Sublife volumes 1 and 2

By John Pham (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN-13: 978-1-56097-946-3 (TPB vol 1) 978-1-60699-309-5 (TPB vol 1)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Because Excellence Cannot be Allowed to Wither… 9/10

Born in Saigon and raised in the USA, self-publishing wizard and minicomic genius John Pham joined with the wonderfully progressive Fantagraphics to release two volumes in a proposed twice-a-year book series dedicated to the sheer joy of pictorial storytelling in our modern, miracle-free world, blending joyous creation with incisive social interrogation. These astoundingly satisfying anthologies are still available in paperback or digital formats and if you or yours love the power of comics to engender reaction, they really belong with you….

The initial offering, a sublimely designed landscape-format tome printed in quirky two-tone (Magenta and Cyan combined to produce a huge variety of colours welcomingly familiar to anybody who grew up reading Beano or The Dandy) features a series of intertwined tales featuring the odd denizens of ‘221 Sycamore St.’

Poignant and surreal by turns, the lives of exhausted ‘Mildred Lee’, dubious stud ‘Vrej Sarkissian’, tragic and disturbing religious studies teacher ‘Hubie Winters’ and those guys ‘Los Hermanos Macdonald’ are a captivating and laconic examination of the kind of people you probably wouldn’t like or make time for…

The silent, deadly pantomime of the house cat seeking safety outside is worth the price of admission alone, but when the abstract and symbol-stuffed existences on display here shuffle into your head and just sit there twitching, you too will wonder how you ever got on without this on your “must-read” list.

The second volume dedicated to the sheer expressive joy of pictorial storytelling in our modern, wonder-deprived world, is also crafted in an immaculately designed landscape-format tome, printed in quirky two-tone (orange and blue here combined to produce a huge variety of colours) features another series of seemingly unconnected tales linked more by sensibility and tone rather than content.

After faux newspaper strip ‘Mort’ examines the passions of a failed blogger, the main experience begins with a continuation of ‘Deep Space’, wherein extraordinarily pedestrian star-farers strive to find their way home: a beautifully rendered piece reminiscent of a wistful Philippe Druillet, before resuming Pham’s exploration of the frankly peculiar residents of ‘221 Sycamore St.’

This time runaway teen Phineas sees a disturbing side to his cool uncles when they all go “dog-training”…

This leads into anti-elegiac autobiographical memoir ‘St. Ambrose 1984-1988’ before the majority of the volume recounts the adventures of ‘The Kid’: a practically wordless post-apocalyptic science fiction yarn. It deals with scavenging and the price of love, channelling of – and deeply respectful to – Mad Max, with perhaps just a touch of A Boy and his Dog thrown in, all drawn in a pencil-toned style that is both deeply poignant and powerfully gripping.

The volume fun finishes with nostalgic one-pager ‘Socko Sarkissian’: a fond paean to baseball’s greatest fictional Armenian batsman.

Seductive, quietly compulsive, authentically plebeian and surreal by turns, John Pham’s work is abstract, symbol-stuffed and penetratingly real. Fascinated by modern prejudices, he tells strange stories in comfortable ways and makes the bizarre commonplace without ever descending to histrionics: like a cosmic witness to everything you might or might not want to see.

If you’re wearied by mainstream comics but still love the medium too much to quit, you need to see these stories and refresh your visual palate. In fact, even if not, check out Sublife anyway, in case it’s your horizons not your tastes which need the attention…
© 2008, 2009 John Pham. All Rights Reserved.