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Tricked Out

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Four years ago, cartoonist Alex Robinson completed his critically acclaimed series, Box Office Poison. The series found a second life as a hefty 608-page graphic novel, followed up with a smaller collection of related short stories called BOP! More Box Office Poison. Earlier this month, Robinson returned to comics with an (almost) all-new graphic novel called Tricked. Robinson recently paid a visit to the Broken Frontier to talk with Fletch Adams about his stories.

Broken Frontier - To set the stage a little, what is Box Office Poison? 

Alex Robinson - Box Office Poison was originally a comic book series which ran from 1996-2000 (though I actually started it as a mini-comic in 1994) and which Top Shelf collected into one big 608 page graphic novel in 2001. The story basically follows two main characters: Sherman, the frustrated writer who's working in a bookstore, and his friend, Ed, the aspiring cartoonist who gets a job as an assistant to a washed up artist from the "Golden Age" of comics. The book follows their adventures with their respective jobs, girlfriends, roommates, hobbies, etc. There are also about ninety-seven supporting characters with their own stories to tell.

BOP! [Interviewer’s note – BOP! = More Box Office Poison] is sort of a companion the Box Office Poison, but it's a bunch of short stories instead of one long narrative. Most of the stories were done at the same time I was working on Box Office Poison, and appeared in anthologies. It also includes the 24-hour comic I did and some pages that were cut from the big book. If someone liked Box Office Poison they'd probably like BOP! It's also a cheaper way for people to get a taste in case the $30 for the big book is too expensive.

BF - What was the inspiration for Box Office Poison?

AR - I had graduated from art school and was trying to "break into the biz." I started doing a mini comic which was sort of like Eightball - a one person anthology, covering a range of stories, mostly humorous. They weren't very good, unfortunately, and I decided to change gears and just do a comic I'd like to read - a longer narrative, character driven. When I started it, I really didn't have any overall story in mind. If you read the first sixty pages or so of the book it's just a bunch of vignettes, really, exploring the characters' backgrounds. I had Sherman working in a bookstore because I was working in one at the time and needed a place to vent my rage about the place.

BF - I remember I first read about Box Office Poison in the pages of Wizard – hyping it as a buzz-worthy independent book. At what point in the run of BOP did you realize you had hit upon something with a mass appeal?

AR - That Wizard article basically saved the book. The first issue came out right when a big distributor was bought out by Diamond so the sales were really below what the publisher, Antarctic, were hoping for. Each subsequent issue sold slightly less, until Wizard wrote a three page article about the book, which seemed to get a lot of people to give it a try.
But the series itself was never that popular. I don't think I ever sold more than 2,000 of any issue. I was fortunate because it got some good reviews, which probably made it seem like more of a success than it was, but when Top Shelf released the collection, I don't think a lot of people even realized it had been a series.

BF - BOP was critically acclaimed story, plus it won you an Eisner for talent deserving wider recognition – did this put additional pressure on you to avoid the sophomore jinx? 

AR - It was great to win the Eisner but it didn't really add anymore pressure. The next year I lost the Eisner, the Harvey and the Firecracker book award, so it wasn't too hard to get over myself.  I think when I started Tricked I was more self-conscious and nervous. Now that I knew there was a certain built in audience, that certain people would buy the book based solely on enjoying Box Office Poison: that was weird. I had a hard time beginning, and went through a bunch of false starts. At first it was going to be called Cave City, then I started another version called Sophomore Slump. The good part is that Tricked wound up with the best elements of both of those stories, so it all worked out. But, yeah, it was a rocky start.

BF – Speaking of Tricked, can you describe the book and what inspired it?

AR - Tricked follows six different characters (a rock star with writer's block, a counterfeiter, a high school girl, an obsessive music fan, a heart broken waitress and an office temp). Their lives are unconnected at the start of the book but gradually, they all come together and one event toward the end of the book has a big impact on all of them.

I remember being in a diner with my then-girlfriend-now-wife and looking around at the other patrons and thinking about how they all had stories. They all had their own problems and daydreams and inside jokes and favorite movies and whatever. The natural inclination, I think, is to think of most of the people as background characters or extras in your own life. I thought it would be interesting to have a certain scene where you knew the details of all the characters. How did they all arrive at this one place? What were they all thinking?

As I said, some of the characters and ideas were carried over from earlier versions. For example, Ray Beam, the rock icon, was originally a washed up rock star and Caprice was hired as his assistant in Sophomore Slump. Lily and her sister Ivy were living in a small town in New Mexico in Cave City. All of these characters are in Tricked but in different permutations and sometimes entirely different personalities.

BF - What similarities and differences are there between Box Office Poison and Tricked?

AR - I think Tricked is a tighter book. Well, it's shorter, for one thing, but there are also a lot less supporting characters and it's more plot driven. With Box Office Poison my basic formula was to alternate a plot forwarding chapter with a (hopefully entertaining) digression. With Tricked, it's much more straightforward. When I was a good way into Tricked, I noticed some unintentional similarities. For instance, in both books an assistant provides help to a formerly famous or talented person (and both times the assistant is hispanic). Both books feature teenage girls running away from home. Both books also deal with fathers who one way or another let their children down.

BF - When you introduced Caprice into Box Office Poison, did you realize that you had more stories to tell about her? What was it about the character that inspired you to bring her back for Tricked?

