Hey folks, Humphrey Lee here. Alex Robinson is what is known as a "self-made man".... Actually, okay, I have no idea if that's true, but it sounded really nice. Really, Alex Robinson is the mastermind between two incredibly critically acclaimed pieces of comic book literature, the former Eisner and Harvey award nominated BOX OFFICE POISON, and the current Eisner and Harvey Award nominee, TRICKED. Both works are highly touted by this reviewer/interviewer as some of the best comics he has had the privilege of reading and thinks you should support this works with all your monies. AICN Comics thanks him for his time and is glad to host this interview.
Alex Robinson: Well, technically, when I started BOX OFFICE POISON I was actually just doing a bunch of short stories that revolved around the same characters, without any real overall plan. It wasn't until I'd done about sixty pages of those that I figured out a long form story, so I only had another 540 pages to go.
Humphrey Lee: So, the main thing I have to know is, what exactly causes or motivates a man to wake up one day and go "Y'know what, I'm going to work on a 600 page Graphic Novel"? Because if someone ran that idea past me, I'd think they were somewhat clinical.
I guess it didn't seem that odd to me. I was a huge fan of CEREBUS, so I knew it could be done, and I liked the idea of doing a big, thick book. I think that's actually what attracts some people to the book, the fact that it's a substantial (at least physically) thing instead of just three or four issues reprinted together.
HL: So what you're saying is that you're indecisive and just kinda go with the flow? That's how I roll too. Neat.AR: I wouldn't exactly say I'm indecisive. Well, maybe, I don't know. Once I figured out the story I was going to tell I pretty much did it as planned. The overall story was planned but I left a lot of room to improvise.
HL: That's another one of the main things I've always wondered about your work, is just how far does it extend from the original intention. The size of them alone shows that they must at least have had some weight to them when first conceived, but I think we've all worked on something that seems somewhat like a mouse of a project, and then before you know it you've got an elephant on your hands.AR: Once I came up with the overall plot I knew it was going to be a big story. I sort of planned it advance so that some chapters really focused on moving the story forward, while the other ones were more character driven stuff where I could play around more. At least that's how it was with the first book. The second one was much more structured and didn't leave a lot of room to have fun.
HL: Alright then, since you've already mentioned the characters, where do these guys come from? That's always been one of the big draws on your work, I think, is that a lot of the characters seem like "this guy I knew in college" or "this girl I worked with at the book store once." Do your characters draw a framework from people you've known and lived with or worked next to, or do they just kind of manifest themselves in your work as you go along?AR: With BOX OFFICE POISON, a few of the characters were originally based on people I really knew, or in Dorothy's case, on a version of a famous person (Dorothy Parker). But in most cases, the characters outgrew their original inspirations, or at least took on a life of their own. Ed, for instance, was originally based on the cartoonist Tony Consiglio, who's a good friend of mine, but as the book went on, in my mind, he really blossomed into his own thing.
Ed was a strange case, because when I first created him I gave him a shaved head and goatee to set him apart from Tony, who had a full head of hair and was clean shaven. By the time the series ended, Tony had gone bald and grown a goatee. There are actually a few examples like that, of life imitating art, where I had a character do something and the actual person did it later on. Maybe Alan Moore is right.
HL: Y'know, sad to say I never really considered that some of the characters in these would be "analogs" per se of some of the more famous persons of this world. Anyone else along those lines? Is that where we got Ray Beam from TRICKED? A musician's story you might have read or seen on tv that triggered a character in your head?AR: TRICKED was much less inspired by real life people or on single people the way BOP was. Ray Beam had a lot of John Lennon in him, but I also took some stuff from other people. I read a bunch of rock star bios, and took bits from here and there. Steve, the crazy guy was very loosely inspired by a real guy I knew once, but he's a common type, at least as far as obsessive fandom goes. You can't go to a comics convention in America without bumping into Steve.
HL: Yea, I think I've seen that guy at every single convention I've ever been to. He wears the same Green Lantern shirt every time and I think he's got like 14,000 posts on Newsarama. But I digress. So, do we see any of Alex Robinson himself in these characters we've seen in these books?AR: I've had speaking parts in both books: I was the guy who likes William Howard Taft at the party in the end of BOX OFFICE POISON and in TRICKED I was the other obsessed fan who tells Steve where he can find Ray Beam. It's a clichÃ©, but all the characters are me to one degree or another or tap into different parts of my own psyche. Steve was a frighteningly easy character to write. I could write those crazy monologues all day.
HL: Yea, I know what you mean. Get a quarter gallon of rum in me, and I can go on for hours. In fact, that's pretty much how I write my reviews here. Anyway, speaking of Alan Moore, that reminds me I should be congratulating you on your Eisner Nomination alongside Mr. Moore for Best Graphic Album. A well deserved nomination, indeed. So, that begs the question, why are you better than Alan Moore and why do you deserve to win that Eisner?AR: It's going to be an uphill battle. It's not just Alan Moore but Chris Ware and Seth! I can only hope that the people who deserve it split their votes allowing me a backdoor victory. It's stellar company to be in, so I can't really complain too much if someone else wins.
