Review by Frank Plowright
Billy, Brownie and Scotty are in their late thirties and have been friends for years. Each represents a stage of the relationship cycle. Scotty and Ritu have a young son with a second child imminent. Marcy is keen to have children, but Billy fears that step into responsibility, and Brownie lives alone on his trust fund, having never followed-up on the novel he published a decade previously. He has a view on almost everything, but little life experience to render these informed opinions.
We spend a considerable amount of space learning about these five characters, during which Alex Robinson drops in the small details that define them excellently, yet never really comes to terms with addressing the bigger picture. Why is it that Brownie can only rarely move from the sofa? What is it about parenthood that so scares Billy? It’s odd, as the bigger picture is as big as it comes, with the title derived from a strained analogy supplied as an information dump two-thirds of the way through.
There’s an expectation built by Robinson’s previous work that Our Expanding Universe fails to deliver, not that he should be constrained by the expectations of others. A strength has always been astute characterisation, and that’s on display throughout, but much of this is free-form naturalism lacking any great infusion of plot. It could be viewed as the more adult version of Box Office Poison, his first major work, but for all the progressive refinement in presenting this cast, that possessed a joie de vivre. Here we have ennui, and little contrast to splice it. Mid-way through Billy has to deal with a work complaint. This has no bearing on the overall plot, but it’s so welcome as an interlude with some spark, yet not repeated.
An admirable lack of sentimentality extends to the art. Robinson has always ensured his casts aren’t idealised, and here that extends to their environment. Homeless people sleep on litter-strewn and stained streets, and apartments are spartan. He also toys with the format, dropping panel borders, presenting a single large image on a page surrounded by smaller talking heads, or using word balloons to separate illustrations. This invention is a necessity to break up a book that’s almost entirely conversation. The most action we see is someone taking a dog for a walk.
It prompts the question of why Our Expanding Universe is a graphic novel at all. It’s seemingly something Robinson has considered, as one chapter is produced as if a TV script, complete with set directions and typed dialogue accompanying illustrations. It’s a device he’s used before, but more sparingly. The building blocks required to construct the eventual dilemma require considerable assembly, but we’re almost two hundred pages in before the book really springs into life. Even then it’s just for one superbly observed and gut-wrenchingly awkward chapter before slipping back into stasis.
To paraphrase one of Robinson’s previous titles, Our Expanding Universe is too good to be dismissed. There’s some dialogue – the nonsense guys spout to each other in bars, for instance – and the occasional scene that other creators would donate the proverbial eye teeth to have conceived, but it’s unlikely to be a book anyone will read a second time.