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East Bay Express: A graphic novel for people who don't like graphic novels

Courtesy of EastBayExpress.com

Thien Pham is what you might call a big personality. In a 2011 Expresswrite-up of the artist, Oaklander, and graphic novelist's last book, Level Up, Luke Tsai described him as an "outsized personality: the smack talker, the maker of outrageous statements." Pham's speech is loose, expressive, and uncommonly fast, his words occasionally stumbling over each other as they exit his mouth. Even his drawings, which are rendered in thick lines, graphic shapes, and bright colors, impart a sort of existential bigness. And when, during our phone interview, I told him I'd just finished his most recent graphic novel, Sumo, which he'll present on Monday, March 18, at Books Inc. (1760 Fourth St. Berkeley), he responded, quickly and with no apparent self-deprecation, "wasn't it great?"

And: It was, though not necessarily in the way you might think. Sumo's plot centers around Scott, a failed football player who, having recently been dumped by his girlfriend and rejected by his chosen sport, decides to move to Japan to train as a sumo wrestler. Which, especially when combined with the graphic-novel format, sounds like the setup for some kind of broad action comic full of exclamation-pointed onomatopoeia and cinematic fight scenes. But according to Pham — who came up with the idea after a dream, never having seen sumo live before — sumo is "actually this really beautiful, traditional, graceful, slow sport," and without giving too much away, the story he weaves with it has much more in common with graceful and slow than it does with whatever the literary equivalent of huge guys banging into each other is.

That's rare for a medium like this, a medium that doesn't have the benefit — or crutch — of, say, a first-person narrator or an omniscient point of view. Everything Scott's seeing, feeling, and thinking needs to be conveyed externally, either via images or dialogue (Pham doesn't even use thought bubbles) — which is challenging for the reader as well as the writer. The literary graphic novel is still a relatively new concept in this country, and as a result, Pham said, many people still don't fully know how to relate to the form: We tend to think of them either as dressed-up comic books — big, movie-style set pieces with lots of action and little introspection — or as picture books for adults, where the art simply parrots the text. But both conceptions do a disservice to the form, Pham said, at least in the case ofSumo. "It's not just the words narrating the pictures and the pictures illustrating the words," he said. "What lighting I chose to use, or what angle I drew a scene from, or the transitions — that tells a big story."

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