Fractal Flowering: Rob Clough reviews Sublife #2

Posted by on January 4th, 2010 at 9:00 AM

John Pham; Fantagraphics; 48 pp., $7.99; Color, Softcover; ISBN: 9781606993095

John Pham’s first issue of his one-man anthology SUBLIFE was mostly a repackaging of strips from his serial 221 SYCAMORE AVENUE from the MOME anthology, but there were hints of other intriguing storylines to come.  Issue #2 saw a lot of that promise fulfilled in a group of stories that ranged across both genres and visual styles.  There’s the science-fiction serial “Deep Space”, another snippet from 221 SYCAMORE, an autobiographical story about his elementary school days, an extended post-apocalyptic story in the vein of The Road Warrior, a set of sardonic strips about a blogger desperate for attention, and a SYCAMORE-related flight of fantasy.  What connected each story was a common theme: the desire for family and the ways in which that need either created surrogate families or metastasized into something darker.

The visual tour-de-force of the issue was the second installment of “Deep Space”.  The two man crew aboard a spaceship shaped like a submarine rescued an alien in the first chapter, and here they tried to find a way to get home.  Narrated by the ship’s captain, we find him crippled by loneliness and locked into a particular memory of an excursion with his family in the desert.  For him, this fantasy was less a comfort than it was a narcotic, and when presented with an even more potent narcotic (the sensation felt when their shape warped across space), he immediately became addicted.  The captain had become so shut off from his first mate and the alien that he failed to understand that this was his new family unit, something that the other two tacitly understood but did not discuss openly. Pham was perhaps inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey in his depiction of the way space, identity and ego were distorted on the page, but it fit in perfectly with his comics-as-diagram style.  The fractal (and fractured) way he drew space was eye-opening in a way I hadn’t seen from Pham’s work before.

The four-page snippet of SYCAMORE saw teenaged Phineas start a day with his two uncles, both  white supremacists in Los Angeles.  Here, we see how a biological connection doesn’t necessarily mean a healthy relationship, as one uncle wrote hate literature and the other uncle had a dog bred for vaguely sinister purposes.  This story had a simmering quality to it, where one expected a huge blow-up of some kind when Phineas had to make a decision on which family was really important to him and what he’ll be willing to do to maintain his membership in said family.  Pham’s character design was at its wittiest in this story, with the thuggish uncle having a bullet-shaped head that made him look like a character from a videogame.  Some have compared Pham’s work to Kevin Huizenga (in addition to the obvious influence of Chris Ware), but I’d say that’s in part because both Pham and Huizenga have taken a lot of their visual cues from videogames — especially 8-bit games.

“St. Ambrose: 1984-1988” told of Pham’s own experience in establishing a surrogate family with his elementary school friends.  Pham’s storytelling fragmented time like a crystal cut into segments much like he did in “Deep Space” with distance, as disparate memories stacked up against one another yet formed a structure of sorts.  Pham paid careful attention to discussing his four closest friends at the time, whom he not only kept in touch with but kept a running joke regarding a reunion of his class.  There was an understanding of the fragility of their relationships that informed their bond and kept it going through the years and despite a number of travails.  Pham rarely creates explicitly autobiographical stories, so this entry was a particular treat.

The most acidicly funny bit in the issue was the pathetic saga of blogger Randy Winnington, a man desperate to receive more attention and deeply resentful of wheelchair-bound Mort’s popularity on the web.  Stalking and confronting Mort on the street, he’s stunned to find a fan in his nemesis, along with a job offer.  When that offer was tinged with a certain contempt, Randy snapped and shot him.  Winding up in prison in the final strip, poor Randy lamented that now that he had all these interesting stories to tell, he’s denied access to the Internet, noting “Print sucks”.  This story speaks to the difference between actual community and the mere vanity of the need for having an audience.  It’s the little details that made it so funny, like Randy’s pencil-thin mustache, the corpulent Mort’s facial mole and protruding tooth and the inane nature of Mort’s babble.

Throughout the issue, Pham employed a two-color scheme of orange (ranging from dark orange to a light salmon or coral hue) and blue (ranging from royal blue to sky blue).  That limited palette was another way of uniting the issue from story to story, as those shades evoked a certain dreamy sort of response from the reader.  However, Pham took a major departure in style when he got into his Road Warrior-inspired story.  The family theme of the issue was laid bare in its most brutal and basic form, as one surrogate family was a band of nasty rapists & killers.  A lone-wolf character came across a young girl living alone in a shelter (her real family clearly long dead), and they wound up together as a makeshift family when the gang tried to hunt them down.  The normally precise and diagrammatic style of Pham went by the wayside for a smudged, grimy aesthetic (accomplished, it seemed, with a lot of colored pencil) and a frenzied series of action se tpieces.  Some of the action scenes were a bit hard to follow (not surprising for an artist known mostly for his depiction of quiet moments), but the gritty visuals paid off, especially in the end when Pham’s use of orange gave the reader a spectacular look at a sunset over a desert.  This was the most expressionistic of Pham’s comics that I’ve read, certainly since his early days with his self-published comic EPOXY, and it was a fittingly explosive cap to an issue’s worth of simmering tensions.

Images [©2009 John Pham]

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