Monday, August 29, 2005

Some recent Top Shelf Productions acquisitions:

TRICKED is my first exposure to Alex Robinson's work; by the time I became aware of his other signature series Box Office Poison, several issues had already come out- and I wasn't impressed enough with the art to be moved to hunt down the back issues. I'd always thought I'd get around to checking out the trade collection someday, and I just might have to accelerate the timetable a bit after reading Tricked, his latest graphic novel.

I've often held that outstanding illustration can conquer a multitude of story sins. But here, Robinson's story has to stand on its own merits because his art, which is an uneasy mix of Scott McCloud, Richard Sala, Gilbert Hernandez, and the person who created the Doug cartoon, only without the assurance and polish of any of them, it's not the main attraction- while he's certainly improved a lot since his early days, it still functions merely to define the events, rather than enhance them in any discernible way, even though he does some impressive (but unnecessarily showoffish) stuff towards the end (pgs. 329-337). I don't want to seem unduly harsh, though- there are some very good layouts throughout, and Robinson does a great job of defining his characters. All of them have a distinctive appearance, an absolute must when you're dealing with a large cast such as he employs here.

Even though there's probably twice that, Tricked is essentially the story of six people: Ray Beam, a creatively blocked rock star; Caprice, a plus-size waitress with relationship issues who works at a diner which has apparently achieved some renown for its giant pig on the roof; Phoebe, who's in town looking for her father; Lily, a Latina temp who Ray falls for, making her his "personal assistant"; Nick, a husband and father whose wife thinks he works for some corporation but actually is employed by a sports memorabilia store run by a crooked, brutal man; and Steve, an anti-social office worker (who, I dare say, shares more than a few traits in common with many of us) whose chief obsession in life is Ray's former band, The Tricks- about whom he is as big a fan as you'd ever want to meet. All these characters, slowly but surely, come together through a series of events which culminates in an incident at the diner which changes many of them...FOREVER! Robinson makes all these characters, with their requisite quirks, follies and foibles, ring true and realistic, and never lapses into unnecessary dramatics or cliche.

Of course, I did have a couple of quibbles, to wit and BEWARE OF SPOILERS AT THE END:

First of all, the main character, the one whose story is paramount to the whole narrative, is Ray Beam, formerly of the pop-rock band The Tricks, who put out (as we glean from the narrative) four albums in the late '80s-early '90s and became huge rock stars, then broke up, with Ray releasing one successful solo effort. When we first meet him, he's having difficulty following up his debut disc, and he's miserably unhappy despite having what seems to be Michael Jackson-style fame and wealth (without the lunatic behavior), with all the money he needs for drugs, vacations, and so on. Now, as someone who's followed music and the music business almost all his life, I found this a bit difficult to buy. I don't know if Robinson actually based Ray on anyone in particular, or just the stereotype of the "reclusive rock star", but the late '80s were not a good time at all for whiteboy power pop acts- just ask Marshall Crenshaw, The Hoodoo Gurus, Jellyfish, the Smithereens, or any of a multitude of deserving acts in that style from that time. I seriously doubt that in the real world, anyway, a band like The Tricks would achieve that level of fame...if Elvis Costello, Crenshaw, the dB's, et. al. couldn't do it, then what did the Tricks have that set them apart? Even more contemporary bands like Weezer and Fountains of Wayne, to name but a couple, haven't reached the level of celebrity that Ray and the Tricks have. U2, perhaps. Anyway, I was able to overlook this because Robinson presents it so credibly...but it bugged me just the same. Also, attempting to create a feeling of disorientation and chaos in the big finale at the diner, Robinson throws us a bait and switch by having one of the people involved doing the narration mention "the part where the guy pulled the trigger but the bullet had not yet found its mark in my chest"...but that doesn't happen. Someone else gets the bullet. Dramatically valid, but it's a bit of a cheat and elicited a "what the-!" response from me as I read it.

Still, Tricked was an engrossing read, and Robinson is to be commended for not only developing an interesting group of characters, but also putting them through their paces in fine fashion. Recommended, and if we don't learn anything else from it, we should all remember never to stop taking our meds. A-

The conceit this time is that this is printed on a reproduction of those old spiral bound notebooks that launched a million cartoons back in all of our school days...appropriate since this Winnie-the-Pooh-meets Harriet the Spy-ish fantasy does indeed take one back to the long-ago days of reading neat little stories with likeable characters and a baffling mystery to solve. There's a goofy, loopy what-the-heck kinda feel to these proceedings, kinda like Carolyn Keene after sucking on helium for a half-hour, and a "anything can happen" spirit is pervasive throughout. The main story centers on a small town full of talking anthropomorphic people, with a closed-off section of the park that encases a lake in which a terrible monster is said to dwell. A plucky bunny girl and her photographer canary friend set out to find the truth, in league with a secret underground radical newspaper (with entrances and exits all over town) and run into resistance form many of the town elders, including a huge elephant librarian who happens to be the father of Turnip, who, believe it or not, is the central character of the tale with his struggle for acceptance, to make his father proud, and to express himself artistically- something he has in common with several of the other characters and is kind of an underlying theme. Of course, complications ensue but it's all resolved in diverting fashion. I had seen Aaron Renier's work in one of Top Shelf's Free Comic Book Day offerings, 2003's unless I'm mistaken, and liked it then but didn't see anything else he'd done since. Based on this enjoyable book, I hope to see more. He's got a loose, fun, whimsical style that really suits itself to this sort of thing, and I'm more than a little surprised that he hasn't made a name for himself doing children's books. Spiral Bound is a fun read for the young, and the young at heart as the saying goes. A-

AEIOU (Any Easy Intimacy)
It takes someone with a quirky, oddball style to make what it pretty much a straight-faced tale of the ins and outs of twentysomething relationships interesting, and that's what Brown does here with AEIOU. It yam what it yam- boy meets girl, boy and girl give off sparks, boy and girl have sex constantly, boy and girl discover each other's attendant neuroses, and boy and girl drift apart. And it's Brown's (in the words of Warren Ellis) "wobbly" art that gives the episodic story its charm, along with his willingness to share and not villify his erstwhile love interest. Also included is a neat little "soundtrack" section, in which he draws little thumbnail replicas of albums which either he listened to while drawing the thing, or records they listened to during their time together. Either way, it's a fun touch that is absolutely inessential, but makes the music geek in me sit up and pay attention. I'm not the biggest fan in the world of autobiographical comics, but as long as they're done with a modicum of style, I can dig it and this is worth your while. I also gotta mention the usual outstanding Top Shelf production values- this smallish book is printed on excellent paper stock, which may not justify the $12 price tag but certainly softens the sting. A-

Coming soon, THE KING and THE SURROGATES #1.

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