Alex Robinson is one of those creators that I should have interviewed years ago. I’ve enjoyed his work since Box Office Poison (2001). When I scored a copy of his latest book for Top Shelf, Too Cool to Be Forgotten, I contacted Robinson for an email interview. Anytime I find a fellow XTC fan, I’m even more pleased to be doing the interview. So imagine how much fun I had with this interview. Here’s some background on the book, straight from the publisher, Top Shelf:
“Andy Wicks is a forty-something father of two who’s tried everything to quit smoking — from going cold turkey, to the latest patches and nicotine chewing gums — so he figures he’ll give this hypnosis thing a try. What’s the worst that could happen? Unfortunately, Andy gets dealt a fate worse than death — high school! Transported back to 1985, Andy returns to his formative years as a gangly, awkward teenager. Is he doomed to relive the mistakes of his past, or has he been given a second chance to get things right? One thing’s for sure … this time he’s going to ask out that girl from math class… Presented as a gorgeously formatted hardcover graphic novel. — 128-page, hardcover graphic novel, 5 1/2″ x 7 1/2″
Tim O’Shea: Much has been made (in a positive sense) for the ambitious way you conveyed the hypnosis transition (words in the shape of Andy’s head) on page 12. How did you first come up with that element and how much revision or aborted attempts did it take before you were happy with it? It’s an amazing piece of art and writing at the same time, honestly, and no easy task (though you made it look smooth and easy).
Alex Robinson: Why, thanks. I don’t remember how I came up with the idea or if I swiped it from someone else, but I just wanted some unique visual to convey the experience, something dreamlike. It was actually pretty simple to do once I figured out what I was going to do. It’s funny because many times people assume a page or sequence was especially challenging when it was actually easy and vice versa. I think the pages that usually take the most work are ones people don’t really notice or pay attention to.
Another example would be the “hidden head” pages toward the end. They were actually fun and relatively simple to do, but a lot of people have commented on how hard it must’ve been.
O’Shea: This is a book about a form of therapy that you readily admit is partially an attempt at therapy on your part, reflecting on issues from high school and family history. While in the book bio you note that you were not invited to your high school reunion–I’m curious since the book came out in July, have you heard any reaction from former classmates? Also, since it slightly dealt on some level with your own family issues, I’m curious what if any reaction there has been from your family?
Robinson: Well, other than my brother, none of my family members have ever read my comics. I thought maybe since this one was short and was the most personal it might lure them in but if they’ve read it, they haven’t said anything. Hence, the therapy!
Before the book came out I was doing some poking around the internets going to some of those websites where people who went to school together can meet up, and I did post a thing about how I was working on a book about high school. I did get responses from two people, one of whom told me that I need to get over it and get on with my life, etc. which I thought was amusing. I was kind of disappointed I didn’t hear from any classmates once the book came out, but even on the most basic mathematical level, the odds are against it. What are the chances of one of the few thousand books printed up winding up in the hands of one of those 200 people? You can always hope the girl you had a crush on is googling your name but it would be a longshot that any of them even read graphic novels. Wait until the movie comes out! Then they’ll all see!!
O’Shea: Given the size and scope of Box Office Poison and Tricked, which were much bigger than this 125-page story–are you eager to do another 125-page story or do you hope to do something larger with your next effort?
Robinson: I’m sort of on the fence, in that I like doing longer books but it’s obviously nice to have something new come out. The worst thing is when you’re working on a long book and have to tell people year after year that you’re still in the business, still working. Well, it’s not the “worst” thing. I guess it would be worse to be working on a long book and having no one care. But, yeah, I’ve been considering doing a longer book but maybe serializing it in a few volumes, say three or four one-hundred page volumes. I have to come up with a story first, of course.
When I look back at a book like Box Office Poison I’m amazed I did it, in terms of page count. It could be that it’s a young man’s game, but we’ll see.
O’Shea: Super Spy’s Matt Kindt came up with the perfect cover concept for this book. Given how close it is to a certain 1970s cigarette brand packaging, were you nervous about getting hassled by a tobacco company? Was that one of Kindt’s first proposed ideas for the cover–or was it a great deal of back and forth between you and he before you got to that cover?
Robinson: There was a bit of discussion about the cover. Matt had proposed the cigarette idea, but I wanted to go with a yearbook theme so we went back and forward on that for awhile. Between me, Matt and Top Shelf we just couldn’t settle on a yearbook cover we all liked, so I think I offered to have Matt work up the cigarette cover and it just clicked instantly. Aside from it being a great cover, I was secretly relieved because I noticed a lot of other yearbook themed books around.
