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A Short Interview With John Pham
posted March 30, 2004
 

"John Pham's work is lovely. He was generous enough to open his home to me during a couple of Los Angeles conventions, and upon seeing his workspace I was impressed at the skill and care he brings to his work's auxiliary elements - such as the beautiful sculpture he did of his one-armed boxer (a photo of which graces the cover of an issue of Epoxy), or the painstaking means by which he prepared the translucent covers of one of his books. Given the clean, ligne claire precision of his drawings, I was surprised at the steady stream of gravelly Tom Waits songs on his stereo. His disheveled workspace also stands in contrast to the orderliness of his work, but under the piles of papers I was constantly discovering some great book or another, featuring comics (old and new), art, literature, or some other of his diverse interests." - Cartoonist Jesse Hamm

imageLike his working area or the rainbow of styles that have appeared in books like Epoxy and Substitute Life, John Pham is a surprising mix of influences and interests. Born in Saigon and raised in various locales throughout Southern California by way of Jacksonville, Florida, the 29-year-old cartoonist is young enough to have had his first comic book experiences with Marvel's 1980s kiddie line Star Comics, yet old enough to have passed through a number of menial jobs as an adult before settling into comics, design and illustration. Pham enrolled in community college and entered comics at roughly the same time, and in many ways it's instructive to think of him as a student of the medium on the verge of graduation.

Pham smartly describes the first issue of Epoxy and his work in general up to now as a long, intense exploration into finding out what kinds comics feel most natural for him to do. Pham's Xeric Grant-winning debut offered three strikingly different serials: the autobiographically tinged "Modesto"; the superheroes, mopey twentysomethings and monsters of "Shiva"; and a downbeat genre saga about a one-armed boxer called "Elephantine." Two subsequent issues either continued, expanded on or raided the first three stories for new stories altogether, experimenting with as odd a mix of inspirations as any younger cartoonist has transparently brought to bear, from giant robot anime to Chris Ware. The third issue of Epoxy featured an oversized, elaborate design scheme as pretty as anything a self-publisher in American Comics has ever attempted, with stories that bounced on the page for their clash of themes and presentational styles.

The cartoonist's most recent work was the handcrafted Substitute Life, culled from sketchbooks and featuring a same-title cartoon essay on Pham's experiences interacting with the works of John Cassavetes and Chris Ware. After the idiosyncratic mixing and blending that signified the best stories appearing in Epoxy #3, the narrative portions of Substitute Life were a jarring left-turn into plaintively direct writing, non-fiction subject matter and non-representational art. Pham made use of a conversational writing style mid-wifed by visually fantastic and formally, slyly ambitious scene setting drawn in a simple, thin-lined style, an approach to comics that was unlike anything he had done before. It was one of the better reinventions where none had been called for in recent comics history.

Pham's comics may remind readers of the early days of alternative and indy comics, where cartoonists fired through inspirations, motifs and styles a hundred miles a minute in search of strategies and stories that worked best. All of Pham's output has been promising but in some ways a trifle worrisome, like waiting for the movie to start while wondering if it's the trailers you will end up liking more because, as incomplete works, they invite you to finish them yourself. Yet looking at Epoxy and Substitute Life solely in light of works to come also falls into the early alternative and indy comics reader's twin traps of undervaluing the comics that exist now and pre-judging a talent for throwing themselves into work before every strategy is fully sorted out. Sometimes when the good work takes time, the time spent can still be valuable. Pham claims that a Fall 2004 book collection of his Epoxy work from the Reed Graphica imprint at Reed Press and a new series to follow will signal a new chapter in his creative life, more focused and productive. Based on what he's done thus far, I can't wait.

TOM SPURGEON: This is straight from Interviewing 101, so forgive me, but how did you come up with "Epoxy" for your company and comic?

JOHN PHAM: It was a last second thing to submit to the Xeric Grant. For anthologies, you have to pick a weird, vague name that's kind of a catchall: something that kind of sets a tone for what's inside, without being too specific. So I was trying to pick out words that don't mean anything. [laughter] I was going to name the comic book Tomato, but Ellen Forney already had that for her comic. I didn't realize. The next one on the list was Epoxy. Looking back on it, it sounds too high-tech to me now, too much like a computer part. I'm probably going to name the new comic Substitute Life, and keep using that. I think it's more apt.

SPURGEON: Tell me about the recent legal rumblings surrounding Epoxy.

