As one of the rising voices in comics today, Olivia Stephens’s approach to story, art, and relationships reveals a raw look at the human experience. Steve Morris at Comics Alliance recently said he doesn’t “think there’s anybody in comics right now who captures the human spirit like Olivia.” I caught up with Olivia via email to chat with her about her work and that statement in particular. When I asked her about her reaction, she said, “I was all alone in my school studio space! I do remember using some profanity. It was and still is such a wonderful compliment to hear.”
Her web series Alone was originally created as an eight-page final project for her freshman comic class. The well-crafted tale follows the relationship between a widower named Jack and the beautiful former musician Sarah. Each story arc or “short story” captures Jack and Sarah in everyday moments that feel real with all its vulnerabilities.
The art style conveys this vulnerable feeling as well. The minimalist dialogue and use of color in Alone allow the reader space to fill emotions from their own past experiences, making the story that much more powerful. In “Listen” for example, the set-up feels very familiar. Jack comes over to Sarah’s place for dinner. While looking for the bathroom, he accidentally discovers something about her, and the two talk around it and leave thinking they’re on the same page. Except that they’re not.
Over the past two years, Alone has seen changes, but they’re mainly in the process. According to Olivia, originally Alone was based “in a traditional-media approach with ink wash and watercolor. Since then, I’ve incorporated digital elements to make it easier on myself. Lately, I’ve been drawing my pencils for other comics digitally and then printing them out to do traditional inks. It’s something that I want to apply to Alone when I return from hiatus. Regardless of technical changes, I still want to hold on to the loose and organic approach to drawing that I use for Alone. I tend to make and keep a lot more of my ‘happy accidents’ when working on this story than any other project.”
Her two mini comics, Nuclear and Here Lies, are just as powerful. Nuclear gives readers a glimpse into the lives of young lovers changing over the years, and Here Lies is a female/female relationship vignette with a dash of the supernatural.
When I asked Olivia if focusing on two characters rather than a full cast was an art choice or a storytelling choice, she said, “So far, it’s a storytelling choice. More prominent characters are to come in Alone as the story progresses, but I really love keeping my focus on one or two leads and digging deeper rather than using an ensemble cast.”
That focus keeps her diverse characters feeling like people and not like tokens. When Sarah talks about her ex, Naomi, there’s no dramatic bisexual signs to say “Look at how diverse we are! She’s a bisexual!” It’s just fluid, relevant to the story, and shows how people in real life actually talk. Similarly, when Jack catches a ball game with his brother, they naturally dip in-and-out of Spanish and English.
In the realm of new projects, Olivia is kicking off her latest comic The Trials this month. It’s an 18+ erotic fantasy-drama, and the first chapter will be available for purchase in print or PDF. Fans can also support Olivia’s efforts via her Patreon page.