Saturday, December 13, 2008

Seduction of the Pattern: Sublife #1

Rob reviews the first issue of John Pham's new series from Fantagraphics, SUBLIFE.

The first issue of SUBLIFE was something I had been looking forward to ever since John Pham stopped serializing his "221 Sycamore St" story in the pages of MOME. Pham is an interesting young artist working through his influences to create his own voice. His first series, EPOXY, contained several serialized stories, some of which veered into genre. His aesthetic can best be described as somewhere between video games (especially classic 80s games) and Chris Ware's diagrammatic approach to comics. There are other more superficial similarities to Ware in Pham's work. For example, he documents the minutiae of quotidian despair, the fruitless longing for meaning and connection, and the ways people inevitably sabotage their own lives. The two artists also share a similarly bleak sense of humor; the sense of distance each artist creates can sometimes mask exactly how absurd and sharp their wits cut on the page.

At a deeper level, Pham's approach to composition seems similar to Ware's in that both seem to look at each page as both a single, cohesive unit (or diagram) and also a series of diagrams/panels. Pham's pages combine that diagrammatic/8-bit feel with the immersive quality of video games, making reading each page beautiful to look at apart from their role in creating the narrative. Where Pham really diverges is in his character design. He uses an extremely thin line and likes to draw lanky, almost elongated characters. The faces of his characters are simple & iconic yet distinctive. Probably the biggest key in creating his world is his use of color. Pham's palette is mostly combined to pastel hues: coral, peach, and soft blues. When the character Phineas MacDonald is introduced later in the book, his bright orange hoodie draws the reader's eye to him and lets one know that this is a pivotal character.

There are several different story threads in this issue. Some of them connect explicitly, like the lives of the people renting a house. There are also thematic and possibly narrative connections between that storyline (first seen in MOME) a brief vignette about a cat escaping from a pack of wild dogs (but not without incident) and the story of two white supremacist brothers taking in their nephew. In addition, Pham also takes us through "sub life", a series of small stories concerning two astronauts lost in deep space. Their spacecraft is shaped like a submarine (hence the pun), and their story concerns the sense of being lost in every sense of the word. The "Deep Space" is a sort of encapsulation of the character types one finds in SUBLIFE: those desperate to connect with others and those who see the world conspiring against them.

The first part of the book focuses on the events of a single day, retold from the point of view of Mildred (a student), Vrej (a worker at a deli), Hubie (a put-upon teacher at a local Catholic school) and Terence (the son of the house's owner who always wears a sheet over his head). The characters desperate to connect (Vrej, Mildred Lee, Phineas) are hindered by their own obliviousness to the world around them. Mildred is a college student who is unhinged by exhaustion and a general inability to cope. Vrej is a well-meaning dunderhead who doesn't understand why he's alone. Hubie is a martyr who allows himself to be tortured by his students. Terence does not speak and very much lives in his own head and dreams. Each character's own narrative is intertwined with that of the others, yet they either rush past each other or communicate superficially. As much as they hate their own lives, they are slaves to their own patterns of behavior.

The second half of the issue catches up with the housemates a couple of years later. In Mildred's case, she's much more social and gregarious, but still teetering on the edge of desperation. Like many of the book's other characters, she is obsessed with dreams. We are also introduced to Uncle's A___ and B___, two white supremacists living in an ethnically diverse neighborhood. Uncle A___, like Hubie, imagines himself to be the target of a vast racial conspiracy against him. His brother doesn't talk much, but one senses he's the sort who prefers swift violence to language. When Phineas comes to stay with them after a dust-up with his mother, it's made clear that the brothers are pretty much ignored by the rest of the family for their general misanthropy. Pham only starts to dip into how Phineas winds up relating to his uncles, and how Uncle A___ views Phineas' visit as a chance to reestablish himself with his family. His uncles are depicted as simultaneously despicable and pathetic, desperate for a different kind of world; the reader almost has sympathy for them.

There's a lot going on in this ambitious first volume. Every page seems to find Pham trying to solve some kind of storytelling challenge with an unusual visual technique, like Phineas meeting some neighborhood kids but the reader only seeing the shadows of the children. The most important character in the book is the city of Los Angeles itself. SUBLIFE feels in some ways as a sort of companion piece to Gilbert Hernandez' LOVE AND ROCKETS X: a portrait of a city in constant flux, filled with tension, illusion, drama and drifting. The cover image of Los Angeles about to fall off the earth, speaks to the quiet dread that pervades the book, staunched only by dreams and self-delusion. I'm eager to see how the story evolves in the next volume.

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