What if you could go back to being a teenager? What would you do differently? Ask the girl out? Beat the bullies? Try to reach out to the moody outsider kid? We’d all love to think we’d be able to do all of the things we were just too scared and young to do, but in Too Cool To Be Forgotten, the latest graphic novel by Alex Robinson, Andy Wicks actually gets to relive those troublesome, awkward teenage years again after he’s transported back to high school following hypnosis to finally quit smoking.
On the verge of turning 40, with a loving wife and two daughters, Andy Wicks has tried everything he can think of to quit the cigs. But no matter how much he wants to do it, no matter how much he really wants to be around in another 20 years to see his girls grow up, he just can’t break his addiction. Eventually, desperate, he gives in to his wife’s suggestion of hypnosis.
But instead of waking up in the hypnotist’s chair, he wakes up in the library of his high school, a teenager once more. “Woozy with deja vu”, he staggers through teenage life, convinced that any moment he’ll wake up in the chair, back to his 40 year old self. But before then he gets the chances we’ve all fantasised about.
(40 year old Andy sees the face of his teenage self for the first time. Art by Alex Robinson from Too Cool To Be Forgotten. Published Top Shelf)
Alex Robinson’s previous books, Box Office Poison and Tricked showed us he was very good at handling a large group of characters and able to plot intricate, interlocking stories of everyday life with some style. Here, he’s primarily focussing on his central protagonist but the method is the same; as he captures the motivations, desires and emotions of teen life as perfectly here as he captures a mixes group in his other stories. His artwork may be light caricature, but Robinson uses this to convey a wide and expressive range of emotions. He’s also not afraid to manipulate the page layout in the service of the story. The majority of the pages are standard grids, but there are times when the art style shifts to play to the story, opening up a page or playing with the reader’s perceptions. It could have been distracting or annoyingly clever, but Robinson handles it very well and every trick manages to work well.
The first two thirds of the book are plain fun, following an all too familiar path of everything from Dickens to Disney movies as Andy goes about trying to get used to this situation but also trying his best to do it just a little bit differently. But after the initial fun stuff, Robinson starts to delve a little deeper into Andy’s life and that’s where it all gets really good. It’s all triggered by the moment Andy decides to say no to that first cigarette. Convinced he’ll snap back into his normal life he goes to sleep that night looking forward to seeing the family that he’s only just realised he’s missing desperately.
But he doesn’t go back. Suddenly the possibility that he’s stuck here hits home and he realises how wonderful his life was and how much he loves all those he’s lost. After the lightness and comedy value of the book so far this descent into very difficult emotional ground could have been troublesome, but Robinson handles it masterfully.
Two scenes dominate the rest of the book, both totally heartbreaking. First a desperate teenage Andy phones Lynn, his future wife. Understandably she has no idea who he is, and Andy’s heartbreak at what he may have lost should bring tears to your eyes. And after that, he suddenly remembers why this year is so important in his life. And suddenly all of the little clues that Alex Robinson has sprinkled throughout the book come crashing to the fore as you watch Andy go through heartbreak and terrible loss all over again. Except this tiem Andy’s able to deal with it, able to say all of those things he’s held in for so long and able to do the one thing he hadn’t done at the time; to say his goodbyes. By this point there may be a tear or two in your eyes.
So Alex Robinson goes from strength to strength. We already knew that his ability to write funny and involving slice of life fiction was sound, but Too Cool adds an extra layer of sweet, poignant and desperately heartbreaking emotion to his work. And Too Cool To Be Forgotten is shaping up to be one of the books of the year.