Book review: Tricked by Alex Robinson

If this was a movie, it would have been a 1989 effort with then-unknown actors which would be cited by Paul Thomas Anderson as an influence on Magnolia.


Ugly but eye-catching. Black line busts of the main characters over a squintworthy blur of background colour and some arse-ugly text. It looks like a cheap gig poster that’s been put up in the rain.

The plot

Six main characters share the same city: A jaded rock star, a waitress with bad taste in men, a tubby small-time forger, a cute Puerto Rican lady, a misanthropic I.T. guy (yes, you’re very funny) and a teenage runaway seeking her biological father. The numbered chapters begin at fifty; we count backwards, taking turns with each character as their journeys begin to intertwine, braiding together toward a climactic event. By the time we reach chapter one they’re bound to each other and forever changed by the experience.

The good

Robinson is very much in control of the whole story. I haven’t read anything else by him, but here he plots like a pro and obviously knows his characters inside out. This manifests itself in obvious ways, such as the intentional inevitability of the chapter countdown, but also in smaller ways, such as the skilful pacing–those who don’t often read comics may not realise how much work goes into the invisible space between frames, each representing an exact, deliberate decision of elapsed time on the part of the author. Robinson knows this well.

His art is spare and simple, subservient to character and plot, not unlike the Hernandez brothers (Love & Rockets), although there are also cartoonish flourishes reminiscent of Peter Bagge (Hate, Neat Stuff). Like a lot of the work of those artists, this is exclusively monochromatic (i.e. pure black and white, without greys), which, again, involves more decisions than its simplicity would attest. Robinson also has a real knack for another under-appreciated comic book skill–the apportioning and placement of text within the image. In mainstream comics this is often a separate job to that of the artists, because it’s time consuming and can potentially wreck a page of good art. Text in a comic is more like movie dialogue than literature–it needs to say the most with the least at just the right time. There are some adventurous artistic compositions, too, especially at the climax–if I’m making this sound visually dull, that’s not my intention, I just mean to say that this is not the sort of comic one approaches for eye-candy (see “Cover”).

The story is well told, then, and the characterisation is quite deft. The women (well, at least two of them) ring true, which is no mean feat for any male author. Robinson also attempts to strike a balance between foreshadowing the fate of his characters (we know they’ll all meet eventually) and avoiding cliché, and I’d say he’s about two-thirds successful, which is pretty damn good. It’s particularly apparent with the “bad guy”–the spiteful, increasingly unhinged computer fixer–his role, as I’ve just demonstrated with quotation marks, is perhaps the most obvious, and his path the most predictable, yet Robinson manages to humanise his mental deterioration in a way which, while not spectacularly unique, is certainly believable–the character defines the man who becomes that which he most fears. Like any good writer Robinson knows how to show us, rather than tell us, and when he does tell, it can also be very effective–there’s a superb little monologue where this character explains his deterioration; if it isn’t a quote from a real schizophrenic then I’m doubly impressed.

I’m going to go right ahead and call this is a solid achievement. It does exactly what it sets out to, and is about as far from a superhero soap opera as you can get whilst still employing speech bubbles.

The bad

Well, although Robinson’s art is reminiscent of Bagge’s & Hernandez’, it’s not as good as either, I’m afraid. His hands and feet are weak, his perspective is not all it could be, and there’s little background detail–this is not the sort of art which holds secrets, and I rather like that sort. He uses cartoonish facial features to distinguish his central characters, which is effective but unsubtle, and is of dubious necessity because he IS quite good at conveying subtlety of expression–there were moments where an effective nuance was so close to invisible that I found myself checking to find out if it was deliberate. I suppose this means that Robinson’s figures lack the confidence of his layouts–perhaps that will change with time, along with a certain lack of cohesive style. As I said, what the art loses in panache, it makes up for in functionality, but if you read comics for the art then that wont be much of a swap, and also that cover is helping NO-ONE.

His characters skirt cliché, but they do indulge in it at times, and their eventual positions are generally guessable from early on. The fun is found in how they get there, and fortunately comics are an unlikely format for lulls in plotting, so, largely, the pull of the story overrides their shortcomings. It’s hard to bemoan a storyteller for lack of ambition when he knows exactly where he’s going from page one (or chapter fifty, in this case) and travels there smoothly and on time with all advertised elements present and correct. So I won’t.

What I learnt

Is it possible to consider yourself more refined because you read a less juvenile form of comic book?

In short

Title: Tricked
Author: Alex Robinson
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions
ISBN: 1891830732
Year published: 2005
Pages: 320
Genre(s): Graphic novel

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here