Guttergeek review: SUBLIFE

Posted by on February 14th, 2010 at 7:04 PM

John Pham, Sublife. Volume 2 (Fantagraphics, 2009). $7.99, paperback.

I’ve been waiting over a year for the second installment of Pham’s grab-bag comic, Sublife. The first volume, which came out in 2008, focused primarily on an extended series of stories, largely interconnected in the first half around the living quarters which a range of strange and sad characters share. The second half of the book, drawn in a similar fragile but precise style, with an identical palette of orange and blue, focused on two white supremacist brothers who unexpectedly find themselves taking in a teenage nephew who has run away from home. I was confused. I was intrigued. I wanted to see more before beginning to decide what I thought about it all. Now a year later, I have even less idea what I think about any of it. And less confidence that I will be there in a year or more when the next installment comes around.

I have no regrets, however. Even if I finally accepted that the book did not answer any of my questions from the first volume (who is that guy in the sheet? why are these people living in one house? what do the white supremacists have to do with that guy in the sheet?), even if I reluctantly was forced to admit that volume 2 was more of a collection of randomly associated fragments of longer stories, I still admired the growth in Pham’s work on display between the two volumes. Volume 2 shows a terrific range, beginning a Clowes-like opening series of strips about a murderous blogger with an under-read blog that shows a biting wit not on display in the first volume. The tour de force of the volume is the second piece, which picks up (for those paying incredibly scrupulous attention) on a deep space adventure from the inside covers of Volume 1. Here Pham lets his instincts for architectural design sense take off in a trippy sequence that is pure pleasure to look at.

After a brief return to the white supremacists and their slacker nephew (in which absolutely nothing is advanced from the previous installment of a year ago), Pham offers a moving short autobiographic piece, “St. Ambrose,” which may be the best two pages in the volume. The second half of the volume is devoted to a long post-apocalyptic narrative about, well, what every post-apocalyptic narrative since Mad Max has been about. Sometimes I pray for the apocalypse, just to be released from post-apocalyptic narratives of loners, children and dogs wandering the wasteland. Despite being maddeningly uninteresting on the level of story, the long piece displays another facet of Pham’s range as an artist, with a wash of charcoals and pencil wonderfully evoking the ashy wastes of his landscape.

In some ways–in many ways actually–the first two volumes of Sublife evoke memories of the early volumes of Acme Novelty Library. And that could be a very good thing. But I am looking for a Jimmy Corrigan, a Quimby to take shape in these volumes, and so far finding only Potato Guy and other fragments and bits that seem to be adding up to something less than the sum of their parts. There is nothing wrong with working in short form: many of the best people in comics have done so. But if that is the way we are going, it is time to drop the demands on the reader that come with seriality. Reading over these two volumes again, I feel like I am dealing with a creator at the height of his powers who has yet to figure out what he wants to use those powers to express. Before I plunk down my tenner for volume 3, I will need some assurance that he knows where he is taking me.

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