Have you ever had that horrible dream where you find yourself back in high school, dreading the inevitable pop quizzes and lunchroom social climbing? I know I’ve had variations of that nightmare every few months since graduation. But what if you really were transported back in time and forced to relive your most awkward teen years? Alex Robinson tackles this idea in a surprisingly gripping, funny and touching way in his latest original graphic novel, Too Cool to Be Forgotten.
The story begins with 39-year-old Andy Wicks seeking the help of a professional hypnotherapist to cure his addiction to smoking. A prematurely balding mid-level manager at a moderately successful software company with a wife and two daughters (one from his wife’s previous marriage), Andy’s life is about as mediocre as can be imagined. He has had no luck kicking his addiction to cigarettes, and so agrees to put his skepticism aside and attempt hypnotherapy for the sake of his wife’s (and children’s) health Under the hypnotic light, he is getting very sleepy…
…When he wakes up, he finds himself (much to his surprise and alarm) in his old high school. As if that wasn’t odd enough, people seem to be reacting to him very differently. When he checks his reflection in the bathroom mirror, he is shocked to find that not only is he back in his high school building, he is sixteen years old and back in high school! Is he doomed to repeat the most awkward and embarrassing years of his life all over again? Will he be able to return to the future without making drastic changes to history? Will he learn why any of this has happened? Well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. You’ll have to read it for yourself to learn the truth.
I will gladly tell you, however, that the book is a joy to read from start to finish. Hollywood executives, if given this premise, would probably have turned out a typical drek-fest (“It’s 13-going-on-30 BACKWARDS meets Never Been Kissed! We’ll cast We’ll cast Jennifer Garner and Miley Cyrus as “Andie Wicks,” take out the smoking angle, and make it a musical!!!”) Thankfully, Alex Robinson refuses to go down that road. The result feels much more like a combination of Superbad and Garden State, with a spoonful of generic John Hughes thrown in to give it that distinctive ’80s flavor we all know and love. Speaking of that ’80s flavor, Alex stuck to actual high school yearbooks for his stylistic inspiration instead of the more “traditional” movies of the era. He remarked in an interview that, “I don’t know how it was for other people but I was really surprised looking back at how un-eighties [kids in the eighties] actually looked. There were still a lot of kids with long hair, almost more seventies looking, instead of the spikey, new wave look that Hollywood featured at the time.”
Swinging back around to my Judd Apatow and Zach Braff comparisons, I would say that Alex shows in Too Cool To Be Forgotten that he has the same talent for giving characters realistic voices for both comedy and drama, letting them show more personality and depth of character than the average teen story. The book gets a bit emotionally heavy toward the end, but it is handled in a way that reminds me of the most human parts of Garden State (specifically the conversation between Andrew and his father near the end of the film.) I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the exceptional quality of TCTBF‘s artwork, which manages to capture the feel of vapid teenageriness as easily as it expresses deeply powerful emotional imagery, though the transitions between the two are sometimes less than seamless. Still, there are pages that will stick in your memory long after you read the book, and ones where you’ll understand the emotions of the scene before you even start paying attention to the panels themselves. I’ll throw out three other (wildly different) artists that I was reminded of at turns: Webcomic superstar Scott Kurtz (of PVP fame), legendary (and somewhat legendarily awkward) comix artist R. Crumb, and king of unusual panel layouts J.H. Williams II. I’ll warn you, though, visual art is not really something I have as much familiarity with. When it comes to those comparisons, your mileage may vary.
I highly recommend Too Cool to Be Forgotten to anyone who enjoys character-driven stories that feature light-hearted humor mixed with real, touching moments. I especially recommend it to anyone who has ever woken up in a cold sweat, panicked that they didn’t study for that final exam or that they’ll have to go stag to the prom (even when they know their prom happened years ago.) Those nightmares may never go away, but maybe TCTFB will help you appreciate how lucky you are to have gotten out of high school alive.
P.S.: It’s worth noting that TCTFB is a very quick read. If you’re determined, you can probably read it from start to finish in under two hours. I recommend that you take your time, though, since some of the more subtle bits of dialog and artwork are what make the book such a joy to read.