Book Review: Box Office Poison

I know that book reviews are traditionally about new publications, but you should see some of the new publications that approach us for reviews (one piece of dreck, the wretchedly mixed-messagey Embracing Your Big Fat Ass, is still trying to spam us with astroturfing comments). According to this link from Shapeling Arwen, fat protagonists are a big trend in current book pitches, but right now if you want a story with a fat character (or even a nonfiction book focusing on fat), the likelihood is that you’ll come up against low self-esteem, comic relief, compulsive eating, laziness, deep-seated emotional problems — all the stereotypes that prevent fat characters from being interesting, nuanced, attractive, or role models. I’ve been discussing young adult lit with some librarian friends in preparation for a guest post, and it’s the same in that genre, if not worse. Basically, until Kate and TR’s book comes out, it’s going to be nigh impossible to find a work of printed literature, especially a fictional one, that’s not rife with offensive caricature.

Enter one of my favorite books, Alex Robinson‘s cartoon saga Box Office Poison.

It’s ironic that a comic book should provide some of the least cartoonish depictions of fat people in modern literature, but BOP is basically the only book I can think of where some people are just fat. It’s not indicative of a personality disorder. It’s not visual code for gluttony, laziness, or lack of self-control. It doesn’t take you out of the running to be seen as desirable or worthy — four of the book’s fattish characters are love interests over the course of the story, and another’s in a long-term relationship. You can’t predict, just by looking at a character, how they’ll be eating and moving and behaving over the course of the story.

Fat characters in BOP exhibit normal appetites for food, sex, and approval — they’re not compulsive, repressive, or needy, and when they are it’s not because of their fat. Some of Robinson’s characters seem to have no body issues whatsoever, or at least not any that become major factors in the story. Others, like the hapless cartoonist Ed (left), are self-conscious about their size, but not to an unrealistic degree. And — those of you who pay close attention to fat characters, especially female fat characters, in fiction will recognize this for the revolutionary turn it really is — Ed finds love and happiness and success and confidence without ever losing weight.

And there’s a huge range of bodies in this story, fat and otherwise. Sure, the main characters are mostly fairly attractive in a classical sense, as far as you can tell with Robinson’s simple, casual drawing style — they’re 20-somethings living in Park Slope, for chrissakes — and the fatter ones are mostly on the small end of fat. But including the incidental characters, represented bodies range from the very thin to the very fat, and none of them are stigmatized or used for physical comedy — not even the rotund Comic Book Guy analogue. Nor are all fat people fat in the same way. Alex Robinson understands that some fat people have fat faces, and some people have fat bellies, and some people have huge breasts — that there’s no single way that a fat person looks. You only have to be minimally visually engaged to realize that, but you’d be surprised what an easy time people have ignoring it. Have I mentioned that we’ve deleted a couple of comments from (this is true) people complaining that our faces don’t look fat enough in our icon pictures? Because, you know, all fat people have double chins (and no fat bloggers could possibly be thin, like SM). So I have to appreciate Robinson for avoiding visual essentialism. He doesn’t have a standard “fat body” template; instead, he has “Ed’s body” or “Hildy’s body.”

And let me tell you, presenting fat people as just people? It’s brilliant. It’s revolutionary. And it works. I don’t honestly know if I would have noticed or heeded my attraction to my fat boyfriend if not for my fictional-character crush on big, fat, Vonnegut-reading, crossword-doing history buff Stephen Gaedel. Dan hates crosswords and hadn’t read Vonnegut until I made him and he’s not even in the humanities, but he’s a fat guy with long hair and as embarrassing as this is, I hadn’t ever considered that to be an attractive category of people before BOP introduced me to a fat character who was clearly both personally appealing and a sexual being. (Stephen warns on the first page that you’ll be seeing him naked, and he’s not blowing smoke.) I’m not saying that Robinson gets the credit for my relationship or anything, but did reading practically the one book in existence that presents fat people as just humans, no more damaged or unattractive than any other humans, maybe change how I reacted to the idea of dating a fat guy? Sure it did.