PHAM: A Canadian design company also has the Epoxy name. They're basically like a corporate design firm - they do really shitty commercial design and stuff. They think I'm infringing on their territory, even though I'm a comic book publisher. I was ready to fight them on that fact alone, but I do design work as well. I want to offer design work through my web site. I want to keep it under one name. I never really liked the Epoxy name. If I were to change it, now would be the best time. After the Reed Press book comes out, it puts like a nice capper on that time, those stories. I want to continue the "Modesto" stories, but the other two I'm not fond of. I think it's kind of a good time to wrap it all up and start with a new name and a new web site.

SPURGEON: Are you going to settle into a format? Epoxy #3 and Substitute Life look very different from everything else you've done.

PHAM: I probably will mess around with the format, at least the dimensions. The idea I have for the next issue would probably involve making the comic a little smaller. The whole giant-size thing with Epoxy #3 was nice and all, but it was really tough filling all that space. That's why that one took so long. I don't want to do a comic that would be published every two or three years.

SPURGEON: Now as someone who is a designer as well as a cartoonist, do you design for the comics you want to do, or do you conceive of a design and make comics for it?

PHAM: God... you know, I guess I would sometimes settle on the format first and then put that stuff in there. Practically speaking, you have to do that to plan out the paper size and size of the panels. In Sub Life, I wanted to put a bunch of sketchbook pages in there. I work in a sketchbook that measures five and a half by eight and a half, which is basically a letter-sized page cut in half. Coming up with the size for that, I figured I would just print all the pages out on eight and half by eleven sheets like on a Xerox machine and then cut them in half. Coming up with the cardboard covers was really necessary. The pages are so narrow, if it didn't have the cardboard it would just flop around in your hand.

SPURGEON: The two storylines you mentioned that you're pretty sure you're not going to continue - where did they start to fail for you? I'm not surprised to hear you lost faith in the "Elephantine" storyline, but I am about the third feature, whose name I can't remember ["Shiva," from which similar characters appeared in "Oceanus Vs. the Venusian Crayfish"].

PHAM: Yeah, because it's so forgettable. [laughter] It was more like I came to that conclusion. It was the feeling I was getting as I was working on those stories. It just felt unnatural. The "Elephantine" stuff… I don't feel like I'm a good genre writer. It takes a certain kind of sensibility. The way a reader has to suspend disbelief, a writer has to work himself into a kind of lather to write like that. It didn't feel natural to me. And when I read the comics when I was done, I wouldn't get that much pleasure from reading them. Reading stuff like the "Modesto" stuff, or Substitute Life, I still have problems with those stories, but they felt more natural. It felt better for me to do stories like that. The first issue of Epoxy was me trying to figure out so many things. Among them was trying to figure out what kind of stories I wanted to write. The only way to figure that out is to dive right in and see what happens.

SPURGEON: One thing that marks the work you've done so far is this restless move through inspiration and modes, trying on different hats. Are you done with that?

PHAM: You know, I really do think so. Getting this trade paperback and changing the name, and having a little bit of experience, made me appreciate the value of focus. It was kind of unsatisfying after a while. I had my foot in all these styles and genres, but I didn't really feel like I was saying much. It was almost like a showoff thing. "I can do all these inking styles!" But who cares? It's the same reason you go to art school. It gives you a set of tools. These comics are almost like school projects, trying to familiarize myself with writing, inking, lettering, all that stupid stuff. I think I still want to try out different modes of drawing and writing, though. I haven't really figured it out yet.

SPURGEON: Another element that connects your comics is a laidback, unhurried pacing. I have to ask: is that sameness intentional, or is it something you struggle with?

PHAM: Gosh, I never even thought of them as drawn out or even well paced. I think I always had issues with the pacing. I do comics or stories that feel like they take their time. "Oceanus" is like that, too. I think it's just one of those things that happens. That's good, because I'm trying to find more ways to play up things that come up naturally and really aren't explainable - things that aren't a conscious decision. If the pacing is the way it is, it's not conscious, it's the natural way I tell stories. And that's always good. As an artist, I think you always want to play up your idiosyncrasies.

I like cartoonists who have from an aesthetic point rally distinctive ways to draw faces or pace their stories. Do you know Martin Cendreda? The way he draws faces, with the teeth and the eyes... none of it makes sense anatomically. It's not going to appeal to you in a cute way, overpower you with its cuteness or anything. It's just this inborn way of drawing he has. That's one of things I really love about cartoonists. Dan Clowes is another great example of someone who draws people like no one else can. It's not a conscious decision, even. You can see it's totally natural.

SPURGEON: It seems like a lot of your figure work, your design work, you've really been simplifying it. Is that part of your search for a visual vocabulary?

