Cartoonist Thien Pham Levels Up for "Sumo"

When someone who has never taken part in a sumo match, or stepped into a dohyö, or even been to Japan decides to write and illustrate a graphic novel about sumo wrestling, you might wonder: Why?

For Thien Pham, the answer is a simple one. The acclaimed illustrator of Gene Yang's "Level Up" hasn't created a graphic novel just about sumo wrestling. Yes, the story's main character, Scott, has uprooted his life in order to join a sumo stable in Japan, leaving behind a lackluster football career and a recent heartbreak, but the sport is a framework for a deeper tale. The beauty of "Sumo" comes from Scott's infinitely relatable journey as he transitions from one stage of his life to another. Written and illustrated by Pham and published by First Second Books, this subtle, poetic story holds appeal for all readers, even if you don't know a kinboshi from a kuroboshi.

CBR News spoke with Pham about the newly released book, his obsession with foosball and why he doesn't want to be a full-time comic artist.

CBR News: How would you describe "Sumo?"

Thien Pham: I guess "Sumo" is less about actual sumo wrestling and more about the moments of truths in our life that define our future and us. It's about realizing that those moments are every moment.

What is your relationship to the sport?

I hardly know anything about sumo. I started making the book because I had this dream one day. I don't have very many dreams, or don't usually remember my dreams, so if I have a really vivid dream, I'll wake up and try to draw it really quickly. Usually when I draw it, nothing comes of it, but this time I drew this dream that I had, and it was just a weird dream that I was this sumo wrestler floating in the sky with all these fishes and stuff. I drew it and then I woke up and looked at it and was like, "Ooo, that's a really good image -- but I don't know what that dream means." Now that I look back on it, I think it was just a dream where I was worried I was getting fat or something, but at the time, I looked at it and just thought it was an awesome picture. From there, I set out to do this graphic novel.

At the time, there was this awesome publisher who was a really close friend named Dylan Williams. He was starting this company called Sparkplug Comics and he asked me if I wanted to do something for him, so I said I was going to do a long story. I hadn't ever done a long comic before this, but I decided I was going to do one about sumo wrestling. I did all this research on sumo wrestling. "Sumo" took me four years to make, but not because it's that long or was that time-consuming, but because I would do a whole book and not like it and then restart it! So this incarnation of "Sumo" is the fourth time I've drawn it. The reason it's changed so much is, as I would do more and more research, my view of sumo wrestling and ultimately of the story would change. I started thinking sumo was like this crazy, powerful sport with these big dudes, so I drew this really action-y comic about it.

What was it your research turned up that changed your approach to th story?

The Japanese Sumo Association did a tour of the United States and they went to Vegas, so I went to see them and it just opened my eyes. I was super amazed; sumo was completely different than I'd always thought. It was still powerful, but there was this grand tradition and this quietness to the sport. It was graceful, it was really beautiful, really slow. It was just a beautiful thing to behold. I went back and scrapped that action comic right away and started on another one. I didn't really know that much about sumo wrestling when I started it. I love sumo now, but I still haven't been to Japan or actually seen any live matches, I think when you see it on TV or you don't really know a whole lot about it, you see it as kind of a joke.

In American society, there's a certain amount of respect for it, but mostly it's like a joke: Big dudes, knocking each other over. But if you see it live, it's life changing. It's so traditional and beautiful, you can't help but be moved by what these guys can do and how they go about doing it. There's a certain classiness to it. In America it's like, "How can they take this sport, where these big guys wear diapers and stuff like that, seriously?" But when you watch it, you see that they resonate such an aura of class and respect that you have to take them seriously, no matter what they're wearing.

You did a remarkable job of capturing the intensity of a competitive sport, especially the constant theme of follow through and commitment. Do you have a history with sports?

I never did competitive sports, but when I started this comic thing back in 2000, I started doing mini-comics, which are basically just like hand-made comics. The idea of it sounds crazy! If I just told anyone on the street that didn't know anything about comics, "Hey, you know what I do? I draw these comics and then I go to Kinko's and I Xerox them and I staple them together and I go to stores and try to sell them," people would be like, "WHAT?! That's the stupidest, craziest thing I've ever heard!"

I think it's like how people talk about sumo. You say, "Yeah, these big guys," and they probably go, "That's the weirdest thing I've ever heard." At the same time, what I was doing was I was also a semi-professional foosball player. When I told that to my comic friends, they were like, "WHAT? You play competitive foosball? You meet with a bunch of guys and go put coins in this machine and you actually play competitive foosball?" And I was like, "Yes."

