Box Office PoisonA column article, Panel Education by: Stacey Pavlick
Stacey Pavlick is a pop culture critic looking to expand her knowledge of comics. So she allowed herself to be submitted to an experiment at the hands of Comics Bulletin's Co-Managing Editors Danny Djeljosevic and Nick Hanover, wherein they've created a list of graphic novels for her to read and report back on, offering her unique perspective as a newcomer to the medium eager to receive a Panel Education.
“Oh, you found it! You called earlier, right?” The comic book store clerk seemed outrageously tall, partly because he was, and partly because the entire register area was situated up about a foot or so on a platformed stage. It’s funny how something like that throws you off; thinking back on it I’m sure I probably awkwardly rested my boobs on the counter or something alternately weird. I do remember making an effort to seem casual although I was in semi-professional work wear, had called ahead to check on the title’s availability (a decidedly un-casual gesture) and talked some nonsense about how I was writing this column about Box Office Poison in the vein of “a girl who doesn’t know comics writing about comics,” which, while true, is kind of an ungraceful way of underselling and undermining myself, a bad habit that gets worse when I feel self-conscious. I was rewarded with a snort from the guy at what I imagine was the gaming table: was this a good-natured acknowledgment of my self-effacing comments? Or was it a snort of derision? I’m pretty sure it was a Jerk Snort, and if so I’m the one to blame, as all he did was laugh at the joke I told about myself (this defense mechanism is always loaded). I don’t know if the clerk noticed the thought balloon that materialized over my head just then, but it was populated with a wordless cloud of black, frustrated scribble.
It was a fitting introduction to my reading of Alex Robinson’s Box Office Poison, as the scene of me purchasing the book could have just as easily been a scene in the book. Wannabe writers, bookstore employees, history teachers, comic book artists, journalists: the characters of Robinson’s world are liberal arts grads in their mid-20s -- academically rich but financially underpaid -- who have just the right combination of insight and insecurity to know how best to sabotage themselves. But these are not stories of dramatic woe and subterfuge; rather, these collected issues of BOP describe the heartfelt, resistant, brain-addled stumblings towards adulthood, those few years during which your major in college depreciates in value from badge of honor to moot point.
Chances are, you either know, are or have been the characters of BOP. Dear readers, meet your shadow selves: Ed and Hildy -– to this point acquaintances who are only vaguely sniffing around each other -– have a fantastically stilted phone conversation in which both parties get progressively blotchier and sweatier as the conversation continues, positively chirping with desperation by the end, both hanging up the phone equally resigned to the fact that they came off as certifiable fuck-ups. The scene is nauseatingly familiar. Meanwhile, Sherman is a writer who is met only with rejection, slaving away at a bookstore and composing missives about dumb customers (oh, let me count the ways…) while corporate smacks him back with their own special brand of dehumanizing disdain. That his snobbishness is reinforced by his perceived failure as a writer only enfeebles his resolve to leave a job he (purportedly) hates. The cataloging of stupid questions from the Great Unwashed sure has a way of making one feel superior, especially when the powers-that-be are making you wear a dopey bookseller’s jacket. You know this guy, don’t you? The shelf full of Vonnegut novels? The article he’s writing about the Beatles? That entitled sort of dickishness fueled by an overzealous use of critical thinking skills and displaced narcissism? And yet not altogether a bad guy? Maybe you’ll like Sherman and maybe you won’t, but as with all of the dramatis personae in BOP, Robinson has a way of making sure you get him.
One way he does this is through his rendering of conversations (simultaneous, imagined, self-directed), mapping out speech when speakers and ideas are in competition with one another. This visual blocking relays so much subtextual information about the characters’ wit, pretenses, preoccupations, tune-outs, humor, regrets and social dynamics, in a manner more succinct and form more interesting than if portrayed through narrative. In a full page illustration depicting Sherman, Ed and their friend James hanging out at a bar, a tower of overlapping speech balloons shows us a loose conversational pathway. Words are obscured, thoughts are interrupted, subjects are introduced and then dropped, even the throwaway comments are included, like complaints to the waitress or “Hahaha!” Like academic methods of analytical transcription, this style of illustration (which appears throughout the collection) records many of the same conversational markers (interruption, overlap, emphasis, turn distribution) , bringing us to a more refined understanding of how these very verbal people talk their way around each other and through their social landscapes. Similar insights are gained when the monologue is internal: Sherman’s existential panic/yearning to kiss a girl other than his girlfriend stretches out to five pages, every single thought documented and considered in real time as the illustrations zoom in to the most discrete accelerations of gesture (a finger extends, a breath exhales). We’re with him millisecond by millisecond as this moment gets ever more elastic, and for a spell I’m not sure if I’m getting sucked into the story or halfway reliving my own.
My favorite aspect of BOP though is that it doesn’t treat the process of growing through your twenties as some sort of lurch towards mortality or agonized fading away of the blush of youth. So often stories like these, at best, point towards aging as a bittersweet inevitability but in BOP, there is a distinctive spirit of yes about maturity. “Verbal Intercourse” is a case in point, in which Jane and Stephen mark the occasion of their five year anniversary by doing it six ways from Sunday, all the while sustaining a light patter of casual conversation – chit-chat about parents, vile children on the subway, grading papers. The go-to interpretation of “sex is boring” for those in long-term relationships is turned on its head (much like Jane and Stephen, haha) in this vignette; the message that comes through is more of a sideways commentary about the gift that is loving companionship, the miracle of two people not only loving but also liking each other for years at a time. By the end, the couple’s bed is transported to outer space, and I’m guessing the space volcano denotes that the getting was good, despite all of the yakety-yak. It is the ecstasy of the well-adjusted.
There are broader story arcs in BOP: Sherman tries and tries to convince himself that his girlfriend is not a total mismatch; a cantankerous troll of an old-guard cartoonist takes on corporate comics to win back some royalties on a character he created back in the day; Jane and Stephen ditch apartment life for something more permanent. But it’s the diversions from the path that make this work so enveloping. I find myself squinting to make out what books are on Sherman’s bookshelf, I’m trying to figure out what song is playing at the party, I’m studying the faces of the people on the subway to see if anyone looks familiar. Perhaps better suited for people watchers than superhero fetishists, Box Office Poison dignifies the regularness of adulthood, proving there is something vitally interesting between drama and drudgery.
Stacey Pavlick's day job has zero to do with her undergrad degrees in Philosophy and Political Science. A newcomer to comics, more of her writing can be found on Spectrum Culture, where she expounds on music and books and wields her influence as Managing Editor. She lives in a Philadelphia rowhouse with her longtime boyfriend, a handful of comedically spirited cats and a pit bull rescue, whom she frequently plays as if his body is a furry keyboard.