Thin people are treated with just the same sensitivity. As far as I can tell, Robinson doesn’t have any kind of body diversity agenda — he just has a solid visual sense and a finely-tuned ear for personal emotions and interactions, which means that somewhere in the process of being interested in humanity he noticed that humans don’t all look the same. So thin characters aren’t invisible, and you don’t get any of the borderline thin-bashing that you often see from self-consciously fat-positive authors with a tin ear and an insufficient grounding in fat activism. Again, insecurity isn’t totally elided — in one interlude we see the very thin Jane wishing she had big breasts — but people’s bodies aren’t seen as commentary on their worth or indicators of their habits, no matter which side of the spectrum they fall on. (Stephen, incidentally, wishes for vampire fangs. Love.)

The book’s not perfect on the body diversity front; the main characters are all able-bodied and primarily, though not exclusively, white. But again, Robinson’s not going for anything here; he happens to have created a story that captures a particular demographic (that is, it’s about reasonably middle-class young white people in Brooklyn) while incidentally maintaining a more realistic picture of body size variation than I’ve seen in any book, comic or otherwise. It’s not Extreme Ghostbusters or anything — there’s no self-conscious, deliberate race and ability distribution (this, in turn, means that when there are non-white characters, which there are, including Ed, it doesn’t ring a false tokenism note). My other complaint is that he’s much better at drawing fat naked men than fat naked women, who often end up unrealistically smooth and relatively small-waisted. He does make some gestures towards lumpiness, but it doesn’t work as well as with his male characters’ fat bellies. This bugs me fleetingly, because what looks like a celebration of various body sizes when the characters are clothed turns into just another variation on the Feminine Ideal when they’re unclothed. Still, there aren’t that many naked panels, whatever Stephen says.

I haven’t even mentioned the story yet, and of course it’s the story that makes it so hard for me to keep this damn book in my house. (I’m always lending it out — last Christmas one of the items on my wish list was “if you have my copy of Box Office Poison please give it back.”) And it’s the story that puts this on my yearly-reread list. But any blog could tell you that the book is warm, funny, smart, and thoroughly engrossing, or that you’ll fall completely in love with the characters. I wanted to tell you something you might not hear anywhere else — that Box Office Poison is phenomenal not only for its pitch-perfect (yet still slightly fantastic) depiction of life as a twentysomething, but for its willingness to present a range of bodies frankly and without ulterior intent. So many books with fat characters use fat as a symbol, and so many books (especially comics) show only an impoverished range of human bodies. I wish it weren’t so remarkable that Robinson avoids those traps, but it is.

For a taste of Box Office Poison, beyond the panels that Alex Robinson kindly gave me permission to scan, check out Ed’s Bantha (which should give you an idea of the loopy geekiness that runs through the comic), or read one of my favorite stand-alone BOP shorts, the incredibly poignant Jane’s High School Reunion. You can also find some more character pictures — and personal insights — here.

41 thoughts on “Book Review: Box Office Poison

  1. Dykes to Watch out For, my favourite long running soap opera, has the best cast of diverse characters ever, including lots of folks of size who have super hot sex, with nudity.

    *goes to reread the hot bits*

  2. Wow, and I was just talking about the sad lack of fat comic book characters. This sounds awesome, I will have to check it out!

  3. Hmmm… this post makes me rethink my aversion to graphic novels/comics. I’ve always found them extraordinarily difficult for me to read (something about the way I visually scan the page? I tend to get distracted and miss stuff I guess) and so I got frustrated and gave up on the whole genre. But this post illustrates an obvious benefit of the form–all that body diversity would be difficult and awkward to portray strictly in text, especially in such a casual way. It’s commendable, and I am grateful that it exists. And I may just have to go check it out!

  4. That’s too bad about EYBFA. The excerpts I saw did look promising, but I guess it’s one of those “don’t worry about your weight if you’re a size 12, but worry about it if you’re OMG OBESE” books, huh? Oh well, guess it’s up to Kate and TR to finally get it right.

