Tricked (Top Shelf)

If there were a graphic novel award for "best ensemble performance," this re-release of Alex Robinson’s 2005 tale of six intertwining lives would easily score a nomination.

350 pgs., B&W; $19.95
(W / A: Alex Robinson)
Alex Robinson’s graphic novel Tricked made quite a splash on its first release in 2005, winning Harvey and Ignatz awards and being nominated for an Eisner as well. If you missed it the first time around you can still catch up because Top Shelf has re-released Tricked in a hardcover edition. It’s well worth your time, particularly if you have a taste for large-cast indie dramas told by an artist with a clean and expressive graphic style and a fine ear for colloquial speech. Don’t let my “indie” descriptor turn you off: while several of the main characters are young adults searching for their path in life and there are some musical references, Robinson’s concerns go far beyond wannabe hipsters and obsessions with which band is coolest this week. 
There are six main characters in Tricked and a host of well-rounded secondary characters as well. First among equals is Ray, a former rock star who is doing well financially but is creatively blocked and a bit full of himself. (Four years since his last solo album? Oh the humanity!) Steve is a computer engineer and obsessive fan of Ray and his former band The Tricks (which provides one among several meanings for the title), and suffers from an unspecified psychological disturbance (many things are unspecified in Tricked, including the location where the story takes place). Nick has tricked (there’s that title word again!) his wife into thinking he’s a corporate executive while in fact he works in a sleazy sport memorabilia store that specializes in faking autographs. Phoebe is a sweet and innocent high school girl who has invested all her meager resources in a bus trip to wherever Tricked takes place because she believes her biological father lives there. Caprice is a chubby, insecure waitress at the Little Piggy Diner who has been through so many bad relationships that she doesn’t believe she’ll ever experience anything else. Lily is a young Hispanic woman who works as an office assistant and lives with her mother and older sister.
Robinson starts off telling each character’s story separately but as the novel progresses connections begin to appear among them. OK, this was not a new idea even in 2005, but in this novel it’s well-executed. In fact, the somewhat inevitable nature of those connections (underlined because, after the initial introductions of each character, the novel’s episodes are numbered in countdown fashion, from 49 to 1) acts as a freeing force which allows Robinson to work in lots of telling details about each character while at the same time creating a small city’s worth of interesting secondary characters. If there were a graphic novel award for “best ensemble performance,” Tricked would have my nomination.
I’m working the cinematic metaphors pretty hard, but that’s because in many ways Tricked reminds me at times of several different indie dramas and television series. That’s not a complaint—contemporary culture is saturated with conventions drawn from television and film—nor is it a suggestion that Robinson’s material feels uncomfortable in its current form. On the contrary, it’s hard to believe Tricked could be as effective on film or television as it is on the page, not only because of the inevitable compromises which arise in collaborative mediums, but also because a great strength of the storytelling in Tricked is Robinson’s willingness to make suggestions about character and action while allowing the reader to fill in the gaps.
As with a good television series (I’m thinking Mad Men, but I’m sure there are other examples), Robinson also provides you with lots of secondary characters who create an indelible impression despite their limited “screen time.” This not only increases the realism of Tricked’s invented world, but also provides the reader with a much broader selection of characters they can root for/root against/identify with. My favorite supporting characters are Richard and Frank, life partners and co-owners of the Little Piggy Diner. They live in a fabulous glass-walled high-rise which might have been designed by Cedric Gibbons, and one of them shows his mettle early on when he takes care of a little “situation” caused by one of Caprice’s a-hole ex-boyfriends. It’s a very funny scene (and don’t worry, no joints are snapped) which shows you a side of his character you might not have expected. Their relationship is tested when a secret from one of their pasts, Phoebe, turns up in the diner, but Robinson avoids turning this occurrence into melodrama and brings it to a conclusion consistent with what he’s previously shown us about the characters.
Robinson’s art in Tricked is inked in pure black and white with lots of solid black, which gives the frames a feeling of weight and reality while also playing up the noir-like associations of some of the scenes. It’s mostly semi-realistic, with clear differentiation among the characters but occasionally ventures into more expressionist territory. Steve provides the opportunity for much of this: as his mental illness becomes more pervasive, his frames also depart more from realism and even his speech and thought bubbles change character, transforming from the neat lettering of the sane characters into more and more of a scrawl. But Robinson also gets inside the heads of his other characters and reflects this in his art from time to time: for instance in a moment of self-doubt Phoebe sees street signs transformed to “BAD DAUGHTER AVE” and “UNWANTED STREEET.”

You can see a preview of Tricked at and read an interview with the author right here at PLAYBACK:stl. | Sarah Boslaugh

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