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A Short Interview With John Pham
posted December 23, 2008



With his new, twice-yearly omnibus SUBLIFE, the young cartoonist John Pham attempts that most difficult of artistic achievements: recalibrating one's artistic voice after having already made an early, promising impression. Pham was one of a small group of exciting cartoonists to emerge at the beginning of this decade. Immediately noticed for his self-published work, he was in the original MOME line-up as well. The work in SUBLIFE can be difficult and challenging as Pham delves into cartooning influences far removed from the surface pleasures of his earliest comics. The major serial (or many serials that will come to share space in future volumes of SUBLIFE) in the debut issue, "221 Sycamore St," eases us into the lives of a handful of city residents bound by familial relationships or geographical proximity. What sounds like it could be a slog bounces along livened by a unique take on tiered comics pages and a loopy sense of humor that surfaces in various surprising ways. I was happy he agreed to talk to me. I hadn't heard from him in a while. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: My first question would be the obvious one: where have you been and what have you been up to? I think there are a number of people familiar with your self-published work and the Epoxy Press stuff that maybe haven't followed you into the comics that have come since. How did the first part of your career come to a close, and what have you been doing in broad terms in the years between then and now?

JOHN PHAM: I've been here, in Los Angeles, still toiling away on comics. Just really slowly. I guess for the last few years I've been juggling the comics work -- most of which appeared in early issues of MOME -- with so-called commercial work. I also went through some serious, heavy personal stuff which kinda took the wind out of my sails for a while.

Once I was done with issue three of Epoxy, I sort of took some time off serious comics work in order to reexamine what I was doing. This was convenient because I was getting a lot of commercial jobs that provided a reasonable and consuming distraction. While doing those jobs, I worked in my sketchbook, made the Substitutelife, Mildred Lee, and the Gay mini's... I looked at the Epoxy issues and I was pretty unsatisfied with them. With the exception of maybe Modesto, I didn't feel like I could fully commit to continuing any of those stories. I didn't even like the title "Epoxy"; it sounded like the name of some dumb graphic design studio.

It was around this time that a Canadian graphic design studio called "Epoxy" contacted me, threatening to litigate for the trademark. I wanted to fight for it on principle, but I hated the name anyway, so fuck 'em. They can keep it if it means that much to them.

It actually kinda worked out well; it gave me a chance and excuse to start over with a new title, which got me excited about doing comics again. I was able to think about the Epoxy stuff as something that was effectively done, in the past, all wrapped up. I was approached by Eric and Gary to be in MOME, and I said sure. I thought I could contribute to the anthology while doing my own solo thing, but I soon figured out that wasn't really a possibility.

Which relates to my working slowly. For the years following Epoxy, I got used to working so slowly, approaching the real comics work as sort of low on the priority totem pole... The commercial and miscellaneous work had hard and fast deadlines, so those had to get done. On top of it all was the personal upheaval I was experiencing at the time, and it made for a bad mix, comics productivity-wise.

I was stoked to be in MOME, though, and happy to at least have some sort of outlet for my comics while I was working my way through some tough times. After I think the second issue, I drove up to Seattle with my good friend Jason Shiga and asked Eric [Reynolds] and Gary [Groth] if they would publish a solo book by me. I told them if they didn't I would let Jason loose on them. And that's how SUBLIFE came about.


SPURGEON: Talk about that initial conception of SUBLIFE. Did you see it as a longer work in a series of longer works -- ? I mean, I think it's a first volume. Did you see it as a book series or as a comics anthology? How crystallized was it when you brought it to Fanta and what changed between conception and execution?

PHAM: I originally wanted it to be a pamphlet series, 24 pages each, maybe three times a year. The idea of a regular deadline -- like what MOME provided -- was attractive to me. Gary suggested a 100-page, once-a-year annual format. Our compromise was to do maybe two issues a year, at about 48 pages each, squarebound. That would make them similar in size and format to Jason's books.

Unlike Jason's books, however, the series will be an anthology, with serialized longer work, standalone stories, and one-pagers rounding out each issue.

I originally wanted the first book to be about 72 pages. That got pared down to 64 due to technical printing stuff. So there's a bunch of material that was done for issue one that will end up in issue two. Mostly one pagers, short stories, gags. The one backup strip that did make it to the first issue, "Deep Space" was an afterthought. I wanted to do a strip that was different in tone and style to the "221 Sycamore St" serial, just to sort of balance the whole comic out. I did that strip in a bit of a fever in order to get it done in time to print, but it turned out okay I think. I'm actually really eager to continue it.