  5. Two of the other fat positive books I can think of are also graphic novels: Strangers in Paradise and Love and Rockets. Although they are not as fat positive as Box Office Poison, that’s for sure — the characters aren’t “just fat”. Both Strangers in Paradise and Love and Rockets, books written by men, feature bisexual (f/f) couples in prominent roles in which one of the members of the couple is fat and the other thinks that the partner’s fat is the sexiest thing ever; L&R in particular shows Maggie’s weight changing drastically over the many years that the book covers, up and down, without judgment (except possibly by Maggie herself). (Although SiP does feature one unfortunate scene of Francine eating a stick of butter.) Love and Rockets also features Luba and her family, most of whom have absolutely enormous racks. Luba starts as a tall thin woman with an enormous racks, and as she ages becomes a tall fat woman with an enormous rack, and she is just fat, as are a few of her daughters.

  6. Meowser, whoops, thanks! Fixed it.

    extraspecialk, I think Dykes to Watch Out For is fantastic but, as an intermittent reader, I often find myself unable to follow storylines because the characters look too much alike! Bechdel is great for race and ability diversity but in terms of size diversity I’ve mostly seen a fairly narrow range (aside from Stuart). I do realize, though, that this might just be because I don’t tune in as often as I should.

    missa, there is sort of a learned skill to reading comics, it’s true. (And parts of it I’ve never learned; any spread that goes across two pages will trip me up, for instance, because I try to read down the lefthand page first.) Your comment made me think of one time when Dan was reading Tricked, Robinson’s second (I think) graphic novel. I heard him flipping a bunch of pages really fast and said “you’re supposed to look at that part” — I knew he was at a very graphics-heavy, no-dialogue part of the book, but one that enhanced the story if you looked carefully. As a not particularly avid comics reader, he was inclined to skim it. But BOP is a fairly straightforward story — though I catch new visual jokes every time I read it.

  7. I have a tendency to skim the graphics-only part of graphic novels, too. Not only am I afraid I missed something important, but I end up finishing too fast!

    Thanks for this review! I will check the Borders today after work.

  8. SM, okay, but be warned that right now it has pictures from my colonoscopy in it! (Dan was reading it at the hospital.)

    You can give it back as a wedding present.

  9. OMG I just read Jane’s High School Reunion and maybe I’m just feeling extra mushy today but that nearly choked me up. If I could have one magical wish, it would be to go back to my kidself and say some encouraging, comforting, and consoling things, so that was pretty great to read.

  10. maybe I’m just feeling extra mushy today but that nearly choked me up.

    If that’s due to feeling extra mushy, then I’m extra extra mushy every day, because that story makes me cry every single time. Do you think I should put a warning on the link?

  11. I’d like to second Love & Rockets. And I should credit Los Bros Hernandez (authors/illustrators of L&R) for starting me thinking about different body shapes and appreciation thereof. One of the things that really comes across in their work is that they are genuinely interested by people’s bodies and the different shapes they can be, and not as shorthand for personality.

  12. This is great…I’ve only read a few graphic novels, but I’m always up for a new one to try.

    This post did make me wonder about how different it is with a graphic vs non-graphic novel, in terms of conveying body size as there is some danger (on the side of non-graphic) of over-emphasizing that the character is fat, just to keep it in the reader’s consciousness. Graphic novels would be able to do this with just the image, something that can be less ackward/clunky in the overal production of the story.

  13. It seems like suddenly graphic novels are everywhere in my world – my 6 year old is obssessed with them and I keep seeing them now. I’ll have to try this one for myself, because I’m following his lead and becoming increasingly interested in the idea of sort of “picture books for grown-ups/older kids”. I mean, now that he’s can read, it doesn’t mean we have to give up books with art in them, and graphic novels have been filling that space really nicely – so why should I have to give up art as a grown-up?

  14. Well, non-professional reviewers review ‘old’ books all the time, so I don’t see this as weird. :)

    Also, sounds very interesting. I’ll ask my local Comic Book Guru if he happens to have this one. If he does, I’m stealing it. For a while, at least.

  15. OMG… I LOVE Alex Robinson! I waited until Comic Con to pick up his latest book, TOO COOL TO BE FORGOTTEN just so he could sign it for me! And in BOP, Ed is my favorite character. Alex actually drew a little picture of Ed in my copy of BOP for me at a past New York Comic Con. So glad to see this book mentioned in a not-so-expected place, and long after it was initially published.