AR - It was funny, actually, because when I first created the character in Box Office Poison, she was only supposed to be in that one chapter. She was going to be working in the store and quit, just to show Sherman that it could be done, that he was ultimately in control of his own life. But I enjoyed writing and drawing her so much that I changed it and brought her back - her effect on the story would be different.

This next part is harder to explain: I've been drawing comics more or less since high school, and the interesting part is that when I've started working on a new storyline, I'll usually carry one character over from the previous one. Jane from Box Office Poison, for instance, was in a storyline I did in college. Using this sort of genealogy, I can trace my characters all the way back to stories I did - Gah! - almost twenty years ago. So I figured since I liked her so much I would have Caprice be the character to make the jump.

The only part that screws it up is that at the end of Box Office Poison I have her describing what she does after the book is over, but the Caprice in Tricked seems to have eluded that destiny entirely. So I guess the two Caprices are actually from alternate universes.

BF – Box Office Poison was originally done as a comic book, while Tricked is a graphic novel. Do you have a preference to the serialized style or the longer novel format?

AR - There are pros and cons to each. It took me a long time to get used to the non-serialized format. It was all too easy to not work as hard, without a bi-monthly or quarterly schedule. When your deadline is literally two years away it's very easy to squander one day playing Zoo Tycoon. Next thing you know a whole month has gone by and you've only done three pages.

On the other hand, working in relative isolation and waiting until the whole thing is done has its advantages. When I started Cave City I released the first twenty pages or so as a mini comic to overwhelming indifference. That really rattled my confidence and I wound up giving up on it because of it (of course, now everyone tells me they're disappointed I didn't continue Cave City so any way you look it you lose).

BF - Which of your characters do you best identify with?

AR - In Tricked, the character of Steve, the obsessed music fan who slowly starts to lose his marbles, was always the easiest to write. It was just letting my id run rampant with little editing. As my wife can tell you, I'm always complaining about minor things, coming up with dumb rules and questioning things that other people just take for granted sometimes, and I do this all semi-jokingly. So with Steve it was just a matter of taking the joking angle out of it and really getting angry about stuff like MTV or people talking on cell phones or whatever. It was a lot of fun.

In a way, both Steve and Ray, the rock star, reflected the two extremes of how I view myself. On the one hand, I think I'm this big shot and that it's only a matter of time until everyone recognizes my genius. On the other hand, I'm a deluded crazy person who doesn't realize how insignificant he is.

BF - From what I understand, you have an interesting way of writing and drawing your longer works. Could you explain to the BF readers how you go about creating your story?

AR - Well, I'm not sure what specific thing you mean, but I'll explain the whole thing: basically, I have an outline in my head of what's going to happen in the story, with some parts more vague than others. When it comes to the actual writing and drawing, I work one page at a time. That is, I'll write out the dialogue and layout the page in my sketchbook. Then I'll pencil, letter, and ink that page. Then I go on to write and draw page two, write and draw page three, etc. I'm assuming it's the one-page-at-a-time part that most people find unusual, but it's the way I've always worked.

When I'm working on a short story I'll usually plot it and write it out tighter (because of the space limitations) but generally I've never written a long story out before I start drawing it. For me, that keeps it fresh and interesting, because I'm almost reading it along with the audience. If I were to know every detail of what happened I think I would be bored.

BF - Do you have any other projects in the works? Can we expect to see more of the BOP or Tricked cast?

AR - I don't see myself doing anything with the cast of Box Office Poison anytime soon. I've sketched out some ideas and what the characters look like when they're, say, forty years old but I can't think of any stories that seem worth doing. I think part of the problem is that I can't think of any reason all the characters would be together. At the end of the book they've really splintered. I guess I could just do a story about Jane and Stephen or Ed and Hildy or whatever. I'd like to do more stories with the Tricked cast. Steve seems like a natural candidate for some short, rant driven stories but so far I haven't actually done any.

BF - Is there going to be another 4-year wait for a new Alex Robinson story?

AR - Jeez, I hope not! I have one story I'd like to do but at this point I'd like it to be shorter, maybe only a hundred pages or so. Believe me; I don't want to go to my grave with only five books under my belt.

BF - What’s your take on the comic industry today? What do you think the industry, as a whole, needs to do in order to grow?

AR - I'm astounded at how popular Manga stuff is, especially in bookstores. It would be nice if some of those readers discovered other comics. That's really the simple answer: more readers. If there were more readers, then there would be room for everyone: superheroes, slice-of-life, horror, biography, whatever. How do we get those readers? I have no idea.

In one sense, I think graphic novels are in a weird spot. I don't think they're as popular as the media would have us believe. There are exceptions, like Persepolis or Jimmy Corrigan but there are all these stories about cartoonists getting huge advances from "real" publishers. Cartoonists who are barely selling 2,000 copies getting $35,000 advances. It's crazy. I think it's just that we're sort of the hip new thing and we've managed to get some good publicity, but I don't know how much of that is actually translating into actual sales.

BF - I understand you have a few appearances and promotional events upcoming. Care to plug those a little?

AR - I'm relentless promoting Tricked and trying to hit as many comics conventions as I can over the coming year. The next one we have planned is the big Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD. The best thing for people to do is just go to my website (http://members.aol.com/ComicBookAlex) where we list everything.

Box Office Poison, BOP! (More Box Office Poison) and Tricked are all currently in print and available from Top Shelf Productions.

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