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Box Office Poison
posted December 31, 2002
 

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CreatorAlex Robinson
Publishing Info: Top Shelf Production
Ordering Numbers

As this reviewer and many Journal readers first discovered it, Box Office Poison was a talked-about mini-comic from the pen of New York-based cartoonist Alex Robinson. Concentrating on the denizens of a gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood and the people with whom they come in contact vocationally and romantically, the mini allowed Robinson to showcase a promising command of dialogue and a cable television series-ready knack for quirky character creation. Box Office Poison was hardly plot-driven: many of the stories looked backward rather than forward, while the most appealing pages featured the characters simply talking directly to the reader. For readers close to Robinson's age (he graduated high school in 1987), the lives depicted in Box Office Poison were the lives they might imagine for those on the periphery of a social circle or for a friendly acquaintance at a summer retail job. This gave the mini-comic an appeal that combined self-absorption and voyeurism, and if the lives depicted occasionally seemed sort of shallow, well, those people at work didn't seem all that interesting in the first place. Seen through the promise of those first few mini-comic short stories, Robinson looked like a potential cartoonist version of Armistead Maupin, a creator of entertaining and very bad for you soap operas that revealed the times in which they were set in part through clever use of disposable popular entertainment inherent to that era.

Robinson's mini soon became a standard comic book series from Antarctic Press, and now its story has been collected into a gigantically massive graphic novel from Top Shelf Productions. Box Office Poison is the kind of volume that makes alternative comics fans stand up and take notice, if only to comment upon its relative immensity. According to conventional wisdom, a big book like this one -- and Box Office Poison is positively Sim-sized at 601 pages -- will more likely provide a graphic novel reading experience closer to what one receives from a text novel, at least in terms of reading time and immersion. Box Office Poison also stands out because very few if any cartoonists of Robinson's generation have produced a work this lengthy; at this point, one can imagine entire careers that result in fewer pages of cartoon art than found with this book's covers. Making a first work of impressive scope works for authors and playwrights, so why not an alternative cartoonist?

The stories that made up the bulk of the mini-comic run are now the first few dozen pages of the graphic novel. Instead of acting as stand-alone stories, they serve as character introductions and stage setting for two sprawling plots split between twin protagonists. As we are introduced to him, Sherman Davies is your typical naïve, blank-faced, decent-young-guy-in-the-Big-City: he has a crummy job, limited romantic experience and middlebrow literary aspirations. The arc of his relationship with a worldly, hard-drinking writer named Dorothy Lestrade holds our attention for half of the narrative. The other half of the Box Office Poison graphic novel is given over to Ed Velasquez, a comic book artist and Sherman's virginal, homebound, best pal, and Ed's efforts to find economic and creative justice for his employer, a Jack Kirby stand-in named Irving Flavor. As to be expected in a sprawling comic serial set in a specific time with multiple characters, there are other plotlines, stand-alone character moments and even a false start or two. But Sherman's romance and Ed's crusade drive the narrative and take up the bulk of the pages. When those storylines become resolved, the graphic novel slides immediately into its epilogue.

Box Office Poison examines at length the twin values of loyalty and friendship, important issues for the age group of both the characters featured in the story and the graphic novel's probable readership. As might be expected with those concerns in mind, Robinson stuffs his work with enough pairings to start a world-class euchre tournament: Sherman and Ed, Sherman and Dorothy, Ed and Irving Flavor are on hand for sure, but there's also Sherman's roommates Stephen and Dorothy, Sherman and his father, Ed and eventual girlfriend Hildy Kierkegaard, and two homeless girls from the neighborhood named Marlys and Cookie. Solo acts like Sherman's womanizing friend James or the landlady Sora Tweed seem different or even repugnant largely because they lack serious, grounding partnerships. Tweed's isolation even plays a part in her death. Moreover, Box Office Poison turns into relationship drama when you least expect it. The comic book subplot starts as a conflict between a man and a corporation, but eventually boils down to a contest of wills between Irving Flavor and Zoom Comics mogul J.C. LeBlanc. In significant ways, Box Office Poison functions as a lengthy, staged comparison between various interpersonal relationships and the relative emotional health of those involved.

Like many first-time authors, Robinson extends on his central relationships to create a microcosm of the world, in this case resulting in a sub-culture where the level of interconnectedness is both wondrous and ludicrous to behold. As Ed and Sherman deal with their major life issues, supporting characters either actively mirror those storylines or directly participate in them, or both, as if very little else exists. For instance, alternative cartoonist Jane mistrusts and dislikes former roommate Dorothy to the point she frequently informs Sherman how doomed she feels he is for continuing to see her. Plus, as a cartoonist slightly more mature than goofy ol' Ed, Jane starts the ball rolling on the press coverage through which Ed hopes to embarrass Zoom Comics on Irving Flavor's behalf. And who's the first legitimate magazine writer to work on the story? Sherman's girlfriend Dorothy, of course! Throw in the constant repeat appearances of supporting and minor characters in the background, and the world of Box Office Poison seems like a public television production of Nicholas Nickelby – an entire civilization suggested by a company of 36 actors. The work feels stifling as a result, but in a thematically useful way. Box Office Poison conjures that feeling one often gets just out of college or high school that there are only about 400 people in the entire world, half you know and half you only see.