PHAM: I want to be able to go for a natural... drawing style. That's not a good word. Idiosyncratic. It's kind of hard to explain: stuff that's not formally trained, not naturalistic drawing or a representational style. When you learn representational drawing, you're learning to see, and it's good to know how to draw like that. The problem with the more illustrative stuff is the detail stops the eye from reading. I guess I'm saying I want to be more of a cartoonist than an illustrator. I think it's better when cartooning is more simplified. It's tough for me to talk about it, because I haven't figured it out for myself.

SPURGEON: Are you interested in doing more non-fiction? The John Cassavetes/Chris Ware essay in Substitute Life is non-fiction told through non-realistic visuals.

PHAM: That... was an interesting strip. It was really hard to do. You might notice that halfway through I switch it more to a more autobiographical story. I tried to script the whole thing, and plan it out, but I was getting through it I figured out that working from a script wasn't working. It was really hard to strike the right balance, the words and the pictures, and having play between the words and the pictures. There's one panel where I go through all of Cassavetes' films and I just list them, and at the bottom there's a figure of Cassavetes walking through the years. I listed the movies chronologically, and I wanted to portray him along this timeline and the habits he carried throughout his life, the carousing and the drinking and the arguing and the toll that would take on him.

It was tough coming up with something like that panel after panel after panel. I would be really interested in doing something else: like that, though] It's a style I'd like to use again sometime. If I ever feel strongly about something and want to write an essay I can do it in that style. I think it worked. I have problems with it, but it didn't seem totally unnatural.

SPURGEON: I find it interesting that you're so adept at using these fantastic elements as visual signifiers while in your fictional narratives there's a distrust of fantasy. Even the Olive character in the "Modesto" serial, introduced as larger than life in her circle of friends, gets grounded in family detail pretty quickly. The characters in "Oceanus" seem to make a case for realism over self-delusion. There's a decided cynicism about illusion.

PHAM: It's tough to nail down one orientation. I try to mix it all up. You want your stories and characters to be as well rounded and as believable as you can. You want the audience to feel the characters, maybe not feel them as real people, but believe them somehow. People go from happy and delusional to crashing down all the time, I mean I know I do. And I guess I'll try to write that into the characters. I try not to be too calculated about it.

SPURGEON: You indicated earlier you were pretty confident that you were putting to rest this period of restless experimentation. But a lot of the stuff in Substitute Life was very iconic, almost sketchy. Does your new focus include no longer switching modes, and does that mean everything is going to look like the Cassavetes essay?

PHAM: It's not going to be as distilled as the essay. I wanted the words to be part of the visuals there. All the iconic drawing was meant to carry the same value as the lettering, the words. So the pictures are like the words. I used only one thickness of line. That was the reason I did that. I don't think something that abstract would carry over well into fiction, where you're trying to tell a story. I do want to move away from the super-illustrator looking stuff and more towards the cartoony looking stuff from Substitute Life, but not quite as iconic as that. I'm still probably going to be all over the place. I think the plan right now is to focus on one serial in Substitute Life. The first one will be "Modesto." In support of that will just be me doing one-page strips and more experimental stuff. Nothing as genre as in "Elephantine" or that other third strip I can't remember now either. It's still up in the air, though. I still have to plan the next issue.

SPURGEON: The fetus in the robot: where did that come from? That's an inspired design.

PHAM: It was just a weird doodle, and I made him an actual character in the "Oceanus" story.

SPURGEON: He later serves as a substitute for you.

PHAM: I liked the design so much, whenever I draw a strip for myself I started drawing that character. I didn't think drawing a cartoony version of myself was working for me. After a while I tried to think why, or to analyze it, which is usually a mistake. I don't know of it's forced or not, but I guess when a reader is reading about me I would rather separate myself from my physical presence? Because they're not talking to me, they're not looking at me. You're talking to me right now, but if you didn't meet me you wouldn't know what I look like. I'd just be a voice. And that's great. Anytime we cannot worry about the way we look, the way we dress, anything like that, that's great because you can focus on other things. In the case of the autobio strips or the essay, you're not totally distracted by the speaker, the messenger, what he looks like, or what race he is. The sex. It's a disembodied voice. It becomes more than a representation of a person in a room. It was also like - I rationalize things like this - the amniotic fluid, it's just floating around and you've got this easy life. That's where I felt where I was at the time.

SPURGEON: The self-analysis in the Cassavetes strip makes me think you have suspicions about the value of making art.

