Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Alex Robinson's Lower Regions
by Alex Robinson

Back in the hazy days of yore, I played Dungeons & Dragons for about a week. I received the basic set for Christmas one year and we (being me and a friend) set about to have some fun. Sure enough, we had great fun, for - as I said - about a week. After that point, we quit by mutual accord. Perhaps if we'd known anyone else who played, more experienced players who could do more than a basic out-of-the-box dungeon crawl, we could have done more. But as it is, I think we got about as much fun as could be gotten from the game, at least for us, considering neither of us were enamored enough with our basic experience to care to seek out more.

More than any other specific brand of fantasy storytelling, Lower Regions is designed to evoke the sensation of role playing, specifically the aforementioned archtypal dungeon crawl. It's a short narrative: there's a woman with a battleaxe and a halfling companion, searching through mysterious catacombs in search of something or other. It's entirely wordless, which is actually a pretty clever choice on Robinson's part, as it allows for a number of surprising fake-out moments that might not have been so surprising if Robinson had allowed his characters the opportunity to speak through their situations. (As in: "By Crom, I sense treachery afoot! Perhaps all is not as it seems on first look . . ." or some other second-hand Howardism.)

Alex Robinson has long been a personal favorite of mine, dating back to his second full-length graphic novel, Tricked. It was such an accomplished piece of work that I reevaluated what I'd seen of his earlier work. Box Office Poison was one of the most overhyped indie series of the 90s (I seem to recall Wizard, of all things, having an extended love affair with it). Once BOP was compiled into a single massive volume, it was easier to get a grip on the work's respective strengths and weaknesses. It was obviously ambitious, but it was equally obvious that Robinson's reach clearly exceeded his grasp. It was simply too much for a freshman creator to pull off in his first at-bat. But reading Tricked, it became possible to see BOP as less of a noble failure and more of as a concrete learning curve, a means for Robinson to learn the hard way how best to produce a cartoon narrative over a long period of time. Sure enough, Tricked was a lot better than BOP - half as big, twice as focused, and with a much better grasp on Robinson's core strengths. Even back in the earliest days of BOP, Robinson had an uncanny knack for character development - using a nice combination of anecdote and dialogue to peel back layers of deceptively transparent feature. It may not be very flashy, and in fact it's probably the oldest trick in the book, but there you have it: Robinson is by no means a trendsetting formalist or an explosive iconoclast, but he is a master of well-plotted character melodrama. Which is nothing to sneeze at.

Despite what I just wrote, Lower Regions isn't a well-plotted character melodrama. But regardless of that, the story still gains strength from the juxtaposition of a recognizable type - Robinson's very real-world, anti-idealized physical specimens - against the fantastic milieu of a second rate Terry Goodkind knockoff. The protagonist - who, lacking a name, I will simply call Battleaxe Woman - may possess a rather formidable physique, but her face is nevertheless all Robinson. The emotional weight of this silent story - such as there is with such a brief narrative - rests on her facial expressions, her anger, exhaustion, relief, fear and happiness. It's really quite accomplished, for all its seeming absurdity. You find yourself sucked into her story, rooting for Battleaxe Woman in her quest to find her schlubby hubby. Despite the story's purposeful brevity, you find yourself wishing there were a lot more. (There is at least a little bit more, in the form of a brief piece here.)

I don't really know what to call a book like this, although it seems to fit nicely with a number of other similarly-themed books from recent years, books like Powr Mastrs, Goddess of War as well as work by former Fort Thunder folks like Brian Chippendale and Mat Brinkman. What all of this work has in common is that it trades on a trove of received fantasy imagery in order to create formally ambitious narratives that consciously play with audience expectations, a trick partially abetted by the fact that so many people in the art comics audience are intuitively familiar with the vocabulary and conventions of fantasy through a lifetime's exposure to comics and other kinds of nerd media. Perhaps Lower Regions is nowhere near as ambitious, but, as I said, Robinson's skill rewards a more subtle agenda. Don't be mistaken: Lower Regions is obviously a trifle, a tiny lark of a pamphlet from a cartoonist who customarily works on a much larger canvas. But still, an immensely fun and surprisingly rewarding trifle, for all that.

No comments :