guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

January 2006

Alex Robinson, Tricked (Top Shelf, 2005). 350 pp. (paperback) $19.95

by Jared Gardner

Ever since his first major work, Box Office Poison (2001), was published by Top Shelf in phonebook form, Robinson has been celebrated for his ability to describe believable human relationship between believable people. Much of this praise is justified. Few writers in comics capture the rhythms and halting poetics of everyday conversation as effortlessly, and Robinson is at his most innovative as a comics creator in his compositional experiments with overlapping dialogue. But for all its claims of fidelity to the art of alternative comics (under increasing siege at the start of the new century by the forces of Hollywood knocking at the convention door), the whole thing had almost too much of the feel of Sex in the City (if you replaced the swank young women with awkwardly proportioned comics geeks and the neurotic men and women who love them). It may be self-styled box office poison, but it would make for a nice tv script about twenty-somethings endlessly pondering their own ponderings. Everyone is just so adorable, lovingly neurotic, impossible to stay mad at. Even the manipulative alcoholic is as cuddly as a kewpie doll.

Which is ultimately why I found it infinitely less “realistic” and “believeable” than most critics. People I know (myself included) are not nearly so cute in their quirkiness. Where are the folks I knew when I was twenty-something? The psychotic liar, the impossible self-promoter, the budding young sex offender, the closet junkie, and the strapping young man with the uncontrollable rage issues? In trying so hard to make a case for graphic novels that focused on “real” people with “real” problems and “real” bodies, Box Office Poison made it all as unreal as the most well-endowed superhero comic.

Tricked, the talents Robinson brought to the table with his first extended work get the stage they deserve. Page by page, the compositions are complex without showing off, the dialogue is clever and believable without being cute, and the characters reveal shades of darkness that give them the depth missing in Box Office Poison. Robinson’s line has matured into a confident cross between the European clean line style and the technical virtuosity of Eisner. He does display some virtuoso runs, as in his earlier work, showing that he knows his comics history and the people whose work paved the way for him as well as anyone else working in the field; but here those displays are always in the service of the story.

And it is a good story. Not a story that will change your life, but a good hook on which to hang the more interesting work Robinson is engaged in with character and composition. Here we are introduced to a series of seemingly disconnected characters: Clarice, a waitress with a heart of tarnished gold (and the only character to cross over from the earlier book); Ray, a rockstar whose muse has stalled out somewhere between immaculately arranged orgies; Phoebe, a teenager in search of the gay father she never new; Lily, a temp at a talent agency who becomes sucked into the self-indulgent vortex of Ray’s writer’s block as his latest “personal assistant”; Nick, a counterfeiter whose talents of deception lead him to film-noirish back alleys and acts of violence; and Steve, an obsessed fan of Ray’s work who has stopped taking his meds and suddenly begun to hear the secret messages in the music. With all the subtlety of a Bernard Herrmann score, the chapters count down to a final crisis which brings all our principles together in one final ballet of violence.  But it is the slow unraveling of the individual characters along the way that is the site of the graphic novel’s greatest pleasures, and it is in the weave of their loose ends into the frayed strands of the others that anything like redemption can really be found here. The main plot might be a lot less “poisonous” to any box office aspirations Robinson secrets away, but at its heart it is in many ways truer to the form of graphic narrative than his earlier work, for all the alternative sass-itude of
Box Office. Tricked is a wonderfully enjoyable tour of everything graphic narrative does right and all the reasons we are so lucky to have people like Robinson devoting their energies to this form.