PHAM: Oh, yeah. All the time. Maybe not suspicions, so much, but doubts. There's a lot of thinking about the value and a lot of rationalizing why artists are obsessed with making art rather than making money. A lot of artists are obsessed with making money, too. It's really weird, because I start to think about other people who are obsessed about certain things. With most people you run across, what I run across, the main big goal is making money. At least making enough money to be comfortable. I'll see that with my family or my friends. They're not obsessed with it, but it's a primary goal. I want to buy a house. I want to support my family. It's really inspiring to see all of these people making mini-comics, or just toiling away in a field with very little financial promise. At least if you're in the music business, and there are a lot of starving artists in the music industry, there's the promise you might become a rock star. The chances of that are probably similar to winning the lottery, but in comics there's not even a model for that.

SPURGEON: Do you have peers in Southern California? Who would your running mates be?

PHAM: I talk to Martin Cendreda a lot. He's someone I admire for his skill and the way he does his comics. Jordan [Crane] is another friend of mine whom I don't see that much anymore, who I don't get to talk to too much anymore. Same thing with Sammy [Harkham]. I'll see Sammy every once in a while and talk to him, but I think we used to talk a bit more. Souther [Salazar] I see every once in a while. People like Sammy and Souther and Jordan, they'll offer to do stuff for 1-Up, too. I think 1-Up is one of the best ways I can stay in contact with people.

imageSPURGEON: 1-Up is a magazine about videogame culture with which you're deeply involved. Is there anything that binds comics and videogames?

PHAM: The obvious answer would be that they're both put upon. It's an attitude that applies to the whole medium. All comics are trash. All videogames are trash. The interesting thing from working on 1-Up is that we get a lot of mail, a lot of correspondence from people at universities, some sort of grad program and they're trying to stretch out the possibilities for videogames as an art form. Trying to get it less commercial. It's so closely tied to its economics, the expectations are so much lower because the priority is to sell games. Probably in the future you'll see videogames not there to sell itself but there as art, or at least a stretch at people's preconceptions of what videogames are.

SPURGEON: Videogames have become ubiquitous in the last two decades. Do you see it as a generational influence on people of a certain age?

PHAM: If it is an influence, it would be in an aesthetic sense. How do you transpose the experience? I don't see that so much. But in Ron Rege's work, or Souther's, you'll see the blocky lettering. The colors in Ben Jones' stuff, pixelized imagery and stuff like that. That's more the surface, borrowing from the surface characteristics. This generation of cartoonists, if they are drawing anything from videogames it's old videogames.

Jason Shiga is another person who really, really likes old videogames. He would be a great example of someone who is taking the core characteristics of videogames, the interactivity and stuff like that, and move it onto his comics. That guy's a nut, too. He told me he wrote - this is going to be one of number of crazy Jason stories - he told me he wrote a whole Mario game in Basic on his computer when he was a kid, after seeing it on Nintendo. He did a Mario game where it turned out to be like a thousand lines of code. He gave up after the first level.

SPURGEON: Do you know where you want to be five, ten years from now in terms of your comics and cartooning?

PHAM: I try not to think too far ahead; I'm afraid of the future. [laughs] I try to stay focused on my next project, or whatever I'm excited to work on next. I think it's a big thing, to stay optimistic and not worry yourself out of a job. You might have a vague idea, or a vague ideal, of where you want to be. I want to be doing better than I am now. That's the feeling. I want to be doing better than I am doing now, and I definitely want to be doing more comics. I think I've fallen off the wagon recently as far as comics work because I've been so busy with other things. It made me more resolved to make sure that I make time for comics.

SPURGEON: You might be the first person to ever compare doing comics to sobriety.

PHAM: A lot of it is a discipline thing. If I don't manage my time well, on a certain day, I feel like I've fallen off the wagon.

SPURGEON: Do you ever think it's odd you ended up in comics after leaving the workaday world because you thought that was a dead end? Did you leave one dead end for another?

PHAM: I'm really happy with the way things are going now. Maybe two years ago it was really, really tough. Right now things are going well. I think in comics you have to resign yourself to the fact that you have to compromise your time and supplement your income. Right now I'm able to do that with illustration work and some design work that's coming in. At least there's hope. The way the book trade is opening up to comics now it's creating this different paradigm for publishing. I think the way we comic book artists think of doing our comics, you're thinking more of the idea of publishing a book instead of a pamphlet every few months. You could think more along the lines of, "I'm going to write a book and it's going to go into the book trade." You're treated more like an author than a hack or something. There's a little bit of hope. That's all you can wish for. That's a good thing.

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