HL: Sure you can. That's how we work here in America land. But good luck all the while. So, to get back to the matter at hand and talking about some of this stuff like structure and whatnot, how long does it usually take to lay the kind of groundwork for stories like these? Especially since there's such a large cast of characters to work with, and how you've got them so integrated with each lives directly, or as we see in TRICKED, very indirectly. Or is that just another thing that tends to happily fall into place as you start getting into the story?AR: It's a little of both. I try to do as little prep work as I feel I can get away with. I'll have an overall structure in mind, but leave a lot to be worked out as I go. Sometimes this pays off, since a detail I'll put in on the fly can wind up connecting in an interesting way or paying off differently than I expected. The drawback is that it really leaves me vulnerable to writer's block.
All the characters are standing around waiting to me to tell them what to do next. One time I should try writing the entire story out, just to see how it goes. Maybe I won't be as bored as I think.
HL: Ah yes, the dreaded writer's block. Scourge of the seas... widower of thousands... God's middle-finger to the creative. So with such rather large stories about, how do you deal with it when it comes up?AR: It's odd because even after all of these years I don't have any formula or trick for dealing with the problem. Sometimes it's a matter of just sort of waiting it out (trying not to worry about it and just trusting that your muse will return, the less pressure the better) or slogging on through (keep hammering away at it until you come up with the answer). Sometimes, when I'm working on a long project (which is usually the case) I'll take a break and work on a short story which emphasizes fun. That was the impetus behind the Ultra Gal stories I did during TRICKED. I just wanted a little vacation from the book so I did a ten page or so superhero story. It was nice to be drawing something different and it definitely helped recharge my creative batteries.
HL: Funny you mention the Ultra Gal stories because that's something else I've always wanted to know, what would it take to get you to write a Superhero story? Are they something that you just don't really get any inspiration on, or is there a Batman story or whatever floating in the back of your head alongside all these "slice of life" stories?AR: I wouldn't say there are any superhero stories I'm especially eager to tell but I do enjoy writing and reading them from time to time. Part of the problem is that my stuff is usually more character driven and more improvisational, rather than plot heavy, so it's hard for me to pitch stuff to an editor. "In this story, Batman hangs out with Superman and they get into a conversation and, you know, stuff happens." What editor wouldn't jump at that? I've been doing some Ultra Gal stories as back ups for John Kovalic's DR. BLINK: SUPERHERO SHRINK and my goal is to show as little actual super heroics as possible. It's more about the life apart from the fight scenes.
HL: That's kind of a shame though. Some of the best superhero stories I've ever read have been pretty much "talking head" issues. HITMAN #33, the Superman issue, was hands down one of the best Supes stories I had ever read, and it was just a dialogue between him and the main character Tommy, but it put a perspective and set an ideal for a character that has so long felt unrelatable and was very powerful for it.
AR: Well, my situation with them was not typical in that BOX OFFICE POISON is actually a collection of reprints, since all the material originally ran as a series at Antarctic Press. I was wrapping up the series and was looking to have someone do a collection. Chris Staros from Top Shelf had already contacted me saying he was a fan of the book so when it came time for the "big book" it seemed like a natural fit. I'm really glad I went with them since they've worked hard to get my stuff in regular bookstores, which has always been a goal of mine.
But I guess that's a whole other story.
So, as a means to wrap this up, and as to kind of give the kids a little insight as to how these things work since you're pretty synonymous with the word "Indy", I want to know, how did you come to work with the guys at Top Shelf and use them as a publisher for your work? I can't help but think they're a bunch of aspiring writers out there with similar projects or the like chomping at the bit to find out how to get their stuff out through a reputable publisher like those guys. Was it just a happy coincidence or did you have to do a lot of shopping out of your work or what?
The only real advice I can give anyone trying to break in to Top Shelf or any publisher for that matter is to just keep doing the best work you can and use some common sense. I've been to a lot of shows where a cartoonist will pitch a project to Chris or Brett Warnock and a) express that they aren't really familiar with Top Shelf's stuff and b) be showing them stuff that is so different from what they publish. Which isn't to say that there are certain genres they won't publish at all, but all publishers have a certain aesthetic. You can save yourself a lot of time and frustration by focusing on publishers who already do things similar to yours. And it's just bad business sense to go up to a publisher and express total ignorance as to what they publish. "Hey, I can't be bothered to read any of your books. Will you give me a job?"
Also, when approaching a publisher like Top Shelf, it's best to have as much completed work as possible, especially if you're trying to get your foot in the door. If you're planning on doing a 300 page graphic novel and all you have are some character sketches and a rough plot outline they're probably going to (politely) ask you to come back when you have something more substantial. Ideally, you're showing them a complete story so they know exactly what they're dealing with.