  16. Hi everyone, I’ve never posted here, but I’ve been lurking for ages…

    I recently finished the first draft of my first novel (WOO HOO), in which the protagonist is a woman of size, and I have to say, I really appreciate Fillyjonk’s well-written definition of what it means to have a character who is ‘just fat.’ For a while I toyed with the idea of injecting some fat-positive moral into my book, but it just didn’t work with the storyline, and I thought, ‘damn, I’m going to have to make her average-sized.’ But only for about five minutes.

    I started writing the book to entertain myself, because I was having trouble finding non-misogynistic hard-boiled mysteries. I keep looking. I found a writer recently who almost got there, but her character — an otherwise interesting female — kept making comments about fat people that were supposed to be witty. After the second comment, I put the book down. It’s so disappointing.

    I’ve never considered myself a comics fan, but I liked ‘Jane’s High School Reunion.’

    K.

  17. BTW, that “WOO HOO” in my previous post goes out to Kate also for finishing her book. Holy Motherfucking Baby Donuts, indeed.

  18. K., I hope you’ll keep all us Shapelings posted about your novel’s progress. I love mysteries, but so many of them really do start sticking in my feminist/FA craw with the casual bashing of all I hold dear.

    Speaking of which, is anyone else here a fan of Sharyn McCrumb’s Elizabeth McPherson mysteries? Elixabeth isn’t fat, per se, but is definitely curvy with a few pounds to spare by society’s standards. And she gets a sexy, Scottish hubby who adores her, not to mention a degree in forensic archeology that stands her in good stead when bodies start dropping around her. She sometimes sighs about wishing she were thinner, but she isn’t shown in humiliating ‘the fatty eats a whole stick of butter’ scenes, she isn’t sexless, and while she’s funny, she’s not the joke.

    And if you have ever been to a Highland games, Highland Laddie Gone is a hoot and a half!

  19. Oh, there are definitely fat characters other than Stuart in DTWOF. Jezanna, the gal who used to own Madwimmin Books, comes to mind. And also Harriet, who used to date Mo at one point in the past, IIRC. Love this strip. :^)

  20. One of my favorite authors is Diane Mott Davidson. She writes a series of murder mysteries where the heroine is Goldy Schulz, a chubby caterer. Not only does she cook good meals and loves to eat, her husband doesn’t care about her weight. What is also cool about these books is Davidson really does a great job of portraying the line between the haves and have-nots. Although Goldy is middle class, runs a successful business and her best friend is super-rich, she is still considered a nothing by Colorado’s upper-crust. But in the end, it’s the middle class, chubby caterer who has the happiest life AND solves the murders.

  21. FJ, that’s so true what you said about learning about attraction through fictional characters. Although in my case, I’m kinda into Ray Smuckles from Achewood because he reminds me of a bellied, slang-spewing hyper-confident old flame.

  22. Kate, uh-oh. One day you’re going to meet a handsome Scottish fold and you’ll have no idea what hit you!

  23. My favorite comic book as a child wa Little Lotta. I google her recently and found this idiotic quote on toonopedia.com:

    “Lotta’s schtick, which pretty much summed up the driving force of most stories about her, was that she ate to excess. Her figure showed it, too — but that was the only normal effect of her dietary habits. Instead of sluggishness and high blood pressure, Lotta’s overeating gave her immense strength; and instead of being called ugly names by the other kids, Lotta was lionized for her muscle power.

    For these reasons, Little Lotta is considered by many to be one of the worst role models in comics.”

    Sheesh. If only s/he’d stopped before the last sentence.

  24. Speaking of children’s books, I recently re-read HOLES, and I noticed, with my new powers of fat positivity, that the main character starts out a fat boy who isn’t in particularly good shape; he gets sent to a “prison” where he is forced to do very difficult physical labor and fed starvation rations, and although he becomes FITTER and STRONGER due to the labor, he does not become magically thin and weight loss is never mentioned as a by-product of his adventure.

    He gets to be the hero and be a fat kid. The author really handled the whole issue extremely well.