What was hilarious about that is, there's a whole community of people who play competitive foosball, and I was also part of this community of people who do mini-comics, and both of them thought that the other was crazy! I would tell my foosball friends that I did mini-comics and they were like, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Stapling mini-comics? That's lame!" And then I would tell my mini-comics people, "I can't hang out tonight, I got this foosball tournament," and they were like, "What? You're playing a serious game of foosball? That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard." That's one of the things I really love about being in those communities. Every community probably thinks every other community is crazy for what they do, but when you're in that community, it doesn't feel weird or crazy at all. It's just fun, or it's just normal.

So yes, I played competitive foosball for a little bit, and follow-through was very important. Because in foosball, there's a certain goal, right? There are certain areas on the board where you can kick the ball. And there are seven slots in the goal where you can position where the ball could go, where you can shoot at. A good foosball player can shoot at any of those slots. The thing is, you're basically playing a guessing game with the goalie, because the goalie could decide to be in that position. At some point, you just have to un-think and just go with instinct and follow-through. Sometimes you think too much and you never do it. I think that's one of the things I wanted to convey in "Sumo." There's a certain point in your life where you've just gotta go with your gut, you've gotta go with your feelings and have that follow-through. That is the closest thing that has influenced that part of the story.

You're a full-time high school art teacher. In "Sumo," Scott's coach tells him "if you don't want this, then just leave now." Is that philosophy something you apply to art and teaching?

I've carried it into my art, but the way I teach is a little more inclusive. I teach a beginner class, so I don't really use that in art as much. I but I do talk about a career in art.

I remember going to art school and there would be a lot of people there and they would complain and stuff like that. It carried more in art school. And I remember thinking in art school, "If I don't want to do this then I don't have to do it. I'm doing this for the love of it." One of the great things about not having art as my only career -- I'm a teacher like you said -- so I don't depend on comics or art to make my living. I make my living teaching. That is my career. "Sumo" and art is what I do on the side.

A lot of people ask me if I want to be a full-time comic artist, and I really don't. The reason that I don't is, because it's not my livelihood and I don't depend on it for a paycheck, I basically can do whatever I want. I can say no, I can say I don't want to work on something and I can do what I want to do. If it doesn't make money, it doesn't really matter. If it does make money then that's great, but if it never does anything, it's still my opportunity to express something.

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. I think that aspect of the story has a lot more to do with my transition into adulthood than it does with my transition into art. We live in a world now where it's a lot easier to not be an adult. You can live with your mom forever and you can work in a dead-end job forever, but there's a point in your life where you have to decide what you want to do with your life, and when you decide that, you have to go and get it. You can't say, "The world is unfair and that's why I'm not a successful comic book artist." If you're just sitting there not doing anything, you're never going to get it. Part of the story was talking about how if you really want something in your life then you just have to get it.
The discipline and focus Scott requires to be a great sumo wrestler comes from a personal choice to leave his past behind. You did years and years of mini-comics before you got to this finished product. Do you have the same sort of discipline?

Anything that I do always has to be really perfect and come out of me for me to do it. I can't sit and discipline myself to do it. If I don't have the spark where I feel like I just have to do this story, or have to draw this story, then I probably won't do it. If I don't want something bad enough, I probably won't go and get it. I really have to want it. I think that's one of the things in "Sumo." That's why I'm so happy it came out.

The "Sumo" I did is one of the most perfect, un-compromised pieces of art I've ever done. What you read is exactly what I want on that page. The story and art came out exactly the way I wanted it to come out. There's nothing in this book that I look at and think, I should have done that better, or written differently. It just poured out of me like it was second nature.

There are not many moments like that in your life. You might get one or two. Those that are more disciplined can power through that and write something that doesn't necessarily pour out of them and struggle and get the story done. But I can't really do that. I have to wait for this crazy inspiration and do a book.

What is your favorite panel from the book?

My favorite art in comics is very minimalistic, and I strive to be very minimalistic, trying to tell the story in as few lines as possible. My favorite is the one that I used for the cover, the original cover of the book, when it was a mini, of him throwing the salt up in the air, and all you can see is just his hand and the salt. That's my favorite panel.

It really tells you everything you need to know about the book, doesn't it?

It's simple, yeah. I've been reading some reviews of "Sumo," and the same words keep showing up all the time. It's funny, because when I did "Level Up," everybody wrote about how the art was simple and sophisticated, or the art was simple but beautiful.

This time I've heard a lot of words like "economy." People always talk about the economy of the lines and of words in "Sumo," and a lot of people talk about the sparseness of it. It's true: I try to unclutter the comic as much as possible. There are very few words, very few lines, not many details. I was trying to tell a clean story and have a perfect juxtaposition of words and pictures. A lot of times, I'll read a comic and there are just way too many words.

For example, if you read a Kevin Smith-written story, there's a million words, and a lot of times, it even gets in the way of the art. Sometimes you'll read a story where the art just overshadows the writing. But I think beautiful comic art is the perfect interplay between both. That's what I strive for.

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