by Alex Robinson
(Top Shelf, 2005)

Alex Robinson starts Tricked on chapter 50, with a quick look into the mind of faltering musician Ray Beam. With that one simple trick of backward chapter headings, Robinson gives Tricked the ominous interest of thick smoke on the horizon, or a far-away siren, as though whatever is going to be discovered has already occurred. It's somewhat misleading. From chapter 50, Tricked quickly moves forward in time, traveling towards the epicenter of events in chapter one. Following chapters touch on the otherwise ordinary lives that combine to form that final explosion: Lily, an office worker; Caprice, a waitress struggling with love; Phoebe, a teenager looking for her prodigal father; Nick, a petty criminal and constant liar; and Steve, an obsessive fan of Ray's music. But as disparate as all their stories are, they pull together naturally, inevitably, for a moment that none of them could expect.

Tricked is Robinson's second graphic novel, and his art has lost the occasional shakiness that sometimes affected his first work, Box Office Poison. Thankfully, Robinson hasn't lost his sense of daring in the layouts. The entire structure of Tricked is something of a game, with each chapter moving back from 50 to 1, with the chapters celebrated by increasingly ominous still-life objects: a $500 bill, a pair of pliers, a gun. Robinson makes use of the abstraction inherent in comics for emotional effect, manipulating the images of his characters and surroundings to a degree rarely seen in American comics. Ray introduces himself with a fit of writer's block, a problem so common for creative professionals that it hardly begs for attention. Ray's monologue on the topic is brief and terse. But the visual background is a full page of tight, detailed panels of Ray through the years, frozen in a single position, a single expression, while everything including his wardrobe changes. It's a claustrophobic effect, perfectly catching Ray's panic over the speeding years and the suffocating weight of all that moving unspent time. It's a beautiful technique, and far from unusual in Tricked. Phoebe grows nauseous in a cab, and the city outside her windows melts and swirls while her body lunges away from her control. Caprice frets over her weight, and instantly expands to burst out the edges of her containing panel. Perhaps no character benefits from this graphic synthesis of emotion and surrounding as much as Steve, whose increasing delusions send his thought panels spiraling, or make the skies of a fair day blacken, or surround innocent bystanders with holy auras or demonic shadows.

Tricked is a graphic novel that fully exploits its medium. The emotional pull of the story, the train-wreck fascination created by the pacing and the immediate intimacy with a half-dozen point-of-view characters would be lost in a straight prose novel. But Tricked is also a good story, period, a pitch-perfect exploration of the connections that bind us and the power they give us all.

by Sarah Meador
17 March 2006

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