  25. As long as we’re talking about books for a younger audience…

    I bet I’ve mentioned this before, but there is a great book out there for young adults that I think addresses the issue of fat pretty well, given the time in which it was written (this is NOT a recent publication, it’s from the 70’s). It’s called Dinah and the Green Fat Kingdom, and bloody well everyone who’s ever been fat ought to read it, really. If there ever comes to be a such class as Fat and Feminism in schools, that should be a required text that gets taken apart for its good and bad points and all the many nuances of prejudice, privilege, acceptance, and how to treat others that happen on pretty much every page.

    Dinah is a fat young girl who escapes in her head into a dream world where the most beautiful people of all are the fattest ones (and she’s still not fat enough to be the Green Fat Princess). She starts to find salvation from the constant pressure in her life to lose weight by way of a little dog she rescues who becomes her companion and shows her love knows no standard of beauty. She also makes friends with a wonderful, strong woman who is one of those “super-fat” people the media is always saying we should be afraid of and disgusted by, but is absolutely one of the most wonderful characters in the book, hands-down, and there’s even a brilliant and talented fellow with a physical handicap who becomes a love interest for Dinah later on in the story, which makes it one of the few books in the world for older kids that has a major character with a handicap, who exists for something other than sympathy factor, who you actually look up to, even though it’s not a book written to focus exclusively on that, which is something I notice a lack of in youth literature for the most part.

    Even though it does still have the very outdated dietary beliefs of its day and in the end, Dinah does start to consider the diet (I like to think she decided against it), it’s really a great book, and the big lesson that Dinah learns is that the one true path to happiness is to accept herself, fat or thin. And even when I used to buy the crap about my extra pounds being my life’s great tragedy, I derived a great deal of solace from what Dinah had to say… there’s a wealth of wisdom in that book.

    One of the more moving scenes is when Dinah talks about her special tree that becomes her Green Fat world, and says how much she’d like to become a tree spirit, because they “do not have bodies, and bodies, as far as I could tell, were bad news.” What an eloquent way to express what I often felt. Dinah was in my corner. She knew where I’d been.

    So yeah, there’s that on the subject of youth fiction and fat. Book good, read now! I persuaded my high school’s library to hand it over to me for keeps because I couldn’t bear to part with it by bribing them with a bagful of shiny paperbacks I was less attached to.

  26. Ellen Forney’s I Love Led Zeppelin does a good job with representations of diversity, both ethnic and body size, in a non-judgmental way, although she does illustrate a couple of stories from Dan Savage’s childhood, so if you loathe Dan Savage, be warned.

  27. Jennifer Weiner’s books (chick lit, she wrote Good in Bed and In Her Shoes) tend to have plus-sized heroines (and Weiner appears from her jacket photos to be plus-sized), and they are portrayed just like any skinny protagonist, only with the same sort of body issues any fat girl can relate to. They’re pretty good reads, not as materialistic and mind-numbing as your average “chick lit” read.

  28. I like they have a female character who admits to, “Being powerfully attracted to a man in a dress.” I can relate!

  29. Fillyjonk, thanks so much for telling us about Box Office Poison!

    I just finished it last night — what a wonderful book, gush, gush, gush!

    I cried lots of times, though.

    Alex Robinson reminds me of Terry Pratchett because both authors love their characters, warts and all.

  30. Well, I’m a graphic novel fan, and upon finding myself up to date on the eighth season of Buffy, I decided to pick up this book and give it a try.

    I bought a copy last night, and when I got home, i sat down with it, intending to read the first twenty pages or so. Next thing I know it’s 4am, and I’m two thirds done with the book.

    Yeah. It’s freaking awesome.

  31. brunch with a favorite fictional character?
    Blake Christopher O’ Donnell’s male influence… or maybe Barbara and GHW Bush’s smart children…

  32. I bought a copy last night, and when I got home, i sat down with it, intending to read the first twenty pages or so. Next thing I know it’s 4am, and I’m two thirds done with the book.

    FJ lent me her copy of BOP, and even though I’ve been exhausted by moving apartments this week, I stayed up into the wee hours to finish it. I echo the recommendation! Somehow the graphic novel format made the story richer for me — I’m not usually a fan of the “twentysomethings learn to live and love in the big city” type book, but I found this instance of it very charming.

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