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New Tricks: An Interview with Alex Robinson

Alex Robinson is the award-winning writer of Box Office Poison, Too Cool to Be Forgotten, and Tricked, which is being rereleased this fall by Top Shelf. We caught up with Alex to discuss the reissue and his work.

Tell us a little bit about the story of Tricked for those who aren’t familiar with it.

I'm a little rusty since it's been a few years since I had my summation down pat! Essentially, it follows six characters whose lives are pretty much unconnected—a waitress, a rock star, a high-school girl, a counterfeiter, etc., each with their own stories. As the book goes on, their lives start to converge and interact, with results both heartwarming and harrowing.

This award-winning book was originally published about five years ago. Why bring it back now?

I think Top Shelf waited until the second printing had been sold out for a while before going back to press with this third printing. Of course, every author wants his books to be available at all times, but I understand the rationale of keeping it off the market for a while, to sort of prime the pump.

It's interesting to me because I feel like Tricked has always kind of been the overlooked child of the three graphic novels I've done. I mean, it's going to a third printing, so it's not as if it bombed or anything, but with Too Cool being the most recent book and Box Office Poison kind of being the one that everyone knows, Tricked is kind of the Jan Brady of the set.

What’s new and different in this edition?

Other than Matt Kindt's great new cover, the contents are the same as the previous editions.
I've never liked the idea of going back and changing old books. For one thing, where does one draw the line? Once you start down the road of "fixing" things, it seems like a slippery slope toward redrawing the entire book. On a more abstract level, I think the me from 2005 has as much right to tell his story the way he likes—I wouldn't have wanted someone else redrawing the faces or whatever in 2005, so why should I do it now, even if the one doing the redrawing is me five years later? I think George Lucas taught us all a valuable lesson. Once something is out, it's done. Let it go. I think the ratio of "director's cuts" and "special editions" that improve on the originals versus ones that are pointless or worse is probably something like 1:654.

When you look back at this book now, what are you proudest of?

I think on a fundamental level, I'm glad that I pushed myself and tried to tell a different story than Box Office Poison. I always admire when artists move away from something proven and take a chance, even if the results are not always successful. At the time, midway through the book, I felt like I'd made a big mistake giving myself that rigid structure and not having a large ensemble to work with the way I did with BOP, but in retrospect I'm glad I did it.

Comics-wise, I still really like the wordless part of the ending, which I won't spoil here. Those pages were a lot of fun to do, having to come up with backgrounds for all these characters on the fly, but I'm really pleased with how it came out. It's funny, when I was drawing them I was fantasizing about people asking me What It Meant and being all cagey about the answer, but not one person did. I either underestimated how clever I was and everyone Got It or overestimated how much people would care.

Anything you would change about the book in hindsight?

I think the only thing I would change looking back is that since they weren't either of the six main characters I didn't get to do as much with the relationship with Richard and Frank as I could have. We don't learn much about how Frank reacts to Richard's new situation, and that could've been a story unto itself. That's the risk of working the way I do, with only a vague outline. Oh, well!

Which of the characters in Tricked, if any, do you relate to the most? And do you relate to them now as much as you did when you originally wrote the book?

I recall that I consciously set up Ray Beam, the rock star, and Steve, the mentally ill crank, as two sides of my own personality, comments on my own grandiosity.

I found Nick, the counterfeiter, to be the hardest to write because basically he's psychotic. Not in the fun, Batman kind of way, but just in the sense that he was entirely unconcerned about consequences or feelings of others. When I write characters, I try to put myself in their shoes and figure out why they think and act the way they do, but in this case it was a real challenge.

Was it difficult to follow up Box Office Poison and deal with the acclaim, as well as demand, placed on you after that?

Somewhat. Tricked was actually my third crack at a second book, but elements from the first two versions wound up in the final book. In a strange way, the idea of being successful is clearly very unsettling for me—even the modest version of "success" alternative comics offers—so it had an impact. That was a big influence in featuring a character who was a pop music icon, one struggling to come up with a new album and failing. So that was a nice outlet for dealing with those feelings.

Similarly, Too Cool to Be Forgotten has also elevated you, and deservedly so. But does it create undue pressure on you as you're working on something new?

I realize I have a process I always go through when starting a new book. At first I'm very self-conscious—will this new book sell as well as the last one? Will it get nominated for any awards? What if I hand it in to Top Shelf and they hate it? But then I get myself to the comforting place of thinking the book will fail. "Okay, you've had three books come out and do very well, you're due for a flop. No one except Pixar hits a homerun every time, so you might as well have fun and do what you like. The good news is that it will lower the bar for your next book."

Once I take the pressure of having to come up with a popular book off my head and just focus on doing the kind of comic I'd like to read I generally do okay.

So what are you working on next?

Currently, I'm working on a book tentatively titled Career Killer, which is a continuation of the work I did on Alex Robinson's Lower Regions. Dungeons and Dragons-type stuff, though I'm trying to give it the focus on character and personal relationships that my other books had. It's a lot more fun drawing monsters and people casting spells and stuff than it is people sitting around diners talking about their feelings.

-- John Hogan