Sublife Vol. 2 (Fantagraphics)

John Pham returns with another set of strips and short stories that use a cinematic style to explore the territory where bitter meets funny.


48 pgs. FC; $7.99

(W / A: John Pham)

John Pham’s latest Sublife features a group of longer pieces that conjure a philosophical, nomadic vibe that’s rare and welcome.
“Deep Space” imagines the crew of a spaceship trying an experimental warp-speed procedure to get them home faster. The captain loses his mind a little during the freaky, time-bending whoosh through the cosmos and a shipmate has to bonk him on the head with a wrench to pull the ship out of warp. Despite that humorous moment, the story conjures a desolate, deeply lonely, space-wanderer vibe, and reminded me of the film Contact, in which a journey across the reaches of the universe ultimately proves to be an odyssey through the human mind—good stuff.
Pham, in one cheeky aside, encourages the reader to bend the actual pages of the comic into a bow shape to simulate the Einsteinian bending of space-time. He’s a witty one.
The longest entry here is an untitled story cribbed from the Mad Max / Road Warrior filmseries. It gradually builds, as we meet the barely honorable Max character, surviving by any means necessary in the bleak desert, along with the band of vicious marauders on his tail, and an innocent child caught in the middle. These movies blew me away as a teenager, and I’m guessing they had a formative impact on Pham, too. He makes hay with the desperation of an anarchic world, the stunning violence, Max’s cool gadgets and outfit, and a climactic car chase/battle that is just awesome—you can actually hear the thundering orchestral score from The Road Warrior in your head as you read.
The shorter riffs from the collection of unrelated pieces include a nostalgic memoir on how passing time has warped (like the Einsteinian bending of time, maybe?) the fate of Pham’s old parochial school buddies. One is dead from cancer, one’s a hopeless drug addict, et alia; each seems to have lived out a tale of woe in marked contrast to the naivet√© of their chummy school days. So it goes. (The memories that stand out, of dead cats on the road and um, auto-fellatio, really ring true. We start out as wide-eyed innocents, and flashpoints of sex and violence gradually anneal us into jaded adults.) Pham sneaks in some much nice shorter strips, too, that work in the territory where bitter overlaps funny.
Pham’s precious, child-like drawing style is an acquired taste—his characters are barely a step up from stick figures, but they have a certain minimalist charm. He works with a meticulous, precise attention to detail, and a stylistic fondness for straight lines when curved ones would seem to be called for. It lends a stiffness to the tales that somehow enhances their bleak humor.
He excels at telling a story with a cinematic sense of where to put the camera, so to speak, and how to build drama. There’s a moment in his Road Warrior story, for instance, when Max’s dog licks a little girl’s foot, and giggling, she accidentally fires a gun that narrowly misses Max’s head. It’s just great, and you can imagine yourself digging it on a big screen, too.
Some of these stories are presumably continued from Sublife Vol. 1, published some time ago. It’s worth noting that the long gap between issues may make following the individual storylines a challenge.
Still, Pham’s fondness for sci-fi odysseys of lonely adventurers in endless, barren landscapes—whether the desert of outer space or the desert outback of Australia—is a real good thing.
One more real good thing: Fantagraphics footed the bill for what had to be an expensive, elaborate embossing job on the book’s back cover. It feels good to stroke it, and when you do, it makes a noise like a washboard. | Byron Kerman
Click here for more information and a 5-page excerpt, courtesy of Fantagraphics.

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