Review – Sumo
  • Posted:
  • December 23, 2012
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While bouncing around the Hundred Acre Woods, Bibliopunkk accidentally jumped to the top of a very tall tree and is too scared to dare climb down. Chicago’s favorite Thomas Pynchon impersonator Greg Baldino has stepped in to tend to the homefires.

 SPORTS! Let’s talk about them. There’s a long literary tradition of athletics as subject–P. G. Wodehouse wrote whole volumes of golf stories, and Paris Review founder George Plympton played with the Detroit Lions. That said, over the years a presumed animosity has arisen between the readers of books and the viewers of sporting events.

 Which is really rubbish, as the scope of athletics goes well beyond the pugilism of team sports and many people, writers and readers alike, have found great personal growth and discovery through sports.  Rita Mae Brown was an avid tennis player in her youth, later becoming heavily involved with equestrian sports. The post-modern authors Kathy Acker and Mark Leyner became enthusiasts of bodybuilding in the early nineties. Why, no less a figure than Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor has competed in a number of mixed martial arts tournaments, and in addition to his numerous awards for writing fantasy novels and comic books Neil Gaiman won a bronze medal for Great Britain in the 1987 Winter Olympics in the shot put event.

In short, there’s the potential for great drama. Sadly there hasn’t been a new volume in the Chip HIlton series since 1965, but fortunately that obstinate ippogrifo dropped off a parcel of books from First Second, which happened to include two graphic novels with athletic themes.

Sumo by Thien Pham is the story of Scott, an American footballer who’s career never took off and whose heart has been broken. So he does what any enterprising lad of his particular bulk and musculature would do and moves to Japan to become a rikishi and compete in sumo wrestling. The book plays with time, cutting back and forth between the events leading to Scott’s decision to leave American and his new life training in the stable. The road of sumo is a never-ending ascension and in addition to trying to come to terms with his new life, Scott must also prepare for the match that will determine whether he stays in Japan or leave his new sport behind.

The book has a very simple style of cartooning, reminiscent of Andi Watson or Stuart Immonen’s work on Moving Pictures, with a very relaxed pace to the storytelling. I was excited to find this in the batch; I’m a fan of sumo and wanted to see what Pham did with it in the story. Unfortunately my one complaint is kind of a big one, which is that the book is just too dang short. There’s a lot more I wanted to see in here. For one thing,  wanted to see more of Scott’s life as a gaijin not only living in Japan but partaking in a Japanese cultural form. And I wanted to see more of that cultural form; I was looking forward to seeing sumo get explored and explained to a Western audience through story, and maybe that wasn’t what Pham wanted to spend time doing. This is all really important stuff, too; I’ve known a number of Westerners who’ve lived in Japan and the truth of it is you never lose that outsider status. Again, maybe that simply wasn’t the story the author wanted to tell.

…But COME ON and show me that climactic bout! The visual storytelling chops are all there, SHOW ME what Scott can do in the ring, even if he fails.

It’s still a good book, and Thien Pham is an accomplished cartoonist, but I really would have liked more.

NEXT TIME ON BREAKING BIBLIOPUNKK: More sports! More Comics! Slightly fewer literary references! Will @gregbaldino get to the damn point, or start rambling about Charlemagne? Find out nest time, true believers!


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