Box Office Poison
by Alex Robinson
Top Shelf Productions
The comics industry’s equivalent of the Oscars, Emmys, or Grammys is arguably the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, or the Eisners for short. Named for legendary comics artist Will Eisner (creator of The Spirit), the Eisners for this year were just awarded at last week’s Comicon International: San Diego, the world’s premier comics convention. And the Eisners’ equivalent of the Best New Artist Award, the “Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition,” went to Alex Robinson for Box Office Poison.
This award should come as no shock to anyone who takes the time to read this brilliant collection. I picked up the weighty 600+ page tome very late one evening after a hard night’s work on Ink 19, with the intention of reading a few pages before going to sleep. Before I knew it, I was 100 pages in, and I knew that I wasn’t going to sleep until I’d finished the book. I finally finished the book and got to sleep somewhere around 7 AM, and when I woke up, I picked it back up and proceeded to reread passages over the next few weeks. I just wasn’t ready to give up the relationships I’d forged with Robinson’s fully-realized, complex characters yet, and indeed, a few weeks later, I still pick up the book every couple of days and reread a scene or two. Robinson breathes life into his characters rarely seen in any medium.
The story centers on a group of recent college grads trying to make their way in the “real” world. Sherman Davies has an English degree, but still works in the same bookshop job that he hates, for near minimum wage, frustrated in his desire to become a published writer. His best friend, Ed Velasquez, wants to draw comics, though his parents insisted he get a business degree. Ed still lives at home and works in his family’s hardware store. The story follows Sherman and Ed through their trials and tribulations, their successes and heartbreaks, and their friendships. Sherman rents a spare room from and befriends a couple, Jane Pekar and Stephen Gaedel, eventually falling for their former roommate, magazine editor Dorothy Lestrade. Ed, the perennial frustrated virgin, eventually finds work as an assistant to Golden Age comics creator, Irving Flavor. The relationships become more connected and interconnected throughout the book, to the point that there are no throwaway characters — everyone in the book, no matter how briefly they’re involved, is there for a reason, and has some connection, even if you don’t see it at first — for instance, it took me a few read-throughs before I realized that one character who seemed to just kind of show up with no real purpose was in fact another character’s long lost sister, making her story all the more tragic and meaningful.
Additionally, Robinson does these wonderful one-page strips throughout the story that give the reader even more insight into the characters, letting the reader into each character’s head for just a few moments, and far from detracting from the flow of the story, they only enhance it. By the time the book is through, you may find that nearly all your assumptions at the start were wrong — in fact, the character I initially identified with the most and assumed was the protagonist is revealed at the end to be one of the most stagnant characters in the book — he never really grows or changes as a character, and is horribly dissatisfied as a result. Meanwhile, another character who seemed to be more of a supporting player is revealed by book’s end to have been the real protagonist, growing, changing, and finding true happiness. It’s so realistic and honest, it’s almost heartbreaking.
That’s not to say that Box Office Poison is a depressing affair, by any means — to the contrary, it’s by turns hilarious, tense, sad, shocking, and thoroughly gripping. And like the great John Irving, Robinson doesn’t leave you hanging on anyone’s fate — by book’s end, everyone’s future is clearly spelled out, and while they don’t all live happily ever after, they do all find resolutions that are satisfying to the reader.
Artistically, Robinson’s figures initially seem a bit crude, but as you get into the story, you get a feel for the characters, and realize that his art is really quite elegant, often recalling Dave (Cerebus) Sim in form, layout, and even in the lettering. What initially seemed amateurish is revealed as quite deliberate and perfectly suited to every mood of the story.
Box Office Poison is definitely only for those over 18 — if this were a movie, it’d certainly be rated “R,” at least, as it contains a fair amount of nudity, sexual situations, and profanity. But this content is always in the service of the story, and never gratuitous — this is by no means a “stroke book.”
While the ironic title likely refers to the fact that any comic without spandexed superheroes is (in terms of sales) likely to be the comic shop equivalent of Ishtar, it’s hard to see how these characters and this story wouldn’t be a smash success in any other medium. As it stands, Box Office Poison is one of the most engrossing and rewarding pieces of literature — graphic or otherwise — that I’ve had the privilege to read. In short, I can’t imagine that anyone over 18 wouldn’t find something to relate to and to love about Box Office Poison. This is the perfect book to give to someone who still thinks comics are just for kids to show them what the medium is really capable of. Pick this up at any cost.