Alex Robinson first roared into the comix world with his serialized epic Box Office Poison. That work, eventually collected into one 605-page volume by Robinson’s publisher Top Shelf, chronicled the interlocking lives of several people living in New York City in the mid 1990s. Sherman, a struggling writer, works a dead-end job in a bookstore and lives with Stephen (a history teacher) and Jane (a cartoonist). Sherman’s best friend, Ed (also a cartoonist), gets a job working for Irving Flavor, an ancient, now-obscure comic book artist who just happens to have invented The Nightstalker, a Batman pastiche that has been turned into a successful film series. As Sherman begins dating Stephen and Jane’s ex-roommate Dorothy (a less-struggling writer), and Ed tries desperately to lose his virginity and help Irving get the royalty money he deserves, Box Office Poison evolves into an Altmanesque take on writing, surviving, and growing up in New York City. Filled with witty visual references (including a cameo by Matt Groening’s Akbar and Jeff) and remarkably human characters, Box Office Poison cemented Robinson’s reputation as a formidable talent and won him the Eisner award and the French Prix Du Premier Album award.
Robinson followed Box Office Poison up with several shorter volumes, most notably Tricked, a graphic novel about six seemingly unrelated characters (a faded rock star, an obsessive fan, a waitress, a counterfeiter, a high school student looking for her father, and an office temp) who gradually find their lives coming together in an unnamed American City. Much darker in many ways than BOP, Tricked thematically examines life and how we live it through a story of love, music, and violence. Paced as tightly as a thriller but with an expansive narrative filled with memorable characters and a multi-page tour de force graphic sequence at the end, Tricked marked the next stage in Robinson’s evolution as an artist.
Now Top Shelf has published Robinson’s latest, Too Cool to Be Forgotten. In it, a middle-aged father named Andy Wicks goes to a hypnotist to help him quit smoking and wakes up from his session back in high school. As he struggles to figure out why he’s there and what he needs to accomplish in order to wake up, he also discovers that his fantasies about youth aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Too Cool is Robinson’s most tightly focused work to date, telling one character’s simple story movingly and beautifully.
Alex Robinson and I conducted the following interview over e-mail:
Isaac Butler: First and most banally… What made you decide to work in comics?
Alex Robinson: I like to tell stories and draw, so that seemed natural, but almost as importantly, unlike animation, say, you had a lot more control. In that sense, my timing was very fortunate because the independent market and self-publishing and mini-comics were booming when I was in college. The fact that you could write, draw, publish, and distribute your own comics, with no interference, was very appealing to me.
IB: Two progressions I’ve seen in your work over the three books is that (a) they’ve gotten shorter (by about 50% each time) and (b) the drawing style has gotten perhaps a bit more naturalistic, or at least a bit less prone to the use of expressive caricature frequently on display in BOP. Were these changes dictated by the stories you wanted to tell? Is there a direction you see your work moving towards in the future?
AR: As for the length, I think that’s a combination of the demands of the story and the horror of growing old. I always imagined that when I died, I would have a small shelf of books to my name, say 15 books. It slowly dawned on me that this was probably a fantasy. I started working on Box Office Poison in 1994, which means I’ve done four graphic novels in 14 years, and in all likelihood I’m only going to slow down as I get older. But with a story like Too Cool to Be Forgotten, I felt like the story was about as long as the structure could handle. Since it’s all told from one character’s point of view, I couldn’t load it down or expand it with the usual supporting cast and subplots. I think the expressive caricature aspect was me sort of figuring out what kind of cartoonist I wanted to be and getting a handle on who influenced me. I think the more cartoony stuff was definitely influenced by guys like Peter Bagge and reading Mad when I was younger. I like the idea of doing stuff like that because it’s comics, you know? But I guess as I “matured,” I had a harder time including stuff like that and quieter moments in the same work.
IB: One thing that gets remarked about your work a lot is its humanism. I read and hear a lot of “Wow, I’ve never cared this much about characters in a comic before.” Is that a self-conscious goal of your work? How do you go about achieving that?
