In “Our Expanding Universe,” cartoonist Alex Robinson continues to chronicle the everyday lives of regular guys just trying to figure out the world The black-and-white graphic novel from Top Shelf shines the spotlight and three friends whose lives offer a good deal of strain on their longtime bonds.
The November-shipping book clocks in at 256 pages and focuses on a trio of male friends who are all at different stages in their lives. Scott is married with one kid and another on the way, Bill and his wife are trying to conceive and Brownie is their divorced, weed-loving friend with theories on everything from Aimee Mann parties to playground rules. As the book continues their statuses shift which puts their friendships — and recurring box ball games — at risk.
Robinson chronicled the lives of several NYC-based 20-somethings in his ’90s ongoing series “Box Office Poison” and has gone on to create a variety of graphic novels like the similarly themed “Tricked,” the time-traveling high school drama “Too Cool to be Forgotten” and the female warriors fantasy “Lower Regions.” With “Our Expanding Universe,” Robinson returns to the world of New York City and the unique characters therein.
CBR News talked with Robinson about chronicling these more adult relationships, having fun with conversations and developing the multi-meaning title.
CBR News: The title works as both a description of growing up and also a nice nod to science and comic geekery. Did it come to you early on?
Alex Robinson: I think it was probably about midway through. I was probably sick of calling it “The New Book” so I came up with what I thought would just be a working title but it stuck. Usually titles come easy to me but when they don’t, boy, is it a challenge. My second book, “Tricked,” was the toughest one to name.
When you get an idea for something like “Our Expanding Universe,” do you let it simmer for a while before sitting down to write and draw or do you get right to it?
It really varies from project to project. I had the idea for “Too Cool to Be Forgotten” years before I started us since I thought it the concept would benefit from me having a bit more life experience. After “Career Killer” flopped I really racked my brain for a new idea, playing around with this and that when the idea for “Our Expanding Universe” popped into my brain almost fully formed. I’m a big believer that most art comes from the unconscious, that your brain is always working on and processing ideas, even if you don’t realize it. Sometimes you just have to get out of your own way, or doing the book you have to do at that moment.
Going into this book, were you trying to do anything differently with your layouts or presentation? It seemed like you might have been getting away from the more traditional panel layout style with more open borders and floating characters.
My comics usually feature a lot of panels with people talking to each other so its always a challenge to come up with visually interesting ways of presenting a lot of dialogue, when it would be easy to fall back on just drawing talking heads. It’s also a way to keep myself interested. One of things I’ve been very aware of lately is that when you do a comic you’re required to draw the same faces, the same characters, over and over and over again so playing around with layouts and whatnot is a way to combat that.
I actually really enjoyed doing those pages that totally dropped using panel borders and extensive backgrounds. It would be great to figure out a way to do that more often, or even a whole book that way. My current quest in comics is how to keep it as fun as I can while at the same time minimizing the amount of stuff I don’t like to draw.
When it comes to working on a book like this with so many characters weaving in and out of each others’ lives, how do you keep track of everyone and where they’re at?
Whenever I start a new book I vow I’m going to keep notes or dossiers on all the characters so I can keep track of their personal details but I never do. It can be a problem: I’ll be working on a scene and think to myself, “I’m sure I mentioned this character’s middle name,” and then have to look through every completed page trying to find the reference. Sometimes it’s not even little details — there are times I’ll mix up supporting character’s names or forget that I already established that a character lives in Brooklyn or a whatever. Thankfully, Top Shelf’s crack editorial team goes through it all with a fine-toothed comb and helps me tidy it up.
But with the next book I’m definitely going to keep a notebook for all those details. Honest.
What’s your process like when it comes to the early days of a story? Do you script everything out first, work with thumbnails, or something else altogether?
I worked slightly differently this time, planning out a bit more. Once I settled on the basic drive of the story — three guys dealing with having to grow up and all that it entails (or choosing to not grow up) — I came up with a bunch of scenes or conversations I wanted to include and wrote them out very broadly on index cards (e.g. “nanny conversation” or “Aimee Mann party”). Then it was a matter of figuring out the order the cards would go in. I didn’t include every scene but it gave me a good framework.
I was a bit paranoid because I’d been working on a book called “Career Killer” which I was doing in my usual way — pretty much making it up as I went — and I hit a bad patch of writer’s block that ultimately led to me scrapping the book after completing 80 pages. It was a real blow to my confidence, creatively, so I think the index card system was sort of my insurance policy against that happening again.
As you mentioned, “Our Expanding Universe” focuses on married-with-kids Scott, married-soon-to-be-dad Billy and divorced Brownie. Those are three people at very different stages of their lives. What keeps them together as friends?
