Real Ideas, Silly Characters
by Holly Tsang
Jul 29, 2010 | 19431 views | 0 0 comments | 854 854 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Even as a toddler, Stephens loved reading comics in the newspaper.
Some people express themselves best in song; some do it well using spoken word. For Joshua Ray Stephens, the medium of choice has always been images - comics, to be exact.

"I had a moment of inspiration and realized I had always wanted to do comics and that I’d better start," said Stephens, who then made the career switch from graphic designer to cartoonist. "Something in that medium just makes it more possible for absurdity to happen, like a bunny talking to a human. You almost don’t question it."

He may tend to be a serious thinker, but when it comes to work, he prefers some of that absurdity to give him the motivation he needs.

"Those kinds of characters are as real to you as people you know,” he said. “I’m more intimate with Bugs Bunny than a historical figure like George Washington."

In Stephens’ first book, The Moth or the Flame, he explores serious issues starring some unserious characters - one of the main characters, Tempest McGillicutty, has a tea cup for a head! The story follows the rise and fall of the relationship between Tempest and Tealeaf Wallowrose, a pretty lawyer he seduces, falls in love with and eventually leaves.

"If one person is the seducer and one is the seduced, which one is culpable for the reactions that take place?” he said, alluding to the title of his book. “I wanted to leave some ambiguity."

Although some of the characters are fictional and some are based on individuals he knows, the inspiration for The Moth or the Flame is 100 percent based on real-life experience.

"I’ve had breakups before that literally felt like my stomach had been ripped out," said Stephens. "While at the moment it can seem like an amputation, whatever is put back in place makes it stronger."

This is demonstrated by the Tree of Life, a bare, wilted tree which experiences regeneration when Tealeaf is offered as a seemingly psychic sacrifice after Tempest deserts her.

Stephens, a native of Georgia who now resides in Red Hook, mentioned that his southern upbringing has prepared him for a career in comics. He pointed out that some of the storytelling traditions of the South lend themselves to comics. Stories are often dominated by grisly violent overtones and religious mythical undertones, themes that ring true in The Moth or the Flame.

"If nothing else, what I want people to come away with is that their imagination has been sparked, that they want to know more,” said Stephens. “I want to make work that provokes people to think about it."

For more information, visit Stephens' blog at

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