Jim Sumii likes to do his own thing. And his thing happens at a drawing table, somewhere in northwest Boise, in the corner of a small room, where for many years now he has put ink to paper and gone exploring. Boise Weekly readers will remember his contributions there, which included a collection of tightly retold tales of the supernatural called Crypto Comics, as well as the serialized story, Sumii's Big Top. He recently completed Issue No. 1 of Tura and Eva, an adventure comic slated for quarterly releases.
Growing up in the '70s and '80s, Sumii made regular trips to the universe of cartoons. At the time, his guides were folks like Doug Wildey, who made Johnny Quest, Ed Benedict, who worked for Hanna Barbera, Bob Clampett, whose creations include Porky Pig, and the great Chuck Jones, who brought the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote to life. Before long, Sumii was applying for extended visas and, over time, his citizenship in that universe was made official. He is, in fact, a character in his most recent comic, but not one burdened with superpowers or magic. He is just the artist in his comic book and in order to enter the dynamic, the elastic, the fantastic, and the forever buoyant reality of pure comics, the dull old drawing table and the man quietly doodling are the first things left behind.
As a finished product, Tura and Eva is his most polished and professional effort thus far. Its full-color glossy cover and quality printing make it the kind of collectible object fans of the medium crave. Sumii produces, writes and draws the comic, so quarterly releases will be an impressive feat. Yet he remains low key about the task at hand. When asked about the difficulty involved in getting from the endless possibilities before the first frame to the dynamic continuity and formal economy of a polished comic he had this to say:
"To me, making comics isn't hard work. I've done harder work. It comes naturally or it doesn't. I never force it. I've been doing this since I was a kid. I shut my yap and get to work."
In Tura and Eva's first frames, we get just that--Sumii at work. His two main characters are there, too, exasperated and demanding attention. "But it's been an entire year since our last comic!" "Yeah, we've been sitting on that shelf for an entire year now!" They leave in a huff, desperate for some kind of existence befitting comic book characters. Sumii refers to the two as his Yin and Yang, or the two halves of his brain. One side is naïve and childlike, the other is conservative and practical. What brings them all together in the same room, if only for a moment, is their mutual desire for visas to that other world.
When asked about the appeal graphic art holds for him, Sumii had this to say: "I guess I'm drawn to graphic art because it satisfies two cravings: my desire to tell gnarly, imaginative yarns and my jones to doodle. The comic book approach just happened to be the best way to get my point across this time. I can deal with personal subject matter without being too self-indulgent."
In a lot of ways, the world of comics is an established place. It's a reality that has been pioneered and settled--and not just with characters. The comic has also been imbued with qualities, possibilities and concerns, which it possesses in a special way. When you start with a comic book as your setting, certain things instantly become possible. Super heroes and super villains match superpowers in a battle for--you guessed it--power. Action and adventure come naturally. You don't have to force it. Three pages into Tura and Eva, readers are introduced to super stuck-up, super perfect super heroes Darla Dazzle and her sassy sidekick Disco Girl. By the end of the page, super villain Ape-A-Tang has been introduced. What makes Tura and Eva interesting is the fact that its two main characters haven't found their place yet in that world, and the adventure for them may be finding it. The running insult against the two is that they're just a couple of "Betty and Veronica knock-offs." In a similar way, Sumii seems to be exploring, looking for ways to use the more established aspects of the form when it suits him, and to dismiss them when they don't.
When asked where he fits into the world of comics, he said, "I don't fit in anywhere. I'm entering the comics realm through the side door. I'm producing, writing and drawing it myself because I believe in it and don't want to see it get ruined by handing it off to somebody else. I'm going to spend awhile cranking out Tura and Eva stuff, so the comic medium/realm will have to put up with me."
His relationship to that world is both one of loyalty and critique.
"I like comics because I don't fall asleep when I'm reading them. Most of the stuff I have is from the '70s and '80s. The rest are reprints from the '40s and '60s. The comic business today is about keeping franchises alive. It gets in the way of creativity. And most of the independent stuff is a cheap imitation of the major label stuff or heavy-hitting subject matter with a lot of liberal stuff sprinkled on the top for good measure. I really don't read much at all these days. I'm mostly creating my own world and reading and editing my own stuff."
When asked what it was about creating his own world that he enjoyed, he said, "If you're creating comics, it's a world you have some sort of control over. Creating an imaginary world is not only healthy, it's entertaining, therapeutic and fun. If you read comics, it's fun to revisit these places because deep down inside people want to do the right thing, say the right thing or at least believe that there are gods or heroes out there keeping watch over things. You can also vicariously play out scenarios that would otherwise be impossible or illegal. It's fun."
The time has been well spent. Tura and Eva has that mixture of dynamic flow and objective fixity that only comics can achieve. When you're reading narrative prose, you become temporarily blind, seeing the words on the page. What you're really seeing is in your mind; what you're really seeing are the pictures the words are helping you imagine. With comics, the world you're buying into is more contained by its own illustration. It has a more objective kind of presence. The ink is permanent. The narrative has to be captured by the form in a direct way. A story and the world surrounding the story have to find their way onto a two-dimensional surface in a way that draws the reader in. It's a limited form and any success at it is impressive. Sumii's assertion that it's not hard work could only come after thousands of hours of dedicated service. Look at the episode in Tura and Eva in which the origin of Ape-A-Tang is told. Before he was a super villain, he was Bernard Roscoe, skinny little wimp. Four frames in, a mighty golden boy looms behind Bernard, relaxing into the follow through of a swat to the back of Bernard's head. Bernard is stumbling down into the bottom corner of the frame, his eyeglasses flying off the front of his face. Sumii has stopped their flight so that Bernard's right eye is framed by the left lens of his glasses. The effect is both scrambled and singular. In one seemingly simple frame, Sumii has captured the helpless shock, the momentary chaos and the singular clarity of a moment of pure humiliation. In the next frame, the bullies form a backdrop, the left quarter of Bernard's face looms in the bottom right corner of the frame, he has just replaced his eyeglasses, and one senses the germ of revenge behind his sullen expression.
I told Sumii I thought if people could get an understanding of all the different problems that have to be solved and all the decisions that have to be made in order to get from the blank page to a finished graphic story, they might be able to better appreciate the accomplishment of a good comic book. He said, "People don't have to understand how hard it is, they only have to enjoy it and buy into the world itself. There's no real formula or process to that. Just imagination. People have bought into my past work, not because of the labor put into it, but because they related to the characters. I don't eat the recipe, I enjoy the cookies. And everybody has their own way of doing things. Everybody has their secrets."
Point taken. Sumii would rather readers enjoy his books than worry about their recipes.