Box Office Poison
by Alex Robinson
(Top Shelf, 2005)

Dorothy Lestrade is an alcoholic, irresponsible, often dishonest woman. She lies, manipulates her boyfriend Sherman, uses people with casual abandon, and serves as the flashpoint for Sherman's alienation from his friends.

But from the start of Box Office Poison, Alex Robinson lets us know that she is not the villain. Neither is Jane Pekar, alternative cartoonist and Dorothy's self-defined nemesis. Sherman cripples his own life and hurts almost everyone around him over old demons, but he's no villain either. Even Sora Tweed, the maniacal landlady of Jane and Sherman's apartment building, is too independent to waste her time being a villain.

In fact, there are no villains in Robinson's tale of young adults in New York City. There are people with bad habits, people with unpleasant personalities, people who make mistakes so stupid it leaves you wondering how they manage to button their shirts in the morning. But they are still people, complicated and too rich to be thrown in the pit of comic book villains. Each of Robinson's seemingly endless cast has their own busy lives to live. Sherman struggles with his need to escape his own destructive life while atoning for his past flaws. Sherman's best friend Ed fights to maintain his dream of artistic success while working for a failed cartoonist. Jane's boyfriend Stephen occupies his time. Even Jane, with her sense of decency endlessly offended by Dorothy's carelessness, can spare only the occasional verbal barb towards her source of irritation.

Some of the cast, notably Ed, skirt much closer to true heroism. Pulling drama from the jaws of the mundane, Ed sets out to gain his employer Irving Flavor the fame he deserves for coming up with some of the great comics of the past. From Ed's view the struggle with Zoom comics has all the hallmarks of a superhero epic -- justice vs. deceit, the underdog against the villain. But between Irving Flavor, Zoom Comics and an unexpected meeting with a magazine assistant, even Ed has to learn that real life is a more complicated place than comics.

Robinson's art takes full advantage of the virtual reality available to comic artists. His characters are introduced by their appearance before a word comes out of their mouths. Scenery and layouts change to match the emotions of the characters. Word balloons and panel borders are freely distorted for emotional emphasis. Working with straightforward black and white, Robinson lets texture and shadow take over the atmospheric work often foisted on color.

Box Office Poison is Robinson's first full-scale graphic novel and sometimes shows the unavoidable weaknesses of a developing artist. Especially in the first chapter, some of the pages seem forced, some of the dialogue a little off. Robinson never shies away from a challenging composition or an innovative layout in fear of his own limitations, and the rapid evolution of his work in the face of these self-imposed challenges is a treat on its own.

The art, the complexity of intertwinement lives, even Robinson's constant empathy for his characters, are gradual pleasures of the work, small things that build in the reading. The sharpest and most immediate hook for anyone reading Box Office Poison is the fact that it is, even in its darkest moments, a very funny book. The police lineup of nightmare retail customers; the deranged gyrations of Sora Tweed; the simply perfect "RUMP!" sound of a woman falling on her tailbone, every page, almost every panel, has a moment that will cause smiles if not outright cackles of recognition. Complicated, funny and more honest than fiction has any right to be, Box Office Poison is the comic that reads like real life.

by Sarah Meador
25 February 2006

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