SPURGEON: Before I start hitting you with questions about the work, I was told you were about the happiest cartoonist anyone could recall seeing to have the unbound copies of SUBLIFE at San Diego. Or at least you were far happier than anyone has ever been to have unbound copies. Is it good to have this book out, to start this series? Are you excited about the prospect of doing regular comics work for a while?

PHAM: Yep, I was genuinely happy and relieved to finally see my book, unbound or not. I had been agonizing for months over how it would print and it was such a great thing to see that the printers hadn't majorly screwed anything up. In fact, all the fuck-ups in the book are mine alone, and they are very minor.

Specifically, I was concerned about how the colors would mix, whether this printer would be able to process the weird layout technique I employed to separate the two inks I was using. I was using new colors I hadn't used before, so I wasn't sure how those would print. Plus, I did really small, delicate foil stamping on the cover, which I wasn't sure would hold, or even look good. The binding wasn’t so much an issue or question mark for me.

But seeing all those other unknowns coalesce perfectly into this little object was a joy for me and represented the release of great, months-long pent up personal tension, which I guess sounds kind of gross, but yeah, it was happy times.

As far as doing more widely published comics work, I'm not sure if excited is the word...I'm definitely eager, and a little nervous. I'm concerned about being able to still juggle this commercial-work crap with producing SUBLIFE at a reasonable pace. I can only hope to do my best.

SPURGEON: Talk to me a bit about the "Sycamore St" serial. I guess the dopiest question is to ask after its conception and if it relates to any shared-living experiences you've had in the past. If so -- I guess also if not -- what is it about that kind of experience that made you want to work with it in a comics narrative?

PHAM: I have not had a shared living experience like the one in the story, no. There isn't a whole lot that is in the story that's been experienced by me first-hand, technically. But I did do a lot of research.

I don't want to get into the specifics of why this shared-living situation is in the story. I think I may have had some reasons when I came up with it, but they've either changed or have been forgotten by now. Or maybe they're too embarrassing to list. Who knows?


SPURGEON: Can I ask what the research entailed?

PHAM: Just the usual stuff. I read a bunch of books, interviewed some people. Drove around and took pictures. I interviewed some friends who were coke users, as well as a Southerner who was raised as a segregationist. I read a bunch of books about White Supremacists and their ilk. The story is set in Los Angeles so just living here can be seen as equal parts research and inspiration.

There's still a lot of research to be done, but I usually try to save it for right when it is about to be relevant to story.

SPURGEON: Let me ask you this, then. I just did a panel at the San Diego where Rutu Modan and Eddie Campbell talked about working with characters in their longer works. They indicated they didn't know the characters until they had done some pages about them, which meant that they were frequently different in later appearances in that comic than in their initial appearance. "221 Sycamore St" is presented to us as a series of character studies, or at least arranged that way. Have you experienced any change in your attitudes towards these characters as you work to put their stories in comics form. More generally, how has getting some work under your belt changed your plans for the work ahead, or do you adhere closely to original plans?

PHAM: The story is always changing. New themes and ideas present themselves all the time, the real challenge for me as a writer is to try to keep the whole work somewhat coherent while being flexible enough to work in the changes. I didn't even really know what the story was about when I began to write it. I thought I could get a handle on it in the prep stage; I wrote lots of outlines and notes and leaned on my research heavily. But of course most of that stuff went out the window once the story began to progress.

So I try not to keep too tight a reign on things as I work on it. It's interesting how the story reveals itself to you as you sort of flail blindly through the some parts of the process.

I have to say, it's really tough to talk about this sort of thing because the work is still incomplete.

One of the things I've always loved about long, serialized comics work like Jimmy Corrigan, Peanuts, even superhero stuff, is the perceptible growth and change you can chart from the early pages of the strips all the way to when they mature. Even a dumb strip like Garfield., which I loved as a kid. You can see how characters were drawn differently, how the rhythms of the story sort of fluctuate, or how the themes have yet to crystallize. And then the work blossoms and solidifies; it gains its own sort of momentum and coherence in theme and style. And the great thing is the process is transparent, you can sort of experience the artist's discovery as they experience it.


SPURGEON: The strip you mention... one of the striking things about your first issue is your use of elements of traditional cartoon shorthand: broken lines to indicate a line of sight, pictures rather than text in word balloons or thought balloons, floating imagery to indicate a state of mind, insets to draw attention to a specific element within a panel. How much thought do you give to the use of these elements? Is there a danger in overusing them? Are you cognizant of their effect on the narrative itself, the way they might communicate a kind of intrusion into the narrative by the author's voice? How do you view those techniques?

