The poetry of Thien Pham’s Sumo [Review]

As I wrote when reviewing Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, the graphic novel form enables the writer and artist to explore structure in ways that are more overt than the purely written word. In fact, I would argue that the techniques I’ve observed in great graphic novels — the way sections echo each other, how the artist alludes to things beyond the immediate page, and even the layout of the panels — shift graphic novels along the spectrum of literary genres away from “regular” novels and more toward poetry.

The structural similarity between graphic novels and poetry is, for me, most evident in Sumo, the first solo work by Thien Pham, published last year by First Second.

Sumo tells the story of Scott, an American who moves to Japan to pursue a career as a professional sumo wrestler after his girlfriend dumps him and his NFL dreams have been dashed.

But first, a few words about the greatest sport on earth.

I grew up following sumo in the era of Chiyonofuji and Konishiki. Back in Japan in the 70’s and 80’s, my classmates and I marked off a ring in the dirt of the schoolyard, stamped our feet, slapped our hands, and then slammed into each other until one of us fell over or stepped out of the ring. My hero was not, as you might expect, the American-born Konishiki, but Chiyonofuji — smart, and light on his feet. A chorus of 「ずるい!」 (“Not fair!”) would erupt when I’d side-step a much-larger boy and propel him stumbling from the ring with a shove between his shoulder blades. In my defense, I’d just mention Chiyonofuji’s most recent win against the likes of the monumental Konishiki and they would fall into grumbling acceptance.

I love sumo, from its ancient Shinto traditions to the way the modern sport has begun to open its doors to American, Russian, Bulgarian, and — most successfully of late — Mongolian wrestlers. It’s beautiful in ways that I can’t explain to someone who didn’t grow up watching it on NHK and mimicking the previous night’s bouts with your friends in a dirt ring you marked off yourself.

I don’t know anything about Sumo author Thien Pham beyond what appears on the book jacket — “Thien Pham is a comic book and visual artist based in the Bay Area. He is also a high school teacher.” Somehow, Pham manages in this small graphic novel — barely breaking a hundred pages — to encapsulate all that is wonderful about sumo.

Like the sport itself, Sumo is a minimalist work of art — as sumo is to ballet, Sumo is to poetry. Pham eschews both sound effects and thought bubbles. Everything you learn about Scott and his journey happens through action and dialogue. The beauty of some of that action lies in stillness and simplicity, with long sequences in Sumo showing nothing on the page but single-color illustrations.

Sumo is a story whose power lies in the convergence of three story threads — Scott as he prepares to leave for Japan; his early days there and friendship with the sumo stable master’s daughter; and his life as a wrestler rising through the ranks of professional sumo. Pham uses three separate colors to highlight each story, and intertwines them throughout the novel.

When Pham ties all three threads together at the end, the real emotional impact of Scott’s story becomes apparent. I won’t spoil it for the reader, but the hair stood up on my arms and the back of my neck.

Such a deep effect is something I encounter rarely, even in the best poetry. I heartily recommend Thien Pham’s Sumo and eagerly anticipate his next work.