As the year trudges along, it would be an understatement to say that 2020 has been bizarre. For many people, it’s been downright deadly and frustrating. And as we continue to endure this self-isolation, many have turned to films like Contagion (2011) and Outbreak (1995) as a means of coping and passing time. Others have spent hours fishing and decorating their islands in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. But if you’re looking for a different outlet to remedy those self-isolation blues, then look no further than the works of Alex Robinson.
Who is Alex Robinson?
Writer, artist, inker, and letterer, Alex Robinson is the do-it-all cartoonist behind slice of life comics such as Box Office Poison (2001), Tricked (2005), Too Cool to Be Forgotten (2008), and Our Expanding Universe (2015). But despite the critical acclaim his books have received, you’d be forgiven for not knowing his name or work. Robinson himself has stated that his long and reclusive workflow has alienated any fans he may have garnered from previous works. In fact, many may recognize him more as co-host of the popular podcast Star Wars Minute than as a cartoonist. Nonetheless, his work has remained visceral with books following the same plot-thin, character-driven, and dialogue-heavy format. The end result is books that explore the human condition using the full potential of the comicbook medium.
Right off the bat, Robinson’s lettering stood out to me in my first reading of Box Office Poison. It’s an often forgotten aspect of comicbook creation, yet it’s astonishing how much of a hindrance bad lettering can be in an otherwise engaging story. Personally, I’ve always thought that good lettering is something you shouldn’t notice too much. However, Robinson’s lettering hits a certain pathos that cannot be conveyed otherwise, often adding another layer onto a panel. In the panel featured below from Box Office Poison, Sherman Davies and his ex-girlfriend Sally are in a heated argument. There’s a lot that goes into making this scene effective, but it’s how Sally’s final words are portrayed — the little crack in her voice you can almost hear — that’s indicative of how destructive Sherman’s negativity is to himself and those around him. It’s a sad and final confirmation that this will be the last time we see these two together.
There are many more instances of lettering that engages and enhances the dialogue. From overlapping word balloons portraying rich conversation to placing a “thought box” inside a word balloon when something slips aloud, it never feels like a novelty. Instead, it’s as much of an active part of the story as the art and dialogue, applying additional dramatic weight.
Great art is always important, but it’s especially required when the story revolves around, “people talking about their feelings,” as Robinson himself describes. Without it, a large cast of characters can easily start to blend in, becoming difficult to identify with. Thankfully, Robinson’s art is clean and expressive, capturing a wide array of body shapes including pointed chins, large noses, thin bodies, and the like. The art style isn’t “realistic,” but it’s honest and ultimately captures the differences we all share. It’s an overall refreshing package, especially when such stark depictions aren’t common in popular media.
Moreover, it’s Robinson’s detailed facial work that’s integral in conveying a character’s complicated feelings. Each book is hand-drawn, so panels are slightly different even if it’s just a series of talking heads. It gives the characters a subtle feeling of movement, preventing pages from becoming static. But it also captures the wide range of emotions characters are feeling. Something I’ve noticed is that an artist will often copy and paste an image if there’s no significant movement from one panel to the next. It feels lazy, but in truth, it’s probably done to meet deadlines. Luckily, though, Robinson doesn’t seem to work with deadlines since each book takes years to come out. The end result is art that is allowed to breathe.
Panel layouts are also given a lot of thought as well. This makes dialogue-heavy scenes much more dynamic and it often works hand-in-hand with the lettering. Lastly, Robinson’s detail extends into the backgrounds with bustling set pieces that come alive. From groggy subway passengers, joggers, and a few Easter eggs, the world feels lived in and as real as the characters.
Flawed and Vulnerable Characters
Love, hope, stress, and growing up. Robinson’s works are about many different things, and it’s difficult to pinpoint what it is exactly. I dived into my first Alex Robinson book in 2015 after only reading it’s back cover, and I think that’s honestly the best way to approach it. There isn’t much plot to hook onto, but 60 pages in, you’ll find yourself quietly invested in these characters’ lives. Nearly everyone is written with a sense of vulnerability as Robinson encourages readers to understand before judging. But even when rooting for their happiness, people are usually their own worst enemy, and books often end on a bittersweet note. Nevertheless, painting these books as relentlessly dour would be misleading. In fact, there’s many instances of great comedic timing, and I found myself saving page numbers just for the gags.
A Time for Self-Reflection
Unlike other true-to-life stories, Robinson avoids turning his books into autobiographical, self-indulgent soap boxes. Instead, he seems more interested in getting into the psyche of not just the characters but people in general. How do our past failings and trauma guide us today? How can we grow from it and become a better person? And how can we take better care of those around us? There are, unfortunately, no easy answers to these questions. But as we continue to stay six feet apart from each other, Robinson’s books invite us to do some self-reflection and remind ourselves to cherish the relationships we often take for granted.