Our Expanding Universe
The king of sprawling, feels-like-autobiography, multi-cast graphic novel soap operas, Alex Robinson, has returned with Our Expanding Universe. It’s dubbed a “spiritual sequel” to his best-known Box Office Poison, and that’s an accurate comparison. (Other Robinson books include Tricked and the regretful time-travel Too Cool to Be Forgotten.)
The characters aren’t the same, but they’re recognizable in the same ways the BOP cast were. The significant difference is that Our Expanding Universe features older adults. Instead of wondering when their lives will get started, these characters are dealing with impending parenthood and feeling trapped where they’ve ended up.
Robinson’s stark scenes and unflattering caricatures have the feel of a sketchbook, peering in when people aren’t aware they’re being observed (or they might present themselves more optimistically). Like many of the Great American Novels and their explorations of the male psyche this work evokes, the focus is on the guys.
The few female characters aren’t nearly as well-developed or relatable, and sometimes, they descend into cliche. There are some non-guy scenes, but they revolve around family members and pressure to have babies and what the guys are doing. That’s realistic for many women, but I found it disheartening. After all, the biggest single change when having a baby is the physical one to the mother’s body, but that isn’t even acknowledged here.
The only chapter with only women even switches from comics to illustrated script (possibly because drawing all their conversations would have made the book twice as long). It stood out to me because Robinson does such a great job keeping his many conversations among the guys visually interesting. That said, if you’re ok knowing this is a portrait of how men deal with parenthood, the portrayals are illuminating when it comes to how a particular male age group struggles with growing up.
The stories are told in a series of chapter vignettes. Billy, manager of a doggy day care, and Marcy are trying to get pregnant, although Billy seems much less interested. His friend Scott and his wife Ritu have a toddler and another on the way. The third guy, Brownie, is single and complaining about first dates. He reviews video games and smokes a lot while contemplating hooking up with his high school crush.
They all live in Brooklyn, so life is about meeting for foursquare and talking about nannies. No matter how old they get, the guys still think about whatever women they see in terms of wanting to get phone numbers and resemblances to previous girlfriends. Ultimately, Robinson does a great job covering all the father’s facets of choosing to reproduce: the stress, the struggle with feeling like an adult, the question of what growing up means, the societal pressure, and even the love.
Our Expanding Universe is an excellent literary graphic novel, demonstrating what can be done with the form to tell mature, challenging stories, albeit in the tradition of male-focused comics. Or you can just enjoy it for discussions like Herschel’s theory of child-raising: “Think of parenthood as a twenty year drug trip. It has highs and lows, makes you act batshit crazy, and forever alters how you experience the world.”
A preview is available at the publisher’s website. The Comics Journal has posted a lengthy interview with Robinson about his process. (The publisher provided a review copy.)