Alex Robinson; Drawing from life

Eisner and Harvey award-winning graphic novelist Alex Robinson’s poignant, filmic, true-to-life work stands out from the hordes of others of its type due to the gentle grace inherent  in the stories. The dialogue possesses a sort of flat reality sandwiched with layers of profoundity reminiscent of the films of Hal Hartley, or the writing of John R. Powers (Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?). Robinson’s most notable books are Box Office Poison, Tricked, and Too Cool To be Forgotten,  all three released on Top Shelf, the latter in the beginning stages of possibly being made into a film. The stories are the straightforward stuff of life, relationships, self-image, love, failure, middle age and maturation, and he makes it all live in a way that draws the reader into the core of the experience. Robinson’s characters are characters that you will care about long after you have put the book down.

PH Alex, first of all, I have to say that Box Office Poison is my favorite “true to life” Graphic novel of all time, in a tie actually with Craig Thompson’s Blankets.  Sadly to say I lost my copy recently in a hotel room in Eureka, California. The Characters are extremely believable, and seem reminiscent, possibly of your real experiences, or combinations of experiences/people.  Is this the case?

AR I think a lot of writers, especially young ones, fall back on autobiography for their first book, intentionally or not. You just don’t have a huge amount of life experience to draw on so it’s natural. Some of the book was purposely drawn from my life at time, some of it was autobiographical without me even realizing it at the time and some of it was just made up.

A handy way for creating characters is to use real life people as templates. Ed, for instance, was originally inspired by my friend and fellow cartoonist Tony Consiglio. As the book went on, however, the character took on a life of his own to the point where he “outgrew” the real life person he was based on. Dorothy was a combination of a roommate I once had and the writer Dorothy Parker, but again, by the end she was her own character. I actually forgot that I had used some of the details of Dorothy Parker’s life in the book so it’s funny when I come across one of those details.

Other characters, like Jane and Stephen were just kind of created from whole cloth. They were kind of an idealized couple, having the kind of relationship I would’ve liked to have been in.

PH Is there a process you engage in to decide the degree to which your characters are echoing the reality of people in your life? What are the responses you get from friends, family and others who see themselves in the characters?

AR It’s more of an instinctual thing rather than any formal process. I think as I’ve done more work I use real people as models less and less, or at least I disguise them more. I really don’t want to repeat myself so I can’t keep basing characters on the same group of friends over and over.

I haven’t really gotten much reaction from people I know. This could be because they are either angry and don’t want to say anything or most likely they just haven’t read the books. I guess it’s also possible that they don’t recognize themselves since I’m such a clever writer!

PH I see that there is some possibility that Too Cool to be Forgotten may be made into a film. Good for you, but, is there any concern that the delicacy of the story might be castrated in that oh so Hollywood way? The story is a very sensitive portrayal of the impact of middle age, passages, regret, longing, remorse. These are not always subjects that translate gracefully from books to film. What are your thoughts on this?

 AR I was very pleased when the wheels started moving on it. The producer has been involved in some thoughtful, intelligent movies so I have high hopes. Of course, I’m not naïve and know that plenty of good books have been transformed into lousy movies through various means so we’ll see. I do think that out of all my books it would be the easiest to adapt.

 Ultimately, though, the thing is that it really doesn’t concern me. The book will continue to exist in the way I created it no matter what else happens and I would honestly be curious to see how someone else would handle the material. Even in very early preliminary meetings with the producer we would talk about possible changes and I would think “Shit! The way he’s describing it is a better way than the way I did it!” I’m fully prepared to let it go and let them see what they can do with it.

PH I love the Irving Flavor sub-plot in Box-office poison. You obviously take a very sharp jab at the industry using Irving as an example of an artist that had his ideas and creativity sucked out of him, turned into massive profit, and was then subsequently left with nothing. Can you talk a little bit about the business of comics/graphic novels today? How the hell do you make a living doing this man?

AR It isn’t easy. I’m fortunate enough that my books have been pretty successful, at least on the small scale by which graphic novels are judged. They’re all still in print and have been picked up by some foreign markets. But you really don’t go into comics thinking you’re going to make money, or at least not enough to live on. You do it because you love it or at least have to do it. Most cartoonists I know have some sort of day job, sometimes involving cartooning or at least graphic design, but also not—retail, whatever. You have to just look at it as a time consuming hobby which will, hopefully, someday supplement your income.

I was very lucky in that the goal I had in mind—doing self-contained graphic novels—really became possible just at the time I was entering the business. I read a sad story about Harvey Kurtzman where he was pitching a graphic novel to publishers in the sixties and no one went for it and it was just a case of him being ahead of his time.

I have a theory that WATCHMEN, DARK KNIGHT and MAUS all came out around the same time and it took twenty years for the kids who were influenced by that to grow up and get jobs in the media and really push the idea of graphic novels to a wider audience.

PH Your drawing style is extremely expressive and some might say “cartoony”, although I won’t throw that derisive brick at you.  I know that you have been (or have you?) influenced by people such as Will Eisner, and it comes through even in the expressive style. This is what makes it work for me. The combination of a kind of cartoon elasticity, with the fact that these characters look, physically and emotionally like people you know….is this your intent?

