love their tablet, but then nothing can hang as original artwork in a gallery," he says
The Stegelin exhibit opening, titled Working Man, coincides with the Avondale gallery's rebranding as 4th Wall.
For those familiar only with the Blotter, Silverman says the exhibit will feature black-and-white art and web illustrations and will allow viewers to see details they may have missed.
"I love the detail of his work," Silverman says. "It's part of his appeal and what elevates it as art. Beyond the simple drawing, it's the detail he puts into his pieces. When you see that in the paper, it's often smaller than the original artwork, but in the exhibit, you'll be able to see the quality, and interact and be face to face with what he is doing to make his work stand out."
Although the illustrations can be appreciated as art, Stegelin says the main goal of his satire is to generate some sort of emotional response.
"If it makes you laugh, great. If it pisses you off, great," he says. "The worst response is ...'meh'."