AR: It’s a great thing for a writer to hear, but it’s not a conscious goal. I guess since I spend so much time working on a given story – figure that a page that takes a minute to read could take seven or eight hours to produce – that in order to make the characters interesting, you almost have to make them well-rounded. If you’re stuck in a room with someone for years, you’re going to find out everything there is to know about someone, good and bad. I try to find some positive qualities in every character as well, since no one – well, almost no one – in life sees themselves as a villain. I remember reading a quote from Kurt Vonnegut where he said something like his goal in writing novels was to let the readers know they weren’t alone. I like that idea.
IB: On your blog, you’ve made a few mentions of the narrative of Box Office Poison going in directions you hadn’t expected, and I must imagine some of this came out of it being serialized. With Tricked and Too Cool To Be Forgotten, did you plot the whole thing out in advance? Did you know what the “twist” at the end of Too Cool was going to be before going into it?
AR: With Too Cool, I knew going in how it was going to end, though I didn’t think about the exact details until it was time to write the actual pages, since I wanted it to be as fresh and honest as I could. In all my books so far, except for my Lower Regions, I figured out early on what the overall plot was and what things needed to happen for it to come together. Beyond that, I try to keep it as loose as possible, to encourage improvisation and keep my interest. I’ve never tried scripting a whole story in advance, but I suspect I would get bored when it came time to draw it. There are drawbacks to working this way, since you can be a hundred pages into the story and get writer’s block and not know where to go next – I’ll know I had to have Caprice meet Nick in order for the plot to move forward, but can’t figure out a good way to do it. A few times I would sort of have to back up and discard pages I’d already drawn, which is annoying, though thankfully it doesn’t happen much. The fun part is that sometimes you’ll improv a little bit or scene, and it can really change things. Caprice was intended to be a one-shot character in a chapter of Box Office Poison, but I enjoyed her so much, I rewrote the ending of the book and I think it turned out much stronger. I think sometimes you sort of have to trust your gut, which might be working on the story on a deeper, subconscious level.
IB: What is the difference for you between telling a story in a serialized way, like for BOP, and doing self-contained works like Tricked and Too Cool…?
AR: It’s been awhile since I’ve done a serialized story, but I think the rhythm is very different. When doing a serialized story, I felt the need to be more self-contained and sort of end on more cliffhanger-type moments. While working on BOP, I also fell into a formula of devoting one issue to moving the plot forward and one issue to more self-contained, often more comedic stuff. I think I was trying to strike a balance between keeping people interested in both the long and short term. I always imagined it being collected, though, and with an ending in mind, so in that sense, it wasn’t too different than the later books.
IB: Box Office Poison was about, among other things, a very specific place (New York City) in a very specific time (1994-96). Did you feel, after that work, that you needed to metaphorically leave NYC for awhile? What do you think about all the changes NYC has been through since then?
AR: It’s hard to really say, because I’ve changed along with the city, so there’s no real objective way to look at it. When I started the book, I was a single guy in Brooklyn, just out of school, working a horrible retail job. Now I’m married, living in Manhattan, and “making it” as a professional cartoonist. I did want to do something not set in New York, since I was worried about repeating myself. Now that it’s been a while, I’m more open to the idea of revisiting it. I’ve been ruminating on doing a book like Box Office Poison, but about people in their 30s and 40s instead of 20s. Sort of a thematic sequel but with different characters.
IB: You repurpose characters from Box Office Poison in both Tricked and Too Cool (and, if I’m not mistaken, the main character’s wife in Too Cool is the wife of one of the characters in Tricked). At the same time, when they reappear, they’re the same personality and looks but with different life stories and backgrounds. Where does this impulse come from? What makes you say, “Ah, yes, I want more of Sherman’s asshole boss from the bookstore”?
AR: I like the idea of having all the books set in the same universe, since I grew up reading superhero comics. Some “real” authors have done it as well, like the abovementioned Vonnegut. The problem can be that sometimes you need the character to do something which might be inconsistent with their previous appearance, so I’m willing to sacrifice exact continuity for the sake of the story. When people complained about cartoonist Terry Laban making a similar choice with his comics – using the same characters but sometimes contradicting himself – he explained it as the same actors playing different roles.