AR It’s odd because I don’t really think of “cartoony” as the insult you imply. I think superhero comics are kind of backward in that they seem to insist that cartoony is bad and “realistic” is good, which seems totally at odds with the rest of the culture. The most popular comics have always been “cartoony”—Mickey Mouse, THE SIMPSONS, the Pixar movies. Peanuts, Tintin. Manga has become hugely popular and realistic is not how I would describe most of the art styles.

I draw the way I do and I’m not the kind of artist who can switch styles depending on the story. I see someone like Chris Ware, who mostly draws in an inconic, cartoony style, and you look at his sketchbooks and see he could probably draw in any style he liked. I’m always amazed at people like that—people who can really draw, I guess!

PH As a psychotherapist, I’ll have to say that you did a masterful job of bringing the devastating depression of Sherman’s alcoholic, potentially bi-polar girlfriend into the story (in Box Office Poison). She is a good example of the way in which you are able to show all sides of the characters, without them (the characters) knowing…..this “god intervention” works well to show her as by turns selfish, inattentive and brooding, as well as well, utterly lost. The scenes with her alone in her apartment with just pictures and no dialogue are especially effective.  How did you come to adapt this process when presenting the more difficult characters?

AR Again, I don’t know how much of it was conscious or whether I did this any more with one character of another. I suppose showing private moments of otherwise less sympathetic characters pays off more than it would with a character people already like such as Jane or Stephen.

Dorothy seems to be one of those characters people loved to hate, but I never really saw her as a villain. One of the things I tried to avoid in the book was that kind of characterization. It’s almost a natural outcome of spending six years writing a book as I did. You spend so much time thinking about the characters, spending so much mental company with them that you really learn so much about them and kind of walk a mile in their shoes. Since you have to come up with their dialogue and actions you have to think about what they are thinking about when they say or do them. For Dorothy to be believable she has to think all of her actions are rational so in a way they also have to seem rational to me.

Someone told me that they were disappointed by the fact that the publisher of Zoom comics, the one who is fighting Irving Flavor over the rights to his character The Nightstalker, is really kind of a one dimensional bad guy. I think this person is right. I think it was a case of me not really being able to get in the head of someone like that, someone willing to screw the underdog, so he came across as flat. I think I could do a better job in that department now.

PH I’m curious to know, if you had ultimate power, who would direct the film version of Too Cool to be Forgotten and who would play the protagonist?

AR It’s strange since other people have asked me this and I never have a good answer. You’d think I would’ve come up with a pat answer but I never can. I think part of it is that, as I said, I feel like the book is my creation and any adaptations would be someone else’s job. I guess because I was so intimately involved with the characters it’s hard for me to step outside and try to look at the characters like that. This is getting pretty pretentious but what the heck: maybe since they came from my own head on some level they aren’t characters to me so much as ideas, so asking who would play Andy Wicks is like asking who would play nostalgia or regret. Whoa, I just blew my own mind!

PH Are you familiar with the filmmaker Hal Hartley? It would very interesting to see what he would do with one of your stories.

AR It’s funny because this has come up a number of times over the years, since I was working on BOX OFFICE POISON a decade ago and somehow I’ve never managed to see a Hal Hartley movie. I should put one of his movies on my Netflix queue as soon as we’re done with this.

PH It’s very clear that your work centers around great stories that cohere, and while they resonate as true, have elements that help us distance from pain, laugh at it, re-process that icky stuff of maturation and adolescence, and make us miss it all. You share the ability to do this with people like Chester Brown, Julie Doucet, and Ross Campbell… this something you shoot for, or is it more naturalistic?

AR I think it’s just the way I’m wired. I think I’m one of those people who are constantly mulling over the past, obsessing about regrets, memories, nostalgia. When I did TOO COOL part of it was a definite conscious attempt to explore that, explore why high school loomed so large in my mental image. It made the book something of a frustrating experience. Having to spend that much time thinking about your own adolescence, ugh. It was like art therapy. I think it helped a little. I certainly wince at the idea of people judging me by the way I was in high school so it wouldn’t be fair to condemn the people I went to high school with who I haven’t seen in twenty-something years.

PH Can you give us some insight into the business life of a Graphic novelist? What is the hustle like?

AR I think I’m at a fortunate position where I don’t have to hustle all that much. It also helps that I’m probably not as ambitious as some people. I think more than money my biggest concern with doing comics is control and having as much of it as possible. I’ve never really made a serious effort to try and “move up” to a bigger publisher trying to capitalize on the graphic novel boom because I really don’t want to have to alter my material for the sake of some editor. My experience with Top Shelf has been great in this regard since they’ve given me a lot of leeway and freedom which I value. I generally write and draw the books in page order so Top Shelf usually doesn’t see the book until it’s complete. They’ll give me notes on typos—lots and lots of tpyos—and ask some questions about particular scenes or suggestions as to how things can be improved but that’s what they’ve been: suggestions.

I don’t think they work this way with everyone, and I consider myself lucky that my books have done well enough where they’ll give me a long leash.


2 thoughts on “Alex Robinson; Drawing from life

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  2. Pingback: And I’m not the bad guy | Doctor Xaos comics madness

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