I guess people will have to read the book to find out! It was really sparked by events in my own life, where I had a group of close friends and within the span of a few years everyone had kids and scattered to the winds — mentally, if not physically. It’s probably no different than what happens to everyone at various points in adulthood, but I really felt that loss kind of acutely. It was probably exacerbated by the fact that my wife and I didn’t have kids, so it felt like one minute I was part of a gang, the next minute everyone had left to have babies.
You mentioned the conversations of the book earlier. I love how they weave and change like real ones. They’ll be all about one thing and then someone changes the course completely for a page or two. Does drawing that in a comic format offer any particular challenges?
The conversations themselves are pretty easy to write, but drawing them can be boring and, as mentioned above, I’m always looking for ways to make two people chatting visually interesting. I was really happy when I came up with the idea of having them play video games while they talked since it gave me a lot of fun stuff to draw. Maybe all my comics from this point forward will be nerds having conversations while playing video games.
I’m currently working on a follow up to my “Lower Regions” book, which is fun because there’s literally no dialogue whatsoever. It’s a nice way to put my artist brain in the driver’s seat for change. Usually the writer part of my brain keeps him on a short leash, to really badly mix my metaphors.
Parenting and the huge mental weight that comes with it is a huge part of this story. Lines like, “Just one of a thousand terrifying moments that come with being a parent” and “The last time I was here I was terrified because I had no idea what I was in for. Now, I’m terrified because I know what I’m in for” ring so true. Were those important points for you to convey going into this book?
Well, when I started the book I actually intended it to be a lot harder on the parents than it came out. Our society is so gung-ho for children — or at least paying lip service to the idea of children — and obsessing over parenting that I wanted to speak on behalf of the loyal opposition. The character Brownie became the mouthpiece for that anger and disgust but as the book went on I really softened the tone a bit.
I think also seeing my friends going through all the struggles that came with being a parent made me a little more sympathetic. I’m still amazed anyone volunteers for the job since there’s plenty of evidence that it includes a great deal of heartache and frustration.
I probably shouldn’t admit it but I also harnessed my love of my dog. We got a dog, Wrigley, in 2008, the first dog either of us had, and after a lifetime of owning cats I was surprised at how different it was having a dog, the devotion they have, etc. It was a good way of getting inside the head of parents — if I love my dog now, imagine if every day it was a little smarter and would eventually learn to talk and go on to become a Supreme Court justice. It made me more understand parents a little more, how crazy it must be to have your feelings tie into this little adorable monster.
Another theme of the book seems to be the fact that all parents are just doing their best, even with all the mistakes we make. Do you think that’s difficult for some readers to accept?
We live in a crazy time where there’s an incredible amount of pressure put on parents. If you aren’t spending every minute Enriching them or going into debt sending them to the best schools you might as well be beating them with a belt as far as society is concerned. How did we go from kids playing with Jarts to parents getting arrested for letting them go outside in one generation? It’s really crazy. As someone said, we’re raising the most sheltered generation in American history.
I think a lot of parents feel insecure and worry they aren’t doing a good enough job so it must be easy to fall into the trap of judging other people.
You’ve always done a great job of using diverse and interesting character designs for main and even background characters. Do they come to you as you work up the panels and stories?
That’s nice of you to say. I’m actually very self-conscious that all of the main characters are middle-aged guys, but sometimes you have to write the book you have to write. But, yeah, usually that’s just done on the fly. The book does mostly take place in Brooklyn, USA, which is a very culturally diverse place so I tried to reflect that a bit.
There’s a section of the book about halfway through that’s images with script-like text running along the side. What made you want to take that route for that section?
It was a gimmick I’d used before in “Box Office Poison,” and to a lesser extent, “Too Cool to Be Forgotten.” Presenting dialogue in script form let’s you pack in a lot more information. In this case, there’s a certain rhythm to the book, generally alternating chapters in which Billy, the main character, is hanging out with Brownie and his friends and ones where he’s hanging out with his wife, Marcy. I wanted to include a scene in which Marcy was hanging out with her friends so I thought I would emphasize the difference by changing the format. Musically it would be like the bridge or a different motif or what have you.
It’s always dicey to include text pages because comics readers generally don’t care for that sort of thing. I know when I’m chugging along in a comic and hit a large section of text there’s a temptation to just skip or skim it so we’ll see what happens.
You mentioned the follow-up to “Lower Regions,” but do you have any other projects you’re working on?
I have an idea for an astronomy-based story that I’m excited about but haven’t quite cracked it yet. I’ve tried explaining it a few times to people and mostly get blank stares or polite encouragement so I’m either a genius or an idiot. I’m going to keep tinkering on it from time to time and hopefully it will gel.
Also, I’ve been co-hosting the Star Wars Minute podcast and we’re gearing up to start discussing “Episode I” in January. It’s weird that podcasting has become a sort of secondary career, and that there are listeners who don’t even know I’m a cartoonist in my other life.
“Our Expanding Universe” by Alex Robinson is scheduled for release in November from Top Shelf.
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