PHAM: If I get the opportunity, I'm pretty eager to use these devices. They usually have to come from a need in the story, like for instance when uncle A____ throws the house keys at Phineas, in the second half of the first issue. At their proper size in the panel, they are quite small and possibly unrecognizable as keys. So I almost had to draw that inset with the larger depiction. Dramatically speaking, I guess it makes the keys themselves more important too, which is true. And a lot of times using a cartooning device is just the most efficient way to depict something; it's shorthand, you’re right.

And I don't necessarily think of them as intrusions to the narrative. They're just storytelling tools. And if it reminds the reader that he/she is reading a cartoon, then even better!

I'm also trying to get away from the sort of filmic visual vocabulary that I used in my old stuff. At least with this strip, since I'd like it to feel more like it's got the texture and rhythms of a novel rather than a movie. But I do like the idea of presenting some of the situations in the story almost as a stage play. Instead of a roving camera and use of close-ups, just having a static background, with the characters entering stage left or right, full-figure. This way you can read a character's body language, and not just their faces. You get this sense of fixed distance from what's happening too, which is interesting. But I may be getting away from your original question here...


SPURGEON: No, that's cool. In fact, that seems like a natural jumping off point into the question most people have asked me to ask you, which is about the general look of your comics now as opposed to your earlier work. Your work now seems to me pared down, much more stylized than representational, and your line seems more delicate than it might have been once upon a time. Can you talk about how you've developed the look you're using now, and what you feel your current styles brings to your comics that might not have been achievable with what you were doing five to seven years ago?

PHAM: I wasn't really happy with much of what I did in Epoxy, but the drawing style stood out most to me as garish, generic, technically flawed, and worst of all, inconsistent. I just didn’t have the chops to draw the way I wanted to. It felt like I was pandering to an extent, drawing in an accessible way, when what I really wanted to do was develop an idiosyncratic, personal style. So when I did the Substitute Life strip -- the one that's in that cardboard mini -- I decided to throw everything I had stupidly learned about comics up until that point away. I just tried to be a bit more honest and pure with the cartooning and while I'm not completely happy with the results, it was still a breakthrough for me. And I guess you can see where the style for that grew into the cartooning style I'm using nowadays.

I think when I started I was definitely aware that I was trying out different styles and channeling whatever cartoonists I was into at the moment. Looking back at some of the stuff now -- and it's painful, believe me -- I can see the heavy [Dan] Clowes and [Adrian] Tomine influence in "Modesto," my dumb version of a soft sci-fi Akira-esque world in "Shiva," and maybe an attempt at a watered down Paul Pope- and Frank Miller-type story with "Elephantine." The obvious, fatal flaw with a process like this is that the work tends to end up being just a weak dilution of the stuff that originally inspired it.


SPURGEON: Is there anything to rebooting your style once you've been making comics for a while that's different than putting together influences early on? Are you perhaps more cognizant of overtly experimenting to get an effect, or is it perhaps even more subtle this time around, simply attempting to create in a certain way where the influences get pulled along in the attempt?

PHAM: Skimming over some of the Epoxy stuff now, it's like looking at my high school senior portrait.

And it's not so much experimenting so much as it is finding way of writing or drawing that I'm happy with, one that doesn't make me feel like a douche all the time. It's all terribly subjective and emotional, but that's okay, and I’d like to think that it is as simple as that. Right now I'm really happy with this thin line style that I'm using in SUBLIFE, at least in the latter half of that first issue. I really like how it helps accentuate the angularity and flatness of the drawing. Which may help with the panel to panel reading experience, whatever. So maybe I've finally found something that works for me, who knows?

SPURGEON: John, before we get too far away from it, and to make more explicit something we kicked around earlier in slightly obtuse fashion, how do you write? I get that you do research, but how do you take what you have to the page? For that matter, how much do you take to the page and how much develops on the page?

PHAM: It depends on the strip. With "Sycamore St," I try to keep it relatively structured. I'll generally write a few notes down as to where I want a particular section to go, then move to thumbnails, pencils, inks, etc. It's kind of an iterative process, so the final colored version of a page can sometimes differ entirely from the thumbnailed one, and the changes could have happened anywhere between the penciling stage to the lettering one.

With "Deep Space," it's pretty much made up as it goes along, section by section. Those pages were done in sequence, from one cluster of panels to another, without much planning or scripting in the traditional sense. It's a much more inconsistent way of working, as you'll notice that the tone of the strip changes drastically throughout. Which I guess can work for that particular story, since it's about two spacemen driven to near-insanity whose fortunes change by the end of the second page. The direction for that strip is pretty open ended, as opposed to the "Sycamore St" strip, where I'm attempting to present a much more crafted and structured narrative.

imageSPURGEON: I'd also be interested in hearing a little bit about how you structured certain pages in "Sycamore Street." You open with a sequence featuring a cat avoiding some dogs. I thought it compelling that you're sort of working with a grid pattern, but at the same time you're breaking it up with bigger, single panels, and the panels aren't exactly even or uniform between rows. Can you talk about the pacing of that sequence and the effect you get with the single panels and the way the panels don't correspond tier-to-tier the way they might on a traditional comics page?

