Good Grief and Tremendous Flops: Alex Robinson Off The Cuff
By Tom Waters
Comic artist/writer Alex Robinson's work is anything but a study in brevity. His 608 page tour de force Box Office Poison (1996, Top Shelf) was ambitious and brilliantly paced in its scope and the variety of human insights that everyone encounters growing up with a group of friends and lovers after college working a crummy job. The book landed an Eisner Award for Talent Deserving Of Wider Recognition. In 2001, Tricked garnered a Harvey award as well as an Ignatz award, and rightfully so, as Alex's work matured to explore the pressure of following up on a hit creation, depression, schizophrenia and popular music with a few obscure references to This Is Spinal Tap thrown in for good measure. In 2007, he risked his reputation by veering off into another direction by creating Lower Regions, a fantasy title without any dialogue. And this August, Too Cool To Be Forgotten gives us a more concise Alex Robinson. The new book covers protagonist Andy Wick's blast to the past (high school, to be exact) during a hypnotherapy session his wife talks him into after he decides to quit smoking. With each book, Alex's art and the depth of his universal wisdom find a learning curve. His work has been compared to director Robert Altman and comic legend Kyle Baker. For more information, visit Alex's web site (which his wife Kristen labors away at for him) at: www.comicbookalex.com.
Too Cool To Be Forgotten obviously dealt with a lot of post-pubescent issues. Did you plan on coping with these during the creation of the book at the outset or did they crop up during the project?
I sort of undertook it with the intention that it was as an art therapy project. Last year was my 20th high school reunion and I was sort of confused at that time with why that time lingered so strongly in my memory. I went into it expecting to put to rest some of those issues.
I like that you named each chapter after a classic '80s song. I'm glad you caught that. You're actually the first person that brought that up.
As a writer/artist, what was the attraction to creating a graphic novel without a shred of dialogue (Lower Regions)? Well I'd been working on Too Cool and it was a really difficult book to write, getting back to that adolescent part. So I was really having writer's block, and I said let me just do a quick, short project to loosen up a bit and have some fun and remind myself that it can be a fun thing to do. My intention originally was to do about twelve pages or so but I had such a blast that I really ran with it. It's the most fun I've had drawing since I was about thirteen years old. (laughs) It's something that I would have loved to do when I was thirteen. What I would do when I was younger was just draw things without having to worry about them. And I'm operating under the pretension that you're sort of writing literature. With my other books, I'm thinking 'I'm an award winning artist and I have to do another great book. I mean that in an ironic, humble sense.
Are there any comics that you re-read on a yearly basis?
I wouldn't say that there's anything I read on a regular basis. There's definitely books that I pick up from time to time and find myself getting wrapped up in like Watchmen, Cerebus is one of the books that I'll pick up and tear through, but I'll rarely re-read a book. When I started reading Cerebus I was fifteen years old, so I don't know if I read it now as an adult for the first time that I would like it the same way. When I read it as a kid it certainly struck a chord with me. A lot of it is the nostalgic value. I'm generally not the type to re-read old stuff, because there are so many new books that I want to get to.
Well writing, penciling and inking has got to take a hell of a lot of time out of your day when you're in the middle of a project.
I'm fortunate in that I don't have a full time job, but it's just like having a job. I do have some free time. Also, when you work at home as I do, my studio is in our apartment, so you're never off the clock. I'm always thinking, 'I could be working right now.', so it's tough to relax.
How grueling is the convention circuit?
It's a sort of double edged sword. It's great meeting people and having people tell me how great I am and buying my book, but there's also a lot of ego-crushing times where you're just standing there with no one coming up and talking to you or people coming up with indifference, or having to work and having people say, 'Oh, I loved your books, they really changed my life. What's your new book about?' and I'll explain it to them and they say, 'Okay, maybe I'll pick it up some time.' I just don't have that kind of mentality. If there's an artist or creator I like, be it music or whatever, I'll take a chance, you know? If it was just people telling me how great I was, it wouldn't be cruel at all. It would be a delight.
It's being on display like a zoo animal some times.
And not even a light zoo animal. I'm like one of those animals that people aren't really interested in. Spectators will come by and say 'Oh, how odd!' and just keep walking by.
Tricked had a subplot that looked at the emotional and psychological aspects of sophomore slump. How much writing and drawing is therapy for you?
