Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Too Cool to Be Forgotten: Well, I don't think I'll forget about it

Well, this merits some examination, since people I respect didn't like it so much. But I did (spoiler alert!). Okay, to business:

To Cool to Be Forgotten
By Alex Robinson

For some reason, I've never read too much of Alex Robinson's work. It might be lingering mainstream prejudices; I did try out Box Office Poison several years ago, and the cartoony artwork didn't sit right with my superhero-fed brain. But after reading his new book, I feel like I should pay him more attention, because I found it to be engaging and enjoyable.

The story goes: Andy is a middle-aged, married guy with a wife and daughter who has, after trying every other method, resorted to hypnotism to stop smoking. But when he goes under, he wakes up in the body of his sixteen-year-old self, still in the midst of high school. After some initial confusion, he realizes that he's about to attend the party where he tried his first cigarette, so he figures his "mission" is to avoid doing so, and thus never set himself on the path to blackened lungs. But while he's there, why not try out some of the things he never got a chance to do the first time around, like ask out the cute girl he always had his eye on?

It's a pretty enjoyable romp, and Robinson plays with the situation in fun ways. As a middle-aged man in a teenager's body, Andy is constantly thinking, remembering what it was like to struggle his way through useless-seeming classes, hang out with nerdy friends, and be constantly distracted by members of the opposite sex. At first, it's like a reunion, as he looks around and wondered what became of all his fellow students after they left school and went on their separate ways:

But Robinson also does some interesting exploration of the nature of memory. I found this bit fascinating:

Andy also takes the opportunity to play around with history a little bit (even though he recalls from Star Trek that when time-traveling, you shouldn't mess up the timeline), and it's funny to see what he comes up with:

He's got some of the mentality of an adult, but the impulses of a teen, and it ends up being pretty amusing. Especially when he finds that he can't control his rampant horniness (for any female types in the audience, yes, it's true, teenage boys get aroused at the slightest sensory provocation or imagining thereof, with results that can be physically difficult to hide at times. Sorry to give away secrets, guys). There's a scene at the party in which Andy ends up making out with the girl he brought, and when he suddenly realizes how young she is, he freaks out. I don't know if Robinson intended for it to be disturbing, but I found it hilarious.

The aforementioned cartoony artwork has a surprising amount of depth as well, particularly excelling at the depiction of teenage awkwardness. The range of emotion and expression that Robinson is able to convey is impressive, and he gives a real sense of place to the story as well, with nice background scenery and plenty of detail in the scenes in the school, Andy's house, and the party. And he also pulls off some really cool tricks, like the page in which adult Andy is undergoing hypnosis, and we see a rough depiction of his face consisting only of his thoughts:

And a later scene in which a page of panels showing a series of childhood memories comes together to form an image of teenage Andy's face (I've blanked out the captions to remove spoilers):

That one in particular blows me away, and it's only one example of Robinson's general artistic excellence.

But as enjoyable as all this is, there's an emotional component to things as well. For much of the first half of the book, there seems to be something going on in the background that's not being mentioned, and when Andy successfully completes his "mission" but doesn't return to the present, it all comes rushing back to him in a flood, leading to a wonderful, poignant scene that is the real reason for his trip to the past. It's incredibly well done; Robinson totally nails all the feelings and pain that come with the situation (I'm trying to be vague here to avoid spoiling anything), and the whole story comes together in a matter of a few pages. It's excellent stuff; I might have even squeezed out a few tears.

So it's definitely a worthwhile read, telling an entertaining story and really tugging at the heartstrings with some earned emotional weight. I would recommend it to those who aren't too cynical to get into that sort of thing, and I expect it'll be a contender for the best comics of the year. Well done, Mr. Robinson.

So that's my take on things, but I'm curious as to what others might not have liked about it. To be specific, both Tucker Stone and Chris Mautner indicated disappointment with the book in this post and its comments (Tucker's verdict seems to be "too sentimental", which I can understand, but I didn't find that aspect bothersome). So if anybody wants to discuss what they thought did and didn't work in the book, please use the comments here to do so.


  1. For what it's worth, Brian Cronin liked it too. And I absolutely loved it. Getting an advance copy was one of my main goals at MOCCA this year, and I had the chance to tell Alex that to his face. He said he only hoped it lived up to my expectations, which it did easily.

    Those last two pages you posted are my favorites, and the ones that immediately come to mind when I recall the book...but when I was first reading it I was totally caught up in the story and only dimly aware of the storytelling technique. I was on a very heavy identification trip with the protagonist (some highly similar experiences there, and I quit smoking only a year ago so that resonated for me as well) so I can't claim to be impartial. Been there, done that, and (in a very literal sense) wore the t-shirt. But I think the criticism of sentimentality maybe misses the point of the story, i.e., as you point out, it's about memory and a middle-aged guy revisiting the past to make sense of the present, and sentimentality is a huge part of that experience. No way around it.

    I'd be interested to see how appreciation of the book correlates with the age of the reader. Might be revealing, no?

  2. "as you point out, it's about memory and a middle-aged guy revisiting the past to make sense of the present, and sentimentality is a huge part of that experience. No way around it."

    Thanks for making that connection explicit. I pointed them both out, but I didn't really draw the line between them, and it definitely makes sense.

    For what it's worth, I'm still in my (quickly-disappearing) twenties, so I've got a ways to go before being able to directly identify with Andy, I think. But the age of the reader certainly seems like it could be something to consider.

  3. I don't really know what I can say about this beyond what I've already said--I also liked the word page and the blank panel page that you point to, but for me, liking the stuff that was part of the technique and cartooning just made the experience of reading it that much worse. There's the proof in the book that Mr. Robinson is a talented, intelligent cartoonist. Yet for me, he used that talent and intelligence to throw off something that could have been done by anyone. There's nothing, to me, neccessary about something this sentimental. If Robinson were just starting out, if he didn't know what he was doing, I'd probably have a less of a visceral "what a shit read" kind of reaction. Some people would argue that the work should be judged independently--which is easy enough for me, having not read his other work--and I looked at this as a good artist wasting his time, talent, and the good graces that allow him publication. But it's obvious that, as you said, people I respect are telling the truth when they say they got into it. I think that's great--some comics are going to have that kind of realistic ground to differ on.

  4. Tucker: that's fair; I actually reread your post about the book after I finished mine, and I think I did you a disservice by summarizing your review in two words when you actually did a fine job of explaining what you didn't like. Myself, I would obviously disagree; I think there's a lot more to the than a grown man acting all grown up in a teenager's body. When he gives advice to his friends, I don't think it's meant to be life-changing; it seems awkward and weird, like an adult pretending they're just one of the gang. Maybe I'm justifying aspects of the book because I like it, but I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing; when a book seems to come alive off the page, readers are able to connect with it and work out for themselves what isn't explicitly stated on the page.

    Really, it's probably a matter of personal preference. Sometimes books connect with some people and not with others. I think I had a similar feeling to you when I read Alex Robinson's Lower Regions, since I don't really care a whit for Dungeons and Dragons. The cartooning was nice, but the story did nothing for me. But hey, that's what makes humanity interesting: diversity! Okay, I'll shut up now.