There was some talk about the idea of a tobacco company suing but we sort of joked that it would be good publicity to be sued by big tobacco, but so far it hasn’t come up, probably for the best. I was talking with Matt about the cover afterwards and he told me about some rule of thumb when it came to parodies, like if you change three elements you’re in the clear. But I think when I pressed him he admitted he didn’t know if it was the actual legal definitions or one of those things everyone just knows, like getting a 4.0 GPA if your college roommate commits suicide. Hopefully, we’ll never have to find out.
O’Shea: How hard was it to write dialogue that reflected a 40-year old speaking in a scenario where he once was a teenager (and thanks to hypnosis feels like he is a teen again).
Robinson: Writing the 40 year-old was pretty easy, since I was close to that age and was more or less writing him as myself when possible. But writing the teenagers was very hard. I had set myself the rule that I was going to try to write “real” teenagers, instead of Hollywood teenagers, who tend to be suspiciously hip, funny and together. What I soon realized was that all too often “real” teenagers just come across as “bad” writing, since they’re very self-conscious and sort of still figuring stuff out. So it was very hard to write scenes with the teenagers hanging out, since I had no idea what they talked about. This was one reason there wasn’t as much high school stuff as I originally intended.
O’Shea: As one of the “loners, losers and outcasts” of high school myself, I was touched by your dedication. Have you heard from former loners as a result of the dedication?
Robinson: No one who has specifically said so, but since we’re talking about comics readers it’s probably safe to assume a lot of them were outside the mainstream. Although one thing a friend of mine and I were talking about was how nerds sort of were mainstream now, and how you could be a cool nerd and get girls, in theory. We were bitter about this, since back in our day this was not the case.
I don’t want to spoil anything for people who haven’t read it, but I have had a lot of people tell me fairly personal things about how the ending mirrored something in their own life, or how it brought back memories, pleasant or otherwise. This sort of surprised me, though I don’t know why it should.
O’Shea: It’s not every storyteller that gets compared to director Robert Altman. When Village Voice’s Matt Singer made that comparison (“If Brian Bendis is comics’ David Mamet, and Grant Morrison its David Cronenberg, then Alex Robinson is its Robert Altman.“) were you more flatter or intimidated by the expectations that come with such a pedestal placing?
Robinson: You take it all with a grain of salt. As a rule I don’t read reviews for exactly that reason. Bad or good, they can make you self-conscious. This probably hit me the hardest when I was working on Tricked, or trying to get started anyway. Box Office Poison had done well enough where I felt very anxious about starting The Second Book. I used it for the scenes where Ray is worrying about his new album, but it can really be a hard thing to overcome.
I enjoy hearing from people who liked the books, but you try not to put too much stock in it.
O’Shea: Given how ambitious the story is as a whole, can you point to a particular scene that was particularly hard for you to write or draw?
Robinson: Related to what I said before about writing teenagers, I think the scene at the party was among the hardest, since it was filled with teenagers out on their own. You’ll notice that I cut away from that fairly quickly, them talking amongst themselves.
I don’t remember anything being unusually hard to draw, beyond the usual stuff like perspective and cars, but one interesting experiment involved Andy’s childhood home. It’s pretty much the house I grew up in and in the establishing shot I tried to draw as much as I could from memory. Once I’d gotten it as close as I could in the penciling stage I took out a photo to see how I did. You’d think living in a place for that long I’d have gotten it perfect, but I got some shockingly big things wrong, like the fact that we had a two car garage instead of the one I drew (in my defense, we never had more than one car in there because it was filled with junk).
O’Shea: With the title of Chapter 11 (Hold Me My Daddy) was that a nod to the old XTC song (which goes “Hold Me My Daddy… I forgot to say I love you“)?
Robinson: Yeah, all of the chapter titles were based on songs from the eighties, which was a fun puzzle. One early idea I had was to bookend the book with two XTC songs, to open with “Playground” which is about how school stays with you for better or for worse your whole life, and ending with “Hold Me My Daddy.” But my friend Mike Dawson was doing a book where he quoted a lot of Queen lyrics, and when I saw the hoops he had to go through to get permission it might’ve scared me off. I’m a big fan of latter day XTC in any case.
O’Shea: In terms of Chris Staros’ role as editor for this book–can you point to certain elements or scenes that changed drastically due to his editorial guidance?
Robinson: Nothing too drastic. In this case his notes usually involved making something clearer or questioning storytelling stuff where I might’ve dropped the ball. Thankfully, Top Shelf has given me a pretty long leash when it comes to editing, helping when I ask but otherwise not interfering. I think that’s why our relationship has worked as well as it has, and it’s worked out nicely.