Q&A with Alex Robinson of “Box Office Poison”

Alex Robinson worked in a big-city bookstore for seven years after graduating from high school in 1987. After reading his first graphic novel, “Box Office Poison,” it’s very clear that he didn’t enjoy the job. Now, Robinson is the creator of two highly regarded comics (“Tricked,” his second effort, is available now) that are sold in bookstores like the one he used to work at.

While “Box Office Poison” (BOP, for abbreviation’s sake) is a story of pretty average folks struggling through the daily grind in New York, “Tricked” is a pseudo retelling of the John Lennon story. Both intricately weave together the lives of several people. Robinson’s black and white art that’s more reminiscent of newspaper cartoon strips than the latest issue of X-Men pulls readers into an intimate relationship with the characters.

I had a chance to e-mail some questions to Alex recently, and below is the transcript.

Me – I just finished Tricked. I’ve read some reviews and interviews with you, and it seems like some people were disappointed by it. I liked it. It’s a completely different kind of story from BOP, and I imagine that threw a lot of readers off. Did you know, going into the project, that you might disappoint people looking for more of the same?

Alex Robinson – Huh, I didn’t know that a lot of people were disappointed. Image hosting by PhotobucketI don’t read reviews so my only impression about how the book is received is from e-mail and when I go to shows, so I guess people are too polite to say anything. I did get one e-mail from someone who didn’t like the book.
But yeah, BOX OFFICE POISON did pretty well so it’s only natural that some people are going to be disappointed, especially since I wasn’t doing a sequel to the first book. It’s a compliment, in a way, because it means they liked the first book so much, but of course you want everyone to like your stuff. I’m actually shocked TRICKED has done as well as it has! One of the working titles for the book was SOPHOMORE SLUMP so part of me really expected the audience to be disappointed, but I’m a pessimist by nature.
I’ve started working on an idea for a new book and I’m already preparing myself for it to be despised and unpopular.

Me – The plot of Tricked had a lot of influence, it seemed, from John Lennon’s murder. Was that a subject you’d been interested in? It came to me partway through reading that in BOP, Sherman’s stories were often on the Beatles. Tricked almost seemed like something Sherman might have written.

AR – I never intended it to be about John Lennon but originally it was going to be even more Lennon inspired. I’ve always loved his work and found his life interesting but I don’t really like the whitewashing Yoko Ono does. Her version of his life–and their life together–has sort of become the accepted myth. I finally read Albert Goldman’s vicious bio of Lennon and I don’t think I believe that version either, so I wanted to present a fictional version that was somewhere closer to the middle, something I thought was closer to the truth
In one early verison of the story, the assassin was played by me–that is, he looked like me. It was my way of sort of confessing that I was engaged in character assassination. Yes, very clever.

Me – BOP didn’t have an extremely obvious central theme, but it did (as I interpreted it) share with Tricked the idea that people get what’s coming to them. “The love you take is equal to the love you make”? – sorry, had to throw another Beatles reference in there. What do you think were the “big ideas” that influenced the stories?

AR – For me the theme of BOX OFFICE POISON had to do with making difficult choices. Both Ed and Sherman are in unhealthy relationships, but they both handle them in different ways. So in a way you’re right, that you could see it as them getting what they deserve, but do you really think Sherman deserved to wind up trapped in an unhappy relationship? A friend of mine pointed out that what makes Sherman’s story so sad is that he seems to make all the right decisions but somehow winds up miserable. I guess, to paraphrase Jerri Blank, he was making the right decisions for all the wrong reasons.

Me – I’ll admit that I did like BOP more than Tricked. I say that as a compliment to BOP, more than an insult to Tricked. In BOP, there were these extremely subtle plots in the story that I didn’t notice until it all came together. The big example of this is the way that some very ugly characters are subtly built up, and then an emotional punch comes along that turns them from demon to human. The two that struck me the most were the landlady and Hildy’s little sister. Is that something you’re conscious of, trying to make all the characters relatable?