With its conclusion, Box Office Poison suggests that this world and those relationships must be abandoned for a chance at true adult happiness. After a long and agonizing confrontation in a hotel room, Sherman decides to stay with Dorothy despite all the ways staying may contribute to his unhappiness. Robinson's final depiction of Sherman drips with domestic despair. Ed, on the other hand, flees Irving Flavor and falls away from Sherman and becomes much, much happier for it. To reinforce the point, Stephen and Jane precede Ed offstage (even moving out of town) and like Ed and Hildy become a tighter, self-supporting family unit rather than cogs in a wider scene, even if the transition meant relationship problems in the time between the story's conclusion and its epilogue. Robinson makes this point most bluntly with his sort-of Greek chorus: homeless girl Cookie goes home and survives; homeless girl Marlys stays and is murdered. By making Ed happy and Sherman miserable, Robinson implies that the romantic immersion into the adult world that fuels many of our twenties works best if at all as a temporary destination, to be appreciated years later and from a comfortable distance. Stop moving forward and you die, at least on the inside and perhaps literally. Whether the reader wants to nod in agreement with Robinson or punch him in the head will depend on how much they share that point of view.

Box Office Poison certainly provides a loaded argument in Robinson's favor. Looking back from the vantage point of story's conclusion exposes Sherman as an incredibly weak, half-formed human being who never gets over the guilt caused by his Dad's abandonment of his family and his own subsequent absence when his mother passes away from cancer. With those self-dramatic regrets acting as relationship fuel, he and Dorothy are as doomed from the start as Jane suggests, just for much different reasons. (In the first of the chapter-splitting inserts when characters speak directly to the reader, Robinson has Dorothy tell the reader directly "I'm not the bad guy.") The excruciating back and forth of Sherman and Dorothy's time together is Robinson's best work by an incredibly wide margin; it feels like the worst relationship you ever had and looks like the worst relationship you ever saw. On Box Office Poison's first page, Sherman tells the reader that a phone call ruined his life. That phone call is almost certainly the call he received telling him his mother died, the defining moment of guilt for a life haunted by it. But for a while during a second reading one might almost think the damning phone call was one Dorothy makes to drag Sherman out of bed so they can both take care of her ailing dog. That evening cements their relationship in a way that's both disturbing and realistically observed. Dorothy and Sherman's climactic confrontation stumbles as compelling drama because the issues at hand are so uncomfortably banal, as empty as the relationship to which the characters cling like sailors roped to a broken mast.

If the rest of the book were half as interesting as that central relationship, Box Office Poison might have fulfilled the promise of the original mini-comics. Unfortunately, the majority of the graphic novel features transparent characters pushed through unrealistic set pieces, leavened by the occasional moment of unfunny, stand-alone satire. The Irving Flavor story bores as often as the Dorothy-Sherman material intrigues. As a character, Irving Flavor lacks the nuances on which to hang an affecting storyline. A tiny, pockmarked man with an absurd series of hairpieces, Flavor features a personality reminiscent of something the television actor Jerry Stiller might cook up for a straight-to-cable movie. In an interview with a comics magazine, "Comics World," obviously designed to recall The Comics Journal, Flavor describes a professional history that manages to combine several generic complaints of the lowly old-time comics worker into one walking test case, kind of a Creators Rights for Dummies. Flavor as a young man displays the slightly mercenary interests of a Depression-era youth eager for a paying job. Flavor sells his Nightstalker to a seedy comics publisher for $55. Zoom Comics dismisses Flavor from the character and the company. Zoom re-hires him at a later date to do forgettable bullpen work, starting with lowly and demeaning mechanicals. Flavor eventually wallows in creative exile, training assistants that go on to comics industry superstardom at Zoom. Instead of the knowing, subtle details through which Robinson occasionally dissects the story's personal relationships, Irving Flavor's plight consists of generic incidents of comics industry injustice and lonely old man shtick. We even get to watch Flavor eat a TV dinner by himself on Christmas Day. Flavor's story is one scene with a hooker away from entry into the Maudlin Hall of Fame.

