Monday, April 22, 2013

The Moment: Sumo

What makes Thien Pham's book Sumo (First Second) so effective is that its story is very slight and its characters barely fleshed out, but it doesn't overstay its welcome by padding itself. In its 95 pages, what Pham is really after is illustrating the implications of a single phrase: "Every moment is the moment of truth." Along the way, Pham strips his story of nearly every extraneous detail and narrative prop. Scott, a former college football player who travels to Japan to become a sumo wrestler after the love of his life leaves him, finds himself at a crossroads in his career as a wrestler. Flashing back and forth and time with the clever use of a simple color scheme, we quickly learn that Scott has faced many crossroads and has managed to come through every time. The book ends without a definitive answer regarding Scott's last bout, but that answer was unnecessary thanks to the way Pham cleverly collapsed and sped up the flashbacks at a dizzying rate at the end of the book.

Pham is in complete command of the structure of the page and the book, effortlessly guiding the reader back and forth while using his appealingly blocky, spare style. His use of color makes all the difference as a storyteller, instantly providing the reader with an understanding of how and why the setting has changed thanks to a flashback, something that's reinforced by the symbols around his page numbers. The symbol with the sumo wrestling mat represents the present, the symbol with the water tower represents his past in California, and the symbol with the fish represents the near past when he meets a girl in Japan and develops a profound connection with her. Pham implies the nature of that connection was actually deeper than the one he had with his American girlfriend, in part because of the way his new relationship was one where he not only felt accepted for who he was, but that he had something to offer her beyond surface qualities.

Pham manages to inject moments of humor into what is otherwise a very still and somber narrative when we flash back to Scott's going away party. His friends are funny and vary in their acceptance of his decision, but only out of concern for him.When Scott declares there's nothing for him in America, he lists what each of his friends have going for them, noting that his lush friend "has his beer". It's a sly line, delivered sincerely. The only false note in the comic was a scene where Scott's ex-girlfriend comes to him before he leaves and begs him to stay. He declines, saying that he can't live in the past. It's a scene that really doesn't make much sense and feels more like fantasy fulfillment than anything else. Scott already knows he can't live in the past, so that piece of imparted information doesn't add much to the narrative. Other than that one sour note, Pham's narrative is a smooth glide through to the end, when the images of a plane landing, a fish grasped for and a wrestler thrusting out his arms all converge in beautiful, understated fashion with color and line working harmoniously to instantly transmit simply-rendered information. .

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