Saturday, October 17, 2009

Seven Questions with ALEX ROBINSON

Today it is my pleasure to present an interview I recently had the good fortune to conduct with acclaimed comic creator Alex Robinson. Long-time readers of The Vault will recall that I have cited Robinson's Box Office Poison as both a major influence and a favorite series of mine, but BOP isn't the only story Robinson is known for. He has also won multiple awards for titles such as Too Cool to be Forgotten and Tricked. So since he probably doesn't actually need this introduction at all, I'll shut up and get right to the goods.

1. Your adaptation of the L. Frank Baum story A Kidnapped Santa Claus is coming out next month, just in time for Christmas. What can you tell us about this book and what do you have planned for your next project?

Harper-Collins was doing a project in which they asked cartoonists to adapt some classic public domain Christmas short stories into comics form and it seemed like something I would never do on my own so I said yes. The idea of adapting someone else’s short story, keeping it family friendly and working with a major publisher were all enough out of my comfort zone that I figured I had to do it.

I’ve started working on a new project but I’m only working on page eighteen so I don’t want to say too much about it yet. I don’t even know how long it will be at this point. I was originally thinking about 200 pages but I could also see it being much, much longer. If it does turn out to be a much longer book I’ll probably release it as a series of paperbacks, rather than wait. It could take me years to complete and that’s a long time to be out of the public eye with nothing coming out.

2. How is adapting a work like A Kidnapped Santa Claus different from creating a new story? I’m wondering what the process was in terms of translating a text work to the comics page, not to mention working with someone else's story.

It was a very interesting challenge. For one thing, the original story is only eleven pages long and I had to translate that into sixty pages of comics. The story is mostly a description of the actions, so I was free to come up with a lot of characterization and flesh out the characters. I also made some changes which I hoped would make it appeal to modern kids, since they’re probably a bit more sophisticated than kids were back in Baum’s day. Mentally, my target audience was about ten years old, but I sort of thought it like a Warner Brothers cartoon in that I threw in some stuff that adults would like, especially adults who read comics.

The other challenge was that Harper wanted to see a script ahead of time so they could see what I wanted to change and I’d never scripted out any of my books before, so to sit down and write everything out without drawing anything was very weird.

3. Your last graphic novel, Too Cool to Be Forgotten, is up for a Harvey Award this year in the Best Original Graphic Album category [editor's note: since this interview was conducted, Too Cool did in fact win the Harvey in this category]. How much of the high school experience portrayed in Too Cool is based on your own life and how do you decide what autobiographical elements you should and shouldn’t add to your work?

It was sort of a mix. Some things I tried to make very close to my own life (for instance, Andy’s house is the house I grew up in) but the story called for some things to be different. Andy’s family is different than mine, for instance, and I had to make Andy much more of a “normal” kid than I was. I pretty much spent my high school years hunched over drawing comics so that would’ve been very boring to read.
In general, as time goes on it gets harder to use autobio, at least without disguising it a lot. My life is pretty boring so there’s not much temptation.

4. In Lower Regions, you produced a 56 page story that features only one word. What made you decide to write this without any dialogue or captions? And how did this affect the storytelling – did you have to storyboard the pacing and layouts more closely, or was it essentially the same as your other projects?

I was struggling on Too Cool so I wanted to do a short, fun project that would sort of loosen me up and recharge my batteries. Originally it was just going to be a short story that was going to be a sort of jam with Mike Dawson but he changed his mind and I was having so much fun I wanted to expand it anyway, so it worked out. I just sort of sat down and asked myself what I would love to draw and the answer was a sexy lady killing various monsters without having to draw backgrounds. In an effort to keep the story as simple as I could I decided to have no dialogue.

It was a lot of fun but got tricky in the end. When you’re dealing with an unusual setting—in this case, a fantasy world—it helps to be able to explain things to the reader but I couldn’t do that so I was really limited as to what I could do.

I want to do more fantasy stories but it will have to have words next time around.

5. Going back to the Harvey awards, this isn’t the first time you’ve been nominated; your graphic novel Tricked won both the Harvey and the Ignatz awards in 2006. I’m wondering how the format of working on a graphic novel differs from working on a serialized title like Box Office Poison. Does it provide more freedom since you don’t have to worry about possibly artificial story breaks caused by page counts? Or does a serialized structure actually help in terms of plotting story beats?

Actually, by this point I’ve mostly been working in the straight-to-paperback format longer than I did serialized so I’m used to it by now. It was a hard adjustment at first, mostly trying to get used to the idea of having a deadline that was years away instead of every three months or whatever. It’s very easy to procrastinate.

It does affect the storytelling, in that having separate issues made me do more self-contained chapters and try to have cliffhangery things. I actually had a formula with Box Office Poison in which I would alternate plot-driven issues with characterization-driven ones. It definitely gives the book an episodic feel, for better or for worse.

If I do serialize my new book the way I’ve been thinking about it will be interesting to see how that works out.

6. One of my favorite comics is Box Office Poison, which seemed almost eerie in how close it was to my life at the time. I'm curious what your process was in developing the concept. Did you begin with an overall storyline already in mind, or did it develop as you went along? How did you end up at Antarctic Press?

I had a very loose plot in mind and certain themes I wanted to address but I gave myself a lot of room to play around, more or less making most of it up as I went. I’ve done all my books this way, though the more plot driven ones like Too Cool don’t leave as much room to play around. One of the things I want to do with my new book is try and recapture that spirit, having a very loose idea of what’s going to happen but also letting the characters sort of tell me what to do and let it grow very organically.

There are risks to working this way but I think it can also add a touch of realism, in that everyone’s life is kind of a loosely plotted novel. You have some idea of what’s going to happen, plans you make in life but sometimes you’ll have false starts, dead ends, little side trips that don’t really change anything but add texture to your life.

7. Lastly, what’s one specific storytelling technique you use that you could share with new creators to help them hone their craft?

One thing I did with Box Office Poison that started out as a writing exercise, sort of, but which became a popular feature of the book was the “Question Pages” where I would ask some personal question and have each character answer it (for instance “What fictional character would you have dinner with?”). You don’t have to include it in the book but it’s a great way to get to know your characters and come up with ideas. I think by the time you finish asking one of your characters fifty of those types of questions you’ll really know them, and ideally by the end their answers will be second nature to you (and if one character continually stumps you or gives you answers you weren’t expecting, you might consider that it’s the nature of that character to be evasive, deceptive or full of surprises—but make sure that it isn’t just you being lazy!).

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