New York, New York

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Not since Art Spiegelman's "Raw," during the 1980s, has New York City played any significant role in alternative comix. Perhaps because it's home to the mainstream industry (Marvel and DC are both located there) most of alternative comix' history has been born elsewhere. So it's nice to see a couple of new comix with ties to the Big Apple.

Alex Robinson's "Box Office Poison," (Top Shelf Productions; 602 pg.; $29.95), has nothing to do with Hollywood, but is instead a phone-book-sized story of friends and lovers in their twenties living and working in New York City. The central character, Sherman, slaves away at a Manhattan bookstore while struggling with aspirations of being a writer and coping with his self-destructive girlfriend. Meanwhile his best-friend, Ed, employed as the assistant to an old-time comicbook "legend," begins a crusade to earn his craggy boss compensation for the lucrative characters he signed away fifty years ago.

The "Box Office Poison" characters take a moment to answer a question

"Poison" is not a perfect work. The epic size of the book hasn't been justified by the often unbelievable storylines that never coalesce into a thematic, artistic goal. The book works much better as a smartly depicted character study of the post-graduate, middle-class, suburban types that spend several years in the city before getting married and moving out. The six hundred pages give Robinson room to flash back on important events like Sherman's struggle with his mom's cancer and Ed's tale of retribution against an abusive uncle. Every fifty pages or so he makes the characters answer a get-to-know-you question like, "What is your secret talent?"

Robinson's black and white drawings have a realistic, if fairly undistinguished style that reads easily, but is not boring. He keeps the layouts changing and occasionally gets modestly ambitious, as when Sherman's shocked reaction to a girlfriend's "move in together" proposal appears in the top and bottom of a giant exclamation point. In both the writing and drawing Robinson does a nice job of portraying the character's lives with the verisimilitude of being a New Yorker himself. Crazy, immigrant landladies, intimate encounters on rooftops, and subway fantasies are things that any New Yorker can tell you about. But nobody really needs six hundred pages of it.

Dean Haspiel likewise lives in the city, and has written a smaller, and more directly autobiographical book, "Opposable Thumbs" (Alternative Comics; 48 pg.; $4.95). The book reads like a collection of his best personal anecdotes, rather than a longer piece of self-examination. But Haspiel wins us over with his willingness to admit to all the stupid, reckless, violent events of his life in New York.

Each vignette has high entertainment value, if not a lot of introspection. One story tells of his "month-long foray into the bewitching milieu of smoking crack cocaine." With a bit of work examining his motivations and feelings he could have built this out to fill the whole book, and made a fascinating read. Instead he keeps it to six admittedly very amusing pages that culminate in a violent battle over who would get to eat some crack residue.

Dean Haspiel's neighbor cries on his pants

Haspiel uses thick, brushed lines for a dramatic black and white effect that feels right for these urban tales of heroin O.D.s and underground parties that turn into near-orgies. He worked as an apprentice to several industry luminaries like Walt Simonson and has a style that unites personal expression with mainstream polish. In the funniest story, about a feud with a roommate that degenerates into mutual bedlinen soiling, Haspiel leaps over his friend like Superman.

Neither Alex Robinson's "Box Office Poison," nor Dean Haspiel's "Opposable Thumbs" are the ground-breaking comix work of "Raw." But they nicely represent two kinds of New York experience: urban opportunity and urban decay.

"Box Office Poison" and "Opposable Thumbs" can both be found at better comicbook stores. "BOP" can also be purchased through the publishers website. "Opposable Thumbs" can also be purchased this way.