Thursday, July 17, 2008

Too Cool To Be Forgotten

Too Cool To Be Forgotten
By Alex Robinson
Top Shelf, 2008

Garrett Martin: I've come close to buying Box Office Poison multiple times in the two or three years since getting back into comics, but Too Cool To Be Forgotten is the first thing I've ever actually read by Alex Robinson. It reminds me of Mike Dawson's Freddie and Me in a few ways, and not just because they're friends in real life and appear in each other's books. Both fellas are talented, distinctive cartoonists, no doubt (although Robinson seems more playful with layout and design), but with their latest books they both stumble a bit when it comes to story. The problems that plague Too Cool are more prominent, I think, but don't necessarily ruin the book. And since the biggest problem is, um, the central conceit that drives the entire narrative, it's kind of impressive that Robinson's book is as good (or maybe not-bad) as it is.

I wouldn't think the world would have much use for more "middle-aged-man in a teenager's body" stories after that banner year of 1988, but here we have Too Cool To Be Forgotten, which doesn't do anything new or original with the concept. Not only is it trite, it's also an unnecessary device for this story. How is this really any different from any story about teenagers written by a guy pushing forty? Instead of the awkward fantasy elements Robinson could've covered that territory with some judicious narration. Maybe Robinson wanted to distance himself personally from the story, so people wouldn't assume it was autobiographical (which is kinda easy to do with comics, I'm finding out). Still, it's an arbitrary set-up that makes it perhaps too easy to dismiss the entire book. Did this bug you as much as it did me?

Hillary Brown: Actually, no. The thing is, while the ending is unfortunately abrupt, and there are a few other problems with the book, I actually kind of like the concept, and I'd argue that Robinson does do something sort of different with it. For one thing, he doesn't act as though the experience is entirely new, which is a good way to come at it and resembles the experience of the characters in Shaun of the Dead, in that he recognizes what's happening and processes it through his understanding of media versions of same. Characters who live in a media-suffused world are characters with whom I identify. I mean, if you were transported back to high school or encountered a bunch of zombies, wouldn't you figure out what to do at least partly from movies and TV and comics?

I also think our main character is pleasantly reflective throughout the story, often drifting through scenes analyzing them as much as or more so than participating in them, but he doesn't do so in a snotty way. He realizes that teenagers are pretty stupid, but he doesn't judge them negatively for it. He thinks high school girls are hot, but he misses his wife. He understands the benefits of being that age--freedom to screw up, for one thing--but he's happy with his current stability. It's just all sort of kindly done and colored with contentment at who he is.

I'd also argue that it's a superior book to Freddie and Me, largely for two reasons: 1. Page composition (you point this out; there are a couple of especially noticeable examples of it, in which panels that seemingly picture disparate items add up, when viewed from afar, into a larger picture, a la Mad fold-in, but it's nice throughout, with some simple but clever devices used to convey actions and thoughts, such as depicting two characters leaving a party, one running after the other, in silhouette to show the way in which the brain can focus on what it's following), and 2. The balance of detail with narrative. Dawson tips toward detail, with too many specifics in his pop culture references without explanation, while Robinson focuses more on keeping things moving, to the extent of having the main character constantly narrate and ponder his own story. That said, it's a bit short and the reasons the plot moves as it does aren't illuminated, which is a little frustrating. Also, if you're going to include an editor's note at the end about the fact that "dad" appearing instead of "did" is not a mistake, you should maybe have caught the other two misspellings in the book, but that's being a bit harsh. I'm not sure I've read a hand-lettered comic yet that didn't have at least one. Also, I do want to make note of the cover design, which is one of my favorites to come out recently, marrying the two elements of the plot (possibly three, now that I think about) in excellent fashion without being at all distracting. Yay for good design!

GM: Acknowledging the triteness of the situation doesn't quite justify or excuse it, though. At least not for me. It's not like the concept is universal or long-standing; other than a Donald Barthelme story and, like, Freaky Friday, I don't know of anything that used this set-up before that spate of movies in the late '80's. It's goofy high-concept schtick (I'm surprised there wasn't a '60's sit-com with the same idea, created by a producer with the initials "SS"*), and although I'm sure somebody could create a truly successful and satisfying piece of work around it, Robinson apparently isn't up to the task. And like I said, it's just unnecessary, considering what Too Cool winds up being about.

Your point about detail vs. narrative comes down to Freddie and Me being a memoir and this book being fiction. I know I tend to ramble on with too much detail when talking about my boring life. I don't think Too Cool is much better when it comes to storytelling, though, because the narration occasionally overwhelms the page. Too much telling in addition to showing. It's a graphic medium for a reason. But still, like you said, Robinson does a good job of moving the plot along, and doesn't linger unnecessarily on any particular scene or character. It's a tight book, and although the climax does come somewhat out of nowhere, Robinson turns another too-familiar dramatic situation (one easily prone to schmaltz) into a reasonably affecting and emotionally resonant conclusion. But I can be a sentimental sap, so maybe you'd disagree.

And yeah, the layouts are the best thing about this book. Robinson's art isn't fantastic (but I read this immediately after reading It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken for the first time, which would make most comics seem visually underwhelming, I think), but those pages you refer to are some of the best designed I've seen this year. He also does fine work with character design and facial expressions, but his layouts are what really impressed me.

*: seriously, Sherwood Schwartz, Sol Saks, Sidney Sheldon: what's up with that?

HB: You're definitely right that it's narrative-heavy, but when it comes down to it, if I had to choose between words and pictures, I'd still pick words, and I think his narration is pretty thoughtful and good. It's self-reflective, and I like that. Basically, in the reading, I felt that it might be a little bit what it would be like for me if I, god forbid, ended up back in my fifteen-year-old self. The mere idea of having to sit through algebra classes again chills my bones, but I'd also like to think that I'd be kinder to my parents. I didn't start being nice to them again until I was maybe seventeen, and, you know, that's jerky. I'm sure that you brush that stuff off when you're a parent because you've done it to your own parents when you were a teenager, as he seems to acknowledge, but still... So, maybe I like it because it made me feel guilty.

GM: Yeah, he has some good observations about maturity, family, friendship, etc., but nothing that couldn't have been addressed without this weird, off-putting fantasy element. And I'm not saying this book should be Owly, but there's a balance between words and pictures, and it's a little out of whack in Too Cool To Be Forgotten.

Another similarity with Freddie and Me: I enjoyed reading both books more than my reviews imply.


Smoggo said...

here's a comic you guys should review:

Jared said...

Oh man, that's a great link! I did not know that good ol' boys and liberals were the same thing.

Jared said...

er, not link but url...anyway, it's hilarious.