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.
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.