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Chaos Theory



Alex Robinson

Top Shelf, 2005

Rating: 4.0


Posted: October 10, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Appearances can be deceiving. Such is the primary lesson of Tricked, writer-artist Alex Robinson's long-awaited follow-up to his widely lauded, Eisner Award-winning 2001 graphic novel Box Office Poison, which is far more engaging and layered than its oddly static and unmoving (in more ways than one) cover would suggest. For all its off-putting simplicity, the image -- of six heads, each emanating lines or waves that intersect with those of the other heads -- does hint at the way in which the lives of the book's primary characters connect with each other. This is, after all, one of those multi-character narratives, similar in conceit and structure to the work of, say, Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson.

Tricked threads together the very different lives of six very different people: Ray, a creatively frustrated rock star looking to recapture the spark of his early days; Nick, a compulsively dishonest forger who lies as naturally as other people breathe; Steve, a neurotic, socially retarded misanthrope whose deep music-geek obsession with Ray's former band sparks a downward spiral; Caprice, a pudgy waitress whose personal issues threaten to get in the way of a promising relationship; Lily, a quiet sliver of a girl who becomes Ray's personal assistant; and Phoebe, who treks to the big city to confront the father she never knew.

Robinson's deft hand at characterization is apparent throughout, although he favors some characters more than others, and thus so do we. Steve's descent into a kind of madness is sketched in vivid detail, with Robinson defining much of his character early on, through assorted rants and digressions, so that his future actions, no matter how questionable on the surface, spring from a logical place. Likewise, Nick's constant, almost offhand duplicity is captivating, his actions and their consequences (which prove quite dire) drawing us deeper and deeper into his increasingly dangerous world, despite his inherent unsympathetic nature.

The same can't quite be said of Ray, whose arc never resonates, although Robinson does construct a fairly comprehensive rock 'n' roll back story for him (and displays an amazing affinity for coming up with believable band names). And Lily never really comes to life, which makes her relationship with Ray all the more problematic, since we never truly understand (or buy into) either character's attraction to the other. It's one of a number of contrivances that occasionally break this graphic novel's spell, lifting the dramatic veil to show us the plot machinations that must keep the story hurtling toward its eventual conclusion, which takes place (improbably enough) at the diner where Caprice works and where Phoebe has finally met, and begun a tentative relationship with, her long-distant father.

Ultimately, the act of violence toward which the book's chapters count down doesn't connect all of these characters together in the way we're led to expect -- it's not as well-orchestrated as the series of events that link the characters in Paul Haggis' Crash, for instance. But if some of these events feel random and arbitrary, well, that's partly the point: that a single innocent act, such as a rock star autographing a photo, can improbably and inevitably lead to an act of violence that touches different people in different ways, and to varying degrees. That life-changing events are sometimes the ripples created from a seemingly inconsequential act.

But if Tricked requires one or more nimble leaps of faith, it never asks so much of the reader that he or she gives up. Some of its resolutions may be a bit too pat, and its characterization may be uneven, but Tricked is filled with enough nuance and dramatic tension to keep the reader intrigued and involved for more than 300 pages. And his evolving skill as a cartoonist -- his use of heavy, inky blacks to define negative spaces; the impressive expressiveness of his slightly cartoonish faces, his confident sense of composition -- plays a large role in keeping those pages turning. Ultimately, Tricked leaves the reader hoping that it won't take another four years to chart this talented artist's progress. And that's a neat trick in itself.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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