Back in the 1990’s, before the tech boom started, it wasn’t unusual for a recent college grad to work in a bookstore (or wait tables) while deciding what to do next. Years earlier it was unheard of, but in the Clinton era it was the norm. It all changed after 1997 with all the internet companies sprouting up, and 20 years later, it’s the norm again.
I read Box Office Poison way back in 1995 when it was a photocopied mini comic in the $1-box at Jim Hanley’s. From the minute I opened it I knew it was going to be a classic; the story was great, the artwork was perfect, and the author didn’t take himself seriously. I could relate to Sherman, the cranky protagonist who works in a bookstore, shares a Brooklyn apartment (with a very 1990’s couple), and likes weird girls. I loved the way the characters were all imperfect; the girls are short and lanky haired, and the guys are fat and shlumpy. It was quite a contrast to Spider-Man, where every character looks gorgeous (even some of the villains look hot.) You won’t see any bulging muscles, perfect 38DD boobs, or $100 hairstyles. This isn’t a Todd McFarland Spiderman comic, and you won’t see Spiderman’s steroid-freak muscles, nor Mary Jane Parker’s supermodel fashion. The protagonist is lanky and sexless, and his girl is 5’5, short-haired, and wears dark clothing.
The story begins with Sherman and his friend Ed moving his stuff into his new room. The two of them make for a funny pair; Sherman is tall, slim, and neatly groomed, while Ed is short, fat, goateed, and shaves his head (reminds you a little of Laurel & Hardy or Mutt & Jeff.) Then comes the new girlfriend, Dorothy Lestrade (yes, it is a reference to Sherlock Holmes) a woman with a shady past, who (to the reader and unfortunately not to Sherman) is obviously mentally unbalanced. The new apartment is in Carol Gardens, and keep in mind that this was before the “hipster” era, so you didn’t have all the great restaurants, theatres, stores, and whatnot. Whenever the characters go to a restaurant, it’s usually a diner or a basic Italian eatery. All the good restaurants were in Manhattan, and even as late as 2004, I remember Carol Gardens being sort of dull. I’m definitely going to assign this book if I’m teaching a class on New York history!
Alex Robinson crafted the perfect story of being young in the 1990’s, at a time when young people were “finding” Brooklyn, opting to cohabitate instead of getting married, and most important for this book, starting to appreciate comics that did not involve men in tights! As for the artwork, it’s all black and white line drawings, with a great use of shadows. After a childhood of comics with muscle-freaks leaping around in pantyhose, I was glad to find comics set in the real world. The only non-superhero comic we had at the time was Archie, and he was NEVER a realistic depiction of being a teen (nobody in that comic was short, overweight, sloppy, pimpled, gay, lesbian, alcoholic, addicted to drugs, homeless, etc.) We had Maus (thank heavens) and Tintin (even that falls short) but when Box Office Poison came out, I couldn’t get enough.
Unlike Archie, Sherman Davies has to pay his own bills, and unlike Veronica, his girlfriend has issues, and they can be scary! If Archie and Jughead were out of the house and living in shared apartments on a shoestring budget, this is probably how it would end up. As for the mini-comic I picked up almost 20 years ago, I still have it, and I’m not giving it up!