In his 20s, John Pham used to have a Fantagraphics promotional poster on his wall featuring artwork from classic cartoonists like Robert Crumb. He’d stare at it every day.
When Pham originally started creating his one-man anthology comic series Epoxy in 1999, he didn’t have the confidence to submit it to publishers, but worked on it anyway, helped a great deal by a grant he received from the Xeric Foundation. He dreamed of Fantagraphics publishing his work.
Earlier this year, Fantagraphics published an anthology of his current flagship comic strip J&K, one of the ongoing comics featured in Epoxy.
“It was definitely a full-circle moment for me,” Pham said.
Though he works a full-time animation gig while raising two young children with his wife in Los Angeles, Pham still finds time to continue his comics work through Epoxy.
The first issue of Epoxy released about two decades ago, and he took a long break from it to work on Sublife, a separate comic series with two volumes. Pham said he’s nearly complete with a new issue of Epoxy, which will contain more J&K along with other stories.
Pham decided to do a short autobiographical comic in this upcoming Epoxy comic, which grapples with his family’s place in the current climate in America. It explores possible similarities between his family’s current situation and the experience of his parents when they came to America as refugees from Vietnam in 1975, when Pham was six months old.
“We had to flee a country that was on fire. I’m trying to see if there are any similarities whatsoever to where we are as a country right now in America,” Pham said.
The new J&K stories in the upcoming Epoxy issue will focus on parenting, Pham said.
“J&K is weirdly autobiographical but not in a literal way… I’ve got duties as a parent,” Pham said. “The next J&K story will explore that a bit, but in a funny way. It gets heavy, but I try to deliver the stories with a lot of humor so they’re not too depressing.”
J&K is a perfectly-mixed stew of melancholy, funny and cute. It’s a sitcom that follows Jay and Kay, a quirky duo that likes to hang out at the mall. A lot of weird stuff happens. Some acne pops off of Jay and turns into a bit of a pet, and the two befriend a sad, strange guy named Eggy who has some severe challenges with romance.
“J&K started like so many ideas. I just did some doodles in my sketchbook that seemed to resonate,” Pham said. “I seemed compelled to draw them.They seemed to be really good vessels for whatever ideas I had at the moment, like story ideas or jokes.”
Pham’s linework is simple but endearing, and it’s the colors that really elevate the art. It’s damn-near impossible to look at any page of J&K and not gawk at the vibrant, lovely colors. The colors are produced on a computer and produced with a Risograph printer, creating a unique product that truly needs to be seen in person to be fully appreciated. A printed page of J&K looks like the original print of something done beautifully with colored pencils.
“It’s a hard process to explain,” Pham said. “I basically do the whole thing with the final medium in mind.”
The collection of J&K stories from Fantagraphics comes in the form of a stunning hardcover book filled with extra goodies like stickers and a five inch vinyl record. I ordered the comic because the incredible colors and “Seinfeld mixed with Peanuts” elevator pitch sold me – I had no idea about all of the extras.
I excitedly took the vinyl to the record player I recently bought my girlfriend for her birthday and was disappointed to find that the needle automatically lifts itself on this particular player when you put it on a five inch vinyl. (For folks without the tech to play records, you can find the tracks on YouTube.) Thankfully, my girlfriend kept around her previous record player, which is significantly less fancy than the one I bought her but allowed me to play my new tiny vinyl record. I got to listen to the cool, spacey and weird tunes from the double-sided record.
I took some video of the vinyl spinning and producing this neat music and sent it to my girlfriend as soon as I got it working – it’s a novelty, for sure, but one that really won me over.
“LIke any creative thing, you can’t really explain where it comes from,” Pham said. “Some of it is the challenge. I thought it would be a fun challenge to see if I could record a couple of songs. I’d never done that before. Music is kind of like a hobby, only, to me.”
It can be challenging for Pham to find time for making comics given his full-time workload and two young children to take care of, but he makes sure he finds the time for it. When he first started working with Fantagraphics, it felt surreal.
“Every once in a while I would sort of take a step back and go, ‘Wow. This is the dream,’” Pham said. “Twenty-five-year-old me would freak out if that dude could see the process of working with Fanta.”
all images courtesy of john pham and fantragraphics. you can buy the J&K anthology here.
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