‘Whatever you want to do in life you just have to do it. There are a lot of people in the world I think that have all these ideas about what they want and what they would do but they never do it’- Thien Pham
Thien Pham’s Sumo is an ode to simplicity. A simple story illustrated with a simple (in appearance, at least) art style. But if you can draw like Pham and you’re clear and honest in allowing that story to tell itself, you can end up with something like Sumo, something special. Pham first printed and distributed Sumo in mini-comic form and luckily for you and I, First Second have now given it the collected version it truly does deserve. So many times we talk of the art’s contribution to a comic: it can help carry weakness in a story, it can work perfectly in conjunction with the accompanying words, it can enhance what’s being said. Sumo is all about the art: all clarity and lines- the furrow or upturn of a brow, the casting throw of a fishing line, it all works to tell the story. It’s sumptuous and impressive in its vision.
The story follows Scott, who having been dumped by his girlfriend after failing to make the football league (a course of events his friends insist are not unrelated), decides to leave for Japan to join a sumo training camp. At first Scott thinks he’s leaving because there’s nothing and no-one left to make him stay, but after his -now ex- girlfriend tells him she wants him back, he realises he has to leave anyway, although he’s not entirely sure why. Perhaps it’s just time to move on. And yet, still, there’s a mixture of feelings as to what exactly it is he’s doing and what he hopes to achieve.
Pham never makes Scott’s intentions or reasons overt; even at the end there’s no grand denouement, big win or epiphany, it’s more a growth and slow realisation that he allows to build over the course of the story. He uses 3 colour-ways throughout the book: blue/black (flashback of Scott in the US and the decisions that led to leaving), orange/black (present day sumo training in Japan) and green/black (more recent past in Japan, thoughtful fishing sessions with Asami, who works at the camp). As well as indicating change of time and place, these are reflective of the lens Scott is viewing life through, representative also, perhaps of the associated colour psychology: blue= down, green= nature, growth etc.
I was totally taken by this book, and it wasn’t just me- working a late night at work with my colleague Andy, I showed it to him (as you’re want to do when you really love something) and he read it all then and there in one sitting, admiring Pham’s linework. We both agreed it had a calming zen-like thrall that enveloped and soothed you. Sumo is a bit like a poem: it has a rhythm and a beat, the quiet scenes where Scott’s pounding bags or people, the more, upbeat reflective tone of when he’s with fishing and the running undercurrent of his past. It was just such a joy to read, a quiet, refreshing and immersive experience.
I eagerly await whatever project Pham chooses to do next, but in the meantime, buy this book: you won’t regret it.