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Box Office Poison

Box Office Poison
Alex Robinson
Top Shelf
602 pp.

Available from Amazon.
I was first introduced to Alex Robinson's Box Office Poison, oh, about two weeks ago, after picking up the latest issue of Muddle -- which, among other things, featured an interview with BOP creator Alex Robinson. The fact that I hadn't heard of BOP before this only shows how little attention I've paid to the comics world in the past five or ten years; had I been keeping up, there's no way that this amazing comic would have escaped me for so long. According to the Muddle interview, here was a comic that was intelligent, funny, well drawn, and, basically, about me and my friends - city-dwelling late 20-somethings, awash in irony, alcohol and messy apartments. Substitute my friends' obsession with music for the main characters in BOP's obsession with books, and you've almost got a perfect fit. I was intrigued enough to take the trip to a nearby comics store on my lunch break to ask about the Box Office Poison anthology. As I stepped into the store, I was confronted with glaring displays of dumb-ass superhero comics, and was quickly reminded why I haven't set foot in a comics store in ten years or so, except to purchase a Cerebus anthology every now and then. After a quick perusal of the shelves, I determined that my quarry was not going to be tracked down that easily. I asked the clerk if he had such a thing as a Box Office Poison anthology in stock; he scratched his chin for a moment, then motioned for me to wait. He disappeared into the depths of the back of the store, and a minute later, returned with a thick tome in hand. After a quick flip through the pages, I figured what the fuck, plunked down my 30 bones, and got the hell out of there.

Now, the whole irony to this scene is this: Alex Robinson is an "alternative" comic artist. He spends a good amount of time, in the Muddle interview and in Box Office Poison itself, railing against the mainstream comics industry and the inherent stupidity of many of the titles involved. Like a true indie rocker complaining to the heavens about the omnipresence of such drek as Limp Bizkit and Creed, his arguments are convincing and true, and ultimately rather sad, in that such amazing work as this gets stuck behind the counter in the back of a comics shop, whereas the latest glossy piece of crap from the Marvel camp gets a full display. The almighty dollar wins again. Big surprise.

So, what's this thing about, anyway? Well, if you're under the age of 35 and reading Splendid, odds are it could very well be about you, or your friends, or at least people that you know or have known at some point in your life. In short, there's a strong possibility that at least one of Box Office Poison's characters will resonate with you in a slightly uncomfortably personal fashion. The story revolves around a group of 20-something New Yorkers and the various trials and tribulations that they encounter in their everyday lives. The main character is a guy called Sherman, a struggling writer who works at a big corporate bookstore to pay his rent. Of course he hates it, and of course he can't muster the willpower to simply quit the place and have faith that something better will come down the pike. "You can't just quit your job without having something to fall back on," he laments throughout the book -- but at the same time, he is completely unwilling to take the steps necessary to improve his lot in life. The book follows the lives of Sherman and his roommates Jane and Stephen, a couple who have been together for five years or so, and Sherman's best friend Ed, who is a struggling young cartoonist who can't get laid to save his life.

All of this real-life stuff would be dreadfully boring if Robinson's characterization and writing weren't so spot-on. He imbues each of his characters with such a degree of personality that it's practically impossible to pick up this book and not want to know what happens next after reading a few pages. Although in the grand scheme of things, the problems that the book tackles are fairly light - some mild alcoholism here, a crazy landlord there, some basic relationship problems everywhere -- they are all refreshingly real. There is not one moment in the course of this book where you'll find yourself saying "That's not right! That character wouldn't do/say that!" Given the fact that the book is 600 pages long, and is an anthology of over six years of monthly comics, there are obviously many sub-plots and deviations. In the Muddle interview, Robinson reveals that he never plans out a chapter in advance - his style of writing is to finish one entire page, inking and all, before he moves on to the next. As he states in the interview, "If I were to script out the whole thing in advance, it would take out part of the thrill of discovery for me. It's almost like I'm reading the book along with the reader, and if I know that on the last page it's revealed that the butler did it, I wouldn't have as much enthusiasm." Although this method of writing might seem self-centered on Robinson's part, it benefits the reader as well, because Robinson's scenarios are almost always fresh and inspired, and vary rarely predictable.

As with any anthology of this style, it's very interesting to watch Robinson's progression throughout the book as an artist and storyteller. While the early bits of the book are hardly bad, there's a definite improvement over the course of several hundred pages, both in Robinson's ability as an artist, and his ability to spin a complex, engaging tale. In fact, towards the end of the book, Robinson's art starts to emulate that of another master in the field of independent comics -- Dave Sim, of Cerebus fame. Although Robinson's backgrounds are relatively basic compared to Gerhard's masterfully detailed backdrops, his use of line and shading becomes increasingly comparable to Sim's work as the book goes on. This is a good thing.

There are simply too many amazing moments in this book for me to single any one out - and besides, taken out of context, they wouldn't have nearly the impact that they do in the actual book. Although I could pick any scene from the book for an example of the beautiful, personal nature of Robinson's storytelling, I will instead point out that every time any of the characters in BOP are pictured riding the subway, they are invariably surrounded by cretins of every description - from garden variety bums and gutter-punks to people who are comically exaggerated to look more like pustulant lepers than denizens of an American city. Robinson obviously hates riding the subway, and rather than having one of his characters carp about the horrors of public transit, he simply shows what it's like in his eyes. Sure, it's exaggerated, but damn if it isn't funny (and more true than not - the buses in Seattle are bad enough. I can hardly imagine some of the subway lines in New York!).

Suffice it to say that if you're a fan of alternative comics of any style, or you fit into that "under 35 and reading Splendid" category, you owe it to yourself to check out Box Office Poison. In the Muddle interview, Robinson cautions against reading the book too quickly, and devouring six years of work in several days. As easy as it is for him to say that, you'll likely find it impossible to heed his advice. I finished the book in three days (at which point I handed it off to my roommate, who devoured it in a similar amount of time), but probably would have plowed through the whole thing in one sitting if I'd had the time. It's just that good.

-- Jeremy Schneyer

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