When Alex Robinson's comic Box Office Poison was published as one big graphic novel in 2001, readers may have been startled by the book's epilogue. Robinson's meandering account of twentysomething urban dwellers navigating ordinary life was hardly Friends, but it wasn't a downer either. There was a strong sense that the winsome Jane would forge a career as an artist, sweet-but-clueless Ed would finally lose his virginity and gawky Sherman — an obvious stand-in for Robinson — would get a story published, or at least quit the bookstore job he hated. But in the epilogue, it turns out Sherman's still working a dead-end job and — say it ain't so! — in an unhappy relationship with the toxic Dorothy. Curmudgeonly cartoonist Irving Flavor has died alone, Ed and Sherman have fallen out of touch and the only characters who seem to experience some measure of daily joy are the ones who've had babies. It's as if the childless Robinson wrote the epilogue when he was in a perverse mood to romanticize parenthood to the exclusion of every other lifestyle.
That mood has certainly dissipated. In Our Expanding Universe, Robinson considers the big choice — to have kids or not — with a much more cynical, or at least downbeat, attitude. His characters are charming and affable, but they all seem to be mildly depressed.
Taking up the episodic, free-floating storytelling that characterized Poison, Robinson follows two New York City couples and a bachelor friend as one couple decides to have their first child and the other has their second. Billy, who looks like Tintin and runs a doggie daycare called Raise the Woof, is the bridge between married father Scotty and divorced Brownie. The three meet up to play boxball (a.k.a. foursquare) and provide the reader with a rather predictable range of opinions on which lifestyle is best: Single, married without children, or married with children. As the advocate for parenthood, Scotty falls rather short. The best he can do is, "Parenthood really is one of those transcendental experiences. Not in a blissful way, per se, just in the sense that, you know, words fail. You're going to be stressed, you're going to worry ... You just hang on 'cause you're someone's dad now, and that's what dads are supposed to do."
Words don't fail Brownie. He knows he's not interested in doing what dads are supposed to do. "These breeder types act as if they're fulfilling some noble, higher purpose," he tells a single friend, "when all they're doing is taking orders from their DNA!" Brownie, by contrast, spends his spare time getting high and playing video games. He's joined by Billy fairly regularly, but that's going to change if Billy and his wife succeed in conceiving. Meanwhile, for all his stumbling pro-family speeches, Scotty's in the process of endangering his own marriage.
It's not earthshaking stuff, and it would be boring if it weren't for Robinson's likable characters and, especially, his clever pen. Here as in Poison he almost seems to have asked, "If I stick to a story that's hardly a story at all, how interestingly can I draw it?" It's a delight to watch him pile speech bubbles atop each other, assemble mundane elements into complicated full-page tableaux and mix realism with fantasy. When Billy contemplates his wife's pregnancy while smoking pot with Brownie, the smoke spells out "BABY" above his head. On another occasion, when he reassures Brownie that they'll always be friends, the details of his form disappear. Even his face vanishes, leaving a featureless dummy. "You can't fight fate," the dummy-Billy says.
Well, actually he says, "Like Taylor Dayne taught us, 'You can't fight fate.'" One of the cute things about Robinson's characters is their fondness for cheesy pop culture references. Such quirks help make them distinct even when their problems, and their responses to those problems, are pretty standard. But not too standard, let's hope. The average parent isn't quite so bummed out — right?
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at@EtelkaL.