PHAM: "Sycamore St" is set on a baseline three-tier structure. I did it for reasons that relate to the story, and it's a template I try not to deviate from too much. I know the book will be end up being long, maybe a few hundred pages long, and I want the reading experience to be as plain and uncomplicated as possible, since maybe the plot itself may end up being a bit convoluted. I don't want the reader to have to decipher what's going on in each individual page, they'll never make it to the end.

So I try to approach each tier as its own unit or sentence, which I guess makes each complete page like a paragraph. You'll also notice this prose-like conceit at the end of some of the sequences where the tier finishes short, like at the end of "The Sheet."

I try to keep the size of the panels within the tiers flexible, so it doesn't look like a grid, which I think would be distracting from the whole each-tier-is-a-unit idea. On the other hand, I'm not averse to breaking up the rows every once in a while, with title panels and such.

SPURGEON: What are you trying to achieve, then, on those rare occasions you break the tiered effect?

PHAM: It's a good way to slow the reader down and break up the monotony of the constant three tiers. And it's generally for important panels like the titles, the dream sequence, the isometric view of Terence's room, etc. Sometimes, however, I just need vertical space to show something, like when the cat gets blocked in the alleyway by that high wall.


SPURGEON: The last scene in this issue, with the dog: it's slightly terrifying but at the same time it's also funny. And there's a lot of that in this first issue: the fact the Captain Joe Ho is doing his shift pantless, the catalog of smells that make Vrej happy, the relentlessly pathetic fantasy in which Hubie Winters indulges. There's a lot of humor here. What is it about that tension between pathos and humor that appeals to you? Are you cognizant of working that territory between our feeling for your characters and our laughing at them? Are there any risks to building characters that way?

PHAM: The humor usually comes as a logical outgrowth of some of the scenes. Sometimes it's shoehorned. Overall I guess its a modal way of telling a story that I think works well in some situations. I guess humor can be disarming on the surface level -- it entertains -- which makes it a good delivery system for anything you’d like to communicate, even if it’s a horribly offensive idea. Or even a really serious, profound one. Of course, this is hardly an original thought, as much older, deader guys have been using this mode in discourse since time immemorial. Plus, shitting, pissing and farting is always funny.

There is a danger in working this territory, and I recognize it. I'm really conscious of playing the racist MacDonald brothers for laughs too much, which I think would trivialize them, or worse, imply some sort of ironic stance I am taking with their portrayal. I don't necessarily want to distance myself from the white supremacists any more than I would any of my other characters since I'm extremely curious about exploring what makes them tick. And humor can be a good tool in this, but again, I don't want to lean on it too much.

SPURGEON: One more, then, just because I'm afraid if I don't ask I won't see you again for another five years: when is the next book due? What are the serials planned for it and how much should we see of each?

PHAM: Fantagraphics and I are trying to figure out whether a Spring '09 release would be feasible. I'm working on a four-month long commercial project right now that's sort of forced me to put issue #2 on the back burner -- what else is new? The good thing is I already have a bunch of stuff done for it, with the rest of it more or less mapped out. There will definitely be more self-contained smaller strips. There's a two-page memoir about my parochial school alma mater, a one-pager about the world's greatest baseball player, another one-pager about warring bloggers, a small installment of the "Sycamore St" serial, as well as another episode of "Deep Space." There will also be a medium length, self-contained post-apocalyptic story that's a bit of an experiment.

In all, it should total about 48 pages, squarebound. I'm excited about this issue because of the sheer variety of strips that will be included. Oh, and if I can plug a few of my other upcoming projects: my girlfriend Raina [Lee] and I are gearing up to publish 1-UP #4 -- a journal/zine about weird video game culture -- and we're rounding up submissions. I've also got a strip in the upcoming Kramers Ergot Vol. 7 that sort of relates to some of the events in the "Sycamore St" serial. And if you live in the LA area, please come to my mom's nail salon, it's called Linda's Nail Care, it's located on 8322 Wilshire Blvd, call 310-657-6078 for appointments.


Sublife Vol. 1, John Pham, Fantagraphics, softcover, 64 pages, 9781560979463 (ISBN13), August 2008, $8.99


all art from Sublife Vol. 1