Image hosting by PhotobucketAR – That is something I like to examine. One of the things I thought was interesting was that, when BOX OFFICE POISON was serialized, everyone said they either loved to hate Dorothy or just plain hated her. Maybe it’s just the way people are conditioned, that there has to be a bad guy in the story, but I never really saw her as a bad guy. She had her problems, as we all do but I don’t think she’s genuinely bad. The only two real one dimensional villains in the book I can think of offhand are LeBlanc, the publisher of Zoom Comics (though I could’ve easily told the story from his point of view and made him more sympathetic–but somebody has to be the bad guy!–and Mako, who murders someone in cold blood.
I generally try to find the humanity in all the characters. When you spend so long on a graphic novel, thinking about it for years on end, you almost can’t help but give characters depth and backstories of their own.

Me – Another of the interesting twists of BOP was how the main character slowly shifted from being Sherman to Ed. Was that the intent all along?

AR – No, not really. I never script out or tightly plot my stories out, so I like to leave myself a lot of room to play around. I know how the story will end and what things have to happen before then but beyond that I like to be very flexible and sort of let the characters guide what happens. That sounds very writerly and pretentious but it’s true for me.
By the end of the book, I found Ed to be really blossoming and Sherman was on the decline, to the point where I was nearly disgusted with him, so if I wanted to book to not be a total downer I couldn’t end it with Sherman Throughout the book, different characters sort of narrate the action (Stephen in the Christmas story, Jane when she’s telling us how she and Stephen met, etc) so it didn’t seem too outrageous to have another character take over.
Some people didn’t like it, though. They thought it was unsatisfying.

Me – With Tricked, since you knew you were doing something pretty different, did you ever consider going in a different direction with the art as well?

AR – I actually switched to these Japanese pen brush things for TRICKED, but other than that I never thought about making a dramatic change in my art. I’m okay for what I do, but I’m not a versatile chamelon-like artist who can change styles easily.

Me – On the topic of art, when I read your books my first impression was that your style has the most similarities to newspaper comic strips and some of the stuff in Mad Magazine. Who, if anyone, do you think yourself to be similar to?

AR – I did enjoy MAD as a kid and the first comics I read were newspaper strips, and ARCHIE. The single biggest artistic influence I can think of is Dave Sim and his work on CEREBUS. I started reading his stuff when I was fifteen or so and it had a huge impact on not just my storytelling and art but on my attitudes about comics and the industry.

Me – Now the easier questions: Who are the artists/writers out there now that you make a point of checking out?

AR – There are the usual stars, of course, like Chris Ware, Chester Brown, Crumb, etc. On the less well known side is Tony Consiglio, who isn’t nearly as productive as he should be but he finally has a graphic novel coming out this spring called 110PERCENT which is terrific. Another guy you’ll be hearing big things from is Mike Dawson. He’s currently working on a big autobiography called FREDDIE & ME which will I think will put him on the map. I also enjoy Tim Krieder’s weekly comic THE PAIN:WHEN WILL IT END?

Me – What projects are you working on now?

AR – I’ve just started working on a story that I hope will turn out to be my next graphic novel. I say “hope” because there’s always a chance it could fizzle out, so I don’t want to say too much about it. I will say that it will probably be shorter than my two other novels and I’d like to have it out for summer 2007. Keep my fingers crossed!

Me – Top Shelf seems to be a good fit for you. How much have you enjoyed working with them?

AR – It’s been pretty nice. One of the big appeals of Top Shelf was that they said they were really going to make an effort to penetrate the bookstore market. That was a big incentive to give them a shot and I’m happy with the results so far.

Me – Ultimately, what do you want your readers to get out of your work?

AR – Obviously on the most basic level I hope they find it entertaining or interesting at least. Beyond that, it gets harder to say. Kurt Vonnegut once talked about something like this and he said part of the reason he wrote was sort of a way to offer comfort to his readers. The world was a screwed up place and sometimes awful things happen but the good news is that you’re not alone. You hope that someone will read your book and think to themselves “There’s someone out there who sees the world the same way I do” and take some comfort in that. I guess that’s as close as I’ve gotten to a good justification for what I do.