In Alex Robinson's "Too Cool to be Forgotten," shipping in July from Top Shelf, a hypnotherapy session intended to help middle-aged Andy Wicks quit smoking instead sends him back to his sophomore year in high school. Without any clear route back to the present, Andy must navigate the strange but familiar environment of teenage existence, with all the wisdom of hindsight yet fearful of endangering his established adult life. CBR News spoke with Robinson, who both wrote and illustrated the book, about the mechanics of time travel and his own less-than-reckless youth.
"I'm a sucker for time travel stories, and I graduated in high school in 1987, so I thought it might be interested to try something in honor of the twentieth anniversary," Robinson told CBR. "My hope was to have the book released in time for my reunion, but it took longer than I thought, obviously."
Coming of age in the '80s, the "Too Cool" creator could rely largely on his own perspective and personal artifacts in recreating the era. "My biggest reference was my high school yearbook, and my wife has some as well, so they came in handy for getting stuff like hairstyles, clothes, etc," Robinson said. "One thing a lot of movies and TV shows set in the eighties tend to do is really caricature things, so you'll have everyone walking around looking like they're fresh out of a Duran Duran or Madonna video when that really wasn't the case--at least not in the east coast suburban school I went to. I guess it makes for more interesting visuals, but I really wanted to make it as accurate as I could.
"It's interesting because I had to make Andy's life a little more 'typical' since I spent all my free time in school drawing comics and not having a social life. In some ways I tried to make Andy's life as close to mine as I could, but I had to change a few things. It's strange, to me, that I spent all of high school hidden away in my room so that one day I could do a graphic novel about what it was like to be a normal high school kid."
Spending all of his time drawing may have paid off for Robinson when art finally imitated life. In "Too Cool to be Forgotten," it is clear the cartoonist never takes page layout for granted. In addition to some clever yet easy to follow panel arrangement, the artist also makes the most of black-and-white space to create larger images from individual panels on several pages. Asked what sort of thought goes into designing a comic book page, Robinson said that it was "mostly instinctual" and that his main criteria was that the art should serve the story. "I mostly think of myself as a writer first, so the story will always take precedence," he said. "Am I conveying what I need to so that the reader knows what's going on? With this book, I used a lot of thought balloons, probably as much as all my other books combined, so that probably gave me more freedom to play around. Since there were a few internal monologues in which Andy was lost in thought I could let the artist part of my brain off the leash a little bit and try to come up with some interesting visuals."
Unlike some other stories in which an adult goes back to his teenage years, there's never really a sense in "Too Cool" that Andy sees this as an opportunity to do all the things he wishes he would have done back then -- he's actually very keen to get back to his real life as a bald, forty-year old man. "I have Andy refer to having watched enough 'Star Trek' to know that he should try to limit his tampering with the past, at least if he wants to return to the life he had," Robinson laughed. "I think that's an angle that's overlooked in many time travel fantasies: if you like your life in the present you have to accept the good with the miserable when it comes to your past. I lived out my fantasies of trying to ask out all the girls I had secret crushes on instead of living a monastic existence drawing comic books we probably wouldn't be having this conversation. I think the more you have in your present life the more you would have to resist the chance to change the past. Andy has two kids, so tinkering around in the past could literally make them not come to exist."
Andy also finds himself dealing with other aspects of teenage life that he--and possibly many readers--has forgotten about, such as having to ask permission to use the toilet in school. "I think part of the reason high school is such a seductive place in terms of memories is that it's really your first taste of adulthood--stuff like jobs, social status and sex, things that you'll be dealing with more or less for the rest of your life," Robinson said. "But you also have the intense restrictions hanging on from childhood--you're stuck interacting with the same people day after day, like it or not. So the temptation is to think about the first part without considering the latter. I think a lot of fantasies people have about changing their past would be almost as difficult even if they could go back, or would at least be a lot more trouble then you daydream about.
"One of the toughest challenges for me was trying to create realistic teenagers. Like with the fashions I wanted to avoid a lot of the usual cliches. I think most teenagers in pop culture are wish fulfillment on the part of screenwriters. They're writing teenagers the way they either wish they were or think they remember them: funnier, more confident, smarter, whatever. I tried to avoid that and depict them as honestly I could, which really painted myself in a corner. I think honestly written teenagers come across as bad writing! I think the hallmark of teenagers is inconsistency and extremes, which makes sense since they're sort of trying out adulthood, figuring out the best way to handle what's going on and who they're becoming, but it's really hard to write!"
Though the purpose of Andy's time warp is ostensibly to quit smoking, as the story progresses it becomes clear that something else is bubbling below the surface--something that Andy struggles to face even with a grown-up perspective. Robinson said that in regards to this crisis, Andy's adult self and teenage self are "more or less the same, since he hasn't really dealt with any of the issues involved since they happened." "This explains why he appears mostly as a teenager in the book, but when it comes time to face facts, he more or less flickers between his adult and younger self," he said.
"In many ways, the book is a metaphor for psychology and the therapy process, delving into the past to get to the root of some problem or another. Another incentive I had for doing the book was trying to get to the root of some of my own neuroses," the writer explained. "High school looms large in my legend, and I'm not sure all of it is healthy!"
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