In terms of comics, Alex Robinson is a people person, which is to say that the books that make uphis back catalogue—particularly his first two major works, Box Office Poison and Tricked—are driven more by their cast than by any ever-important story-arch or plot points. All of which played a large part in the reason why his latest effort, Lower Regions, landed so squarely in left field.
Where Tricked and Box Office Poison were heralded for their ability to capture the oft-mundane happens of their characters’ everyday lives, Alex Robinson’s decidedly-cheekily named Lower Regions, is more concerned with the trials and tribulations of a scantily clad busty heroine slaughtering dungeons full of ogres and orcs with a blood-splattered battle axe.
And as for that witty dialogue that Robinson’s fans have come to know and expect from the author, this time out, readers will have to make do with a single instance of onomatopoeia (a well-place ‘Thoom’) to satiate their appetite.
Those seeking a return to form need not fear, however—Robinson has just finished up his next book, Too Cool to Be Forgotten, which is set to be released on Top Shelf next year.
We spoke to Robinson about obscure 80s pop culture references, the French, and how his Lower Regions got so big in the first place.
Lower Regions is a bit of a…departure from what people are used to seeing from you. What was the genesis of the project?
I was probably about about halfway through my ‘real’ graphic novel, To Cool to Be Forgotten, which is supposed to come out next year. I was experiencing some writer’s block—it wasn’t exactly writer’s block, because I knew what I had to do, I just had no enthusiasm for doing it. I decided to take a break, and start something that was just going to be fun.
My original plan was for it to just be a ten-page mini-comic, but then I had such a fun time doing it, that it just kept going—my Lower Regions just kept growing and growing. It ended up being about 60 pages, and I still wanted to get it out there—since I had such a good time doing it, maybe people would have a good time reading it. Top Shelf was willing to give it a shot. It was the most fun I’ve had working on any comic.
Clearly it’s a labor of love, and not entirely tongue-in-check. You got some level of respect to the things you’re paying homage to.
Oh yeah, it’s not in anyway making fun of that stuff, because, when I was younger, I played Dungeons & Dragons, and I still have a great affection for that type of material, so it was totally a valentine to that kind of stuff.
Its got humorous overtones to it—was there ever a point, early on in your career when you considered doing a more straight take on the fantasy genre?
I grew up reading superhero comics, so I’m more geared toward that end of things. Fantasy comics have never been terrifically popular, so it never occurred to me to do a story like that. Once I got into superhero comics, I started to drift toward the indie/alternative thing, which is much more artistic, so I never really got to explore that aspect of things. I used to draw that stuff in my sketchbooks, though.
How big of a gap are we talking about, between your drawing sketches in your book of fantasy characters and your beginning a career as a cartoonist?
Well, it’s tough to say, because I’ve been a professional cartoonist, such that it is, for about 12 years now, but I’ve always been drawing comics, so, to me there’s no differentiation—there was no moment of, ‘okay, now I’m going to be a cartoonist.’ I guess I always wanted to do something that involved drawing cartoons, but whether that was animation or comic books, I was never sure, but once I discovered comics, I realized that it was pretty much what I wanted to do. I guess that was around 13, or so. Coincidentally, that was about the time that I got into Dungeons & Dragons and stuff, but I sort of gave up on it, after a while.
The fascination with superhero comics seems to be something of a reoccurring theme with independent cartoonists. Everyone grew up reading Kirby, Ditko, et. al. Does the idea of doing a superhero book, at this point in the game appeal to you?
It does in the sense that some people from Marvel and DC have been saying, “hey, you should pitch us some stories.” When Box Office Poison first came out and there was some buzz around, they asked me to pitch them so stories, but I just couldn’t think of any that interested me. I like them in theory, but all of the stories that I came up with were just me regurgitating stories that John Byrne and Chris Claremont came up with, 25 years ago. I guess with fantasy comics, because I don’t know too many of them, it’s kind of a wider field. It’s kind of a cliché, but there’s more fresh material for more in this well-covered ground.
It seems, for the most part, that when alternative cartoonists tackle mainstream superheroes, no one seems willing to do it too earnestly.
I guess the thing is, when you grow up reading superhero comics, you tend to think of them seriously, but when you step out of them, you start to think, ‘why would a guy put on tights, just to fight crime?’ There’s a lot of conventions, like indentity and capes that, to people who don’t read superhero comics, are kind of silly, but to people who do read them, that’s sort of the whole point, costumes and sound effects, and all that. Even with this fantasy story, I couldn’t do it 100-percent straight. I guess some of the things do come through as cliché and corny, though.
So once you get out of the superhero game, you begin viewing that stuff with the same filter that you use to view you auto-bio and more serious comics.
Yeah, I guess so. I think all of my comics have to have a good amount of humor in them. I couldn’t do anything that was totally humorless. You might say that they were, if you didn’t think they were funny [laughs], but my attempt is to have some humor in it, just because that’s the way life is.
But when you were attempting to think up stories to pitch to Marvel and DC, they were a bit more earnest—things that fit better into the continuity of the characters?
Well, I think that’s the thing, also. I’m not very good at coming up with plots. I tend to do more character-driven things. To me, it’s sort of working backwards, to say, “hey, what’s going to happen to the Fantastic Four?” and then have them react to it. I almost feel like I would need to just sort of write it, as it went along, and get to know the characters, but unfortunately, they don’t like to let people go along and do whatever they want with their corporate properties [laughs].
At the same time, these aren’t really characters that any of need to get to know thought, right? It seems like we already know everything there is to know about them…
Yeah, that’s true. Well, I did one story myself, about this character named ‘Ultra Gal.’ I did it as a mini-comic, and then serialized it on my blog. It was very much like a superhero filtered through my eyes. My goal was to try to never really show any supreheroics. It was almost like being a superhero was just her job, and how it affected the rest of her life, being a superhero. The thing I liked about doing fantasy comics is that you don’t have to worry about drawing cars and buildings and stuff like that [laughs].
[Continued in Part Two.]