Ed's efforts on Flavor's behalf play out in equally broad, unconvincing fashion. Nearly everyone involved in the case is portrayed as a self-interested, unpleasant dolt with at best a mitigating amount of careerist guile. Played smartly, this would be cynicism to put the Sherman-Dorothy plotline to shame. And there are a few moments of satirical insight -- the comics journalists' constant insistence of putting over their role in the Flavor case is quite funny. But the overall plotline floats unfettered by observation or detail. This makes Flavor's trials seem less like cynical commentary on the circuses surrounding Jack Kirby's beefs with Marvel or the Siegel/Shuster dance with DC than lazy storytelling, a hastily-cobbled balancing act of negativity slapped over interesting events that actually took place, events with moral implications beyond shrugging one's shoulders at the insanity of it all. Robinson cheats his readers of any substantive point about such incidents, and cheats the actual history involved with soap opera moralizing slapped on a summary depiction. When Ed leaves Mr. Flavor after the ancient artist's decision to rejoin the evil Stan Lee-style character at Zoom Comics, it's like Ed realizes he's in a dumb plotline and simply wants out. Unfortunately for the reader, this takes place on page 588.

Echoes of the narrative convenience that saturates the Irving Flavor storyline can be found throughout the book. When Sherman and Dorothy have their first major fight, it takes place not during a quiet moment together, but in an ice skating imbroglio fueled by the sudden appearance of Ed's cousin -- the good-looking, world-class ice skater. The last character to gain a history, Hildy, just so happens to be the sister of the homeless Marlys. Despite being a comics nerd, Ed has no idea who created the world's most famous movie superhero. Despite having no rights to the character, Irving Flavor is credited for several seconds in the spin-off movie end credits, surprising both Ed and, one suspects, any reader who has ever seen a superhero movie. Instead of letting them find their own way, the world of Box Office Poison forces its characters into an obstacle course of plot points. Job would fear this level of cosmic manipulation.

While such broad strokes might entertain some readers, they frustrate in great part because the fun and games weaken Robinson's themes. Take for instance Sherman's dissatisfaction with his bookstore job, a major through-line for his character. Sherman faces various customer complaints the reader discovers are drawn from Robinson's own years as a bookstore employee. These are immeasurably more believable and poignant when not told through caricatures of alternative cartoon characters. Sherman's first, cipher-like boss functions well as a vessel of great vocational irritation for Sherman, while his second, more dramatically designed one merely looms across the panels like a John Romita super-gangster. Making a statement about tedium is rarely served by taking the plot up to 11. The song and dance with which Robinson seems determined to keep the readers' interest, up to and including many instance of formal play, makes the author seem less like an assured cartoonist ready for novel-length stories and more like a first-timer who doesn't trust his insights into human nature. Sherman's lack of hard work eventually dooms his nascent writing career; his creator's determination to go for the graphic novel gusto may have turned a potentially decent short story or two into a major work distinguished by an inordinate amount of narrative bloat.

While Box Office Poison becomes slightly more refined in its graphic approach and dialogue over its 600-plus pages, the art's ability to contribute to the narrative never improves. Robinson's style is heavy with blacks, and he tends to favor very fine lines for his figures and faces. This results in pages that are very hard to keep in focus, as the eye staggers across the page to the various dark areas, and figures are lost up against them. Because some characters are designed with a broader eye towards caricature and exaggeration, some of the pages look downright bizarre. Irving Flavor floats over a train platform like an oversized Kirby monster rather than stands on it as a diminutive old man. Watching a Planet of the Apes movie at the comic book convention, Ed and Hildy seem to be sitting next to each other, then away from each other, then one in front of the other. Robinson has a nice feel for gesture and posture, and his character designs celebrate a wide variety of body and skin types. If you like freckles, Box Office Poison is your graphic novel. The cartoonist also uses formal techniques much more judiciously when it comes to providing a subtext for characters' inner lives, like Ed's occasional heroic self-image or Sherman's crystal perfect image of his mother after he learns she dies. But these are nice touches, not solid fundamentals.

Box Office Poison may find an enthusiastic audience with comics fans used to limited graphic idioms, or with mainstream fans attracted to the rhythms of its familiar, independent movie dialogue; discerning comics readers will have a hard time fighting their way through the work, period. The craft elements on display don't serve the story as much as exist concurrently with it; the writing is much less sharp than similar works from the filmmaker Noah Baumbach and the novelist Michael Chabon. Box Office Poison isn't graphically assured enough to hold our interest for as long as is necessary to make its own unique points. Despite its ambitious scope and the bleakness of some of its better observations, Box Office Poison proves a graphic novel to flip through rather than one to consume in its entirety. That's a lot of pages to flip.

(Box Office Poison is published by Top Shelf Productions, PO Box 1282, Marietta, GA 30061-1282. Its ISBN is 1-891830-19-8. It costs $29.95)