Box Office Poison
In spite of its 608-page length, Alex Robinson's hefty graphic novel Box Office Poison doesn't waste space on epic plots or dramatic conclusions. It keeps the action low-key, small-scale, and naturalistic, if not wholly authentic. The book, a compilation of the original Antarctic Press series, side-slips purposefully through the lives of half a dozen loosely linked twentysomething Brooklyn dwellers, particularly Sherman, a scrawny, ineffectual writer wannabe, and his best friend Ed, a fat, shy, post-collegiate-virgin comic-artist wannabe. Eventually, Sherman gets involved with a self-destructive magazine writer, while Ed champions a grizzled, impoverished comics-industry veteran whose Batman-like superhero creation still makes his old publishing company fantastically rich. But Box Office Poison spirals off into a dozen other minor, daisy-chained plot threads: The nerdy publishers of an indie comics magazine try to parlay Ed's fight into a public-relations coup, the magazine's intern looks for her lost sister, the lost sister tries to survive as a homeless teen in New York, and so on. The overall effect is distracting but immersive, as Robinson effectively creates the illusion of a vastly complex yet incestuous and insular world centered on inescapable mundanities like sex, work, food, ambition, frustration, and love. He packs the book with pop-culture references, comics-industry cameos and in-jokes, and anecdotes ranging from hilarious to horrific, but the end results are, surprisingly, realistic rather than self-indulgent. All of which simply illustrates Robinson's great strengthhis economic sense of characterization, which works to particularly good effect on his bit players. One amazing nine-panel page neatly tracks a television news reporter through nine hairstyles, a handful of name changes, a nose job, and a predictable career arc that perfectly establishes her personality and nature before she even appears in the storyline. And while her subsequent minor role says volumes about Robinson's dedication to depth as well as breadth in his writing, the concision of her introduction also illustrates the flexibility and strength of the comics medium. Robinson's rumpled black-and-white art, his occasional bows to surrealistic expressionism, and his evocative, graphic lettering owe a lot to Dave Sim's Cerebus; his progression as an artist can be tracked through the course of the book, which makes Box Office Poison into something of a historical record. But it's also a salute to comics, an exploration of the human condition, and a solid, absorbing, and riotously snide tale about at least half of the things that make life important to those living it.