IB: You attended the School of Visual Arts. According to your Wikipedia page, it’s something you have some pretty mixed feelings about. What was that experience like for you? What did you take away from it?
AR: Personally, I found my art school experience to be very frustrating and disappointing. I had this fantasy that it would be sort of an artistic bootcamp where they would really bust your ass and, at the very least, you’d leave the school being a better draftsman and knowing how to do things. But it was a like a summer camp. I graduated with a degree in cartooning and at no point did anyone make me use a brush. People did projects their freshman year and would trot them out as projects for every class until they were seniors. You had to work hard to fail. It’s like this secret racket: the school and the kids were collaborating on a secret to scam their parents. I think I had some bad timing on my part as well. For one thing, I graduated in 1993, just before the big Photoshop and computer boom, so we got almost no education on what is now standard in just about every art field. It was also before the big graphic novel boom, so the cartooning department was essentially the Kubert school with them training us to work for Marvel and DC. On the other hand, what’s the point of going to art school to learn about alternative comics when there’s so little money in it? It’s like going to school for poetry or philosophy. Those are valid areas of study, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t know if it’s worth graduating with a huge loan to pay off.
IB: The comics industry has changed a lot since you started working in it, and there is a lot of documented evidence about greater mainstream acceptance of comics and graphic novels as literature. How do you think these changes in the industry affect the art that is produced? How do they affect you as an artist?
AR: It would be nice to think that mainstream acceptance would result in better comics, but I don’t think that’s true. Sturgeon’s Law about 90% of everything being crap still applies. I guess the good news is that if you do good work now, you at least have more of a chance to make some money at it. Other than the fact that more people understand what I do for a living, I’m not sure what the effect is on me personally, and I don’t think it’s really made an impact on my work. I first called my book “box office poison” because I thought that was how it would be received, so I’m pleasantly surprised that anyone reads it.
IB: Box Office Poison thematically addresses growing up, while Tricked largely revolves around various characters deciding how they want to be as adults in this world. With Too Cool To Be Forgotten, you’re literally addressing high school from an adult perspective. What made you want to take the trip back in time?
AR: High school has always been a big part of my mental outlook on the world, for better or for worse, and I thought it would be interesting to do a book about high school and have it come out in 2007 – 20 years since I graduated. It took longer than I thought, since it was harder to write than I expected, and it wasn’t the art therapy project that I imagined, but it was still an intense experience, in a writerly way. Like I said before, a page which takes the reader a minute or two to process can be hours or even many days worth of work on the writer’s part. Spending that much time thinking about high school, who I was, the people I grew up with, was a very mixed bag, emotionally. I told a classmate of mine about the book and he said he hadn’t thought about high school in years, and I thought, “Imagine thinking about nothing but high school for two years,” and you can guess what it was like.
IB: One of my favorite aspects of Too Cool was how you gradually debunk the (I must imagine very common) fantasy that if we could only go back to high school, life would be awesome. How did your thinking about high school change over the course of working on the book?
AR: It’s hard because you imagine different situations, and the practicality of instigating them complicates things, especially when you’re 15 as Andy Wicks is/was in Too Cool. Your life is amazingly boxed in at that age. You can’t even drive. I think that’s what makes high school so seductive for these types of stories or fantasies. Almost no one thinks about what they would change about fifth grade or college, but that time in between is so alluring. I think it’s because you’re really getting your first taste of adulthood – you’re sexually mature, you have more responsibilities – but you’re still boxed in by elements of childhood. You’re forced to go to this building and interact with the same people day in and day out. People can still beat you up or tease you or gossip about you. I sort of gave myself a limitation in that the character didn’t want to change the past too drastically, so this really limited what he could do. I think ideally, you want your revisiting high school to be like the holodeck or a daydream, where you could pop in, score with that girl you had a crush on, punch that bully in the face, and then pop out with no consequence. But even that, when you think about it, is more complicated. What makes me think I could go beat up that bully now when I couldn’t then? He’d still kick my ass, most likely.
Too Cool to Be Forgotten is out in stores now. If you happen to live in New York, please consider buying it at this great comic book store.
If you would like to read more of Isaac Butler’s thoughts on theatre, culture, and politics, take a gander at his Blog.
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