I'd probably say it's like, 30%. It depends on how deep you want to go into it. There's certainly aspects of my feelings and my issues that I wouldn't feel comfortable going into. I don't know, it's a blurry line. Either 100% or 30%.
Did you go through some manner of depression after Box Office Poison? Because there was a five year period before Tricked was released.
When I started Box Office Poison, there was nobody, nobody cared, so I had a lot of freedom to do whatever I wanted. So with the second book, I definitely felt more of the pressure. That was the time I started creating books with the expectation that people were saying 'Wow, I really liked your first book, I can't wait to see the second one.'
So you were going up against your reputation.
I guess that's kind of a high-falutin' way of saying it, but I did feel that kind of pressure, and I'd just come up with an exercise for myself where I think every book I'm doing is going to be a tremendous flop. Because that way I can give myself the permission to fail. I originally called the book Box Office Poison because I didn't think anyone would want to buy it. So I have to go back to that position where I say this will be the book that ruins my career. As long as I'm having fun with it, that's all that matters. Fortunately, up until now I've been wrong, and I don't think I've had a genuine flop yet.
There have been a lot of comparisons to Robert Altman, but I think your work is more akin to Raymond Carver.
They overlap in Short Cuts. I haven't seen to many Robert Altman films or read much Raymond Carver, though.
What's your two cents on the current state of the comic industry?
There's two industries at this point: the superhero mainstream and the real mainstream, stories that aren't about people in tights. Independent, alternative kind of graphic novels. They're both going in different directions though. With all the Hollywood blockbusters coming out, it's making people more interested in superheroes, but I don't know how much of that is reflected in the sales of comics. In terms of the other end of things, the indie stuff, more mainstream publishers are interested and it gets a lot of mainstream press. Ten years ago, I doubt any mainstream newspaper would be interested in an article about comics. So that makes it really a great time for the industry.
Which Beatle's albums are you burnt out on and which ones do you still listen to?
I tend to listen more to the later end of things, but the earlier stuff I'm not as big of a fan of. The White Album, Abbey Road, and Revolver are my favorites. Beatles For Sale is my least favorite.
After working in a bookstore for seven years, how big is your library, how do you have it organized, and what's on your current slate of books?
I do have what I guess can be considered as a lot of books for the average person. We lived in two different apartments for a couple of years and when we moved, we definitely had to trim down some of the books. When it came time to move again, I said 'I've gotta get rid of some of these books. I got rid of about a third of them. I do have them categorized by subject matter because otherwise it would be impossible to find them. They're divided into history, science, pop culture, fiction and comics are a big category. A third of my books are graphic novels. As for what I'm reading right now, I just got that (Charles) Schultz biography. I was very interested to read it because all of the comic herds got very upset about it. The author had some less than flattering things to say about him. I've gotten a lot more finicky as far as finishing books. I don't buy as many anymore. After having so many, I rely on the library for a lot of books.
How did Kristen (Alex's wife) come to manage the web site and what quirks crop up as a result of it?
She's always been very supportive of my work and it comes down to a lot of the stuff that I don't really want to do. She's happy to do it. She kind of likes.gee, I hope she likes it (laughs). She does the nuts and bolts of the conventions. It just gradually evolved, because it's not something I'm especially interested in. Otherwise, she'll say, 'Did you do the web site?', and I'll say 'Naw, I haven't gotten around to it.' It's just easier if she does it. It hasn't really resulted in too many problems or anything. It's been pretty good for me, I don't know if you want to do a sidebar interview with her. I can go in the other room while she bad mouths me. I think my wife is unusual in that she goes to all the comic shows with me and she helped organize the MOMA comic festival in New York and she's definitely more involved than a lot of spouses are. I've only been to two shows without her in all the years.
She sounds like a trooper.
Kyle Baker, Adrian Tomine or Brian Michael Bendis?
What am I answering here, should the other two be killed or like, what am I..?
I didn't think that far into the scenario! If somebody said you could never have the other two in your library ever, and strike the memory from your memory banks.
I guess I would pick.I haven't actually read much Brian Michael Bendis, so he's safe to take out. He does a lot of superhero stuff and that's not really my area of expertise. I can't run the risk of offending either of the other two, so I guess I'll have to say it's a tie. Ugh! That's a cop out, come on!
I'm in the biz! I go to some show and someone says 'Hey, how can you pick him over me?!'
If somebody put a gun to your head .
Gun to my head I'll pick Adrian Tomine.
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