Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Jim Sumii's Secret

Local artist publishes underground picture book


For several years now Boise Weekly readers have been fortunate to enjoy the illustration work and serial comic strips of Jim Sumii. In a style that ranges from the flamboyant cartoon to the darkly magical, his work stands out for its imaginative flair and craftsmanship.

In Crypto Comics Sumii took to retelling local ghost stories and tales of the supernatural, and in Sumii's Big Top he treated us to a kind of autobiographical dream in which life's big questions played a palpable role.

What has always impressed me most about Sumii's work is the way it combines clarity with invention. In both Crypto Comics and Sumii's Big Top you see a kind of daydreamer's invention being clarified by a graphic draftsman's intention. In a medium with as many elements as graphic storytelling the tendency is always toward confusion. Try telling a story with words and drawings and see how long it takes before you're dealing with a mess. Now try telling an "interesting" story with words and drawings. You will quickly find the task can make one feel less like an artist and more like an agent of entropy. With Sumii's serials one could always expect a tightly-constructed and graphically-elegant installment.

Apart from being well-made Sumii's comics serve another purpose. Mainly, they serve as signs he is still alive. Given he's a notorious hermit, this is a good thing. Recently I visited him at his home/cave to ask him about a book he was rumored to be publishing. The rumors were true, but there was a twist. Yes, he is in fact self-publishing a book; however, chances of anyone around here seeing it are slim-to-none. So, why am I telling you about it? Because it's interesting. Isn't it nice, somehow, to know that somewhere in northwest Boise there's a weirdo artist holed up in a small room with dark carpet and the blinds shut creating an imaginative space in which to feel comfortable and real using only ink pens and watercolors?

The new book is called Geoma. It is 28 pages in length and features a collection of single panel illustrations that incorporate themes both as elemental as man, woman and beast, and as filled with mystery and omen as faith, judgment and the devil. The title is a made-up word for a made-up place. There's Earth and there's Geoma. Stay in your room long enough and you just might start creating worlds too. The drawings combine graphically symbolic images of life and death, and the natural and supernatural with a kind of daydreamer's logic—giving them the same magical aura you might associate with tarot cards or Ouija boards. Whether you feel moved by this kind of occult suggestiveness becomes the question. The book is a collection of images, not a narrative, so having a feeling for the kind of supernaturalism and magic it attempts to imbue is necessary.

Sumii plans on publishing just 100 copies and sending those out to his contacts in the world of underground zines. Lucky folks in places like Germany, the Netherlands, Texas, Arizona and California are slated to receive copies. As far as showing the work here, Sumii responded, "I'm not really a gallery person so ..." And the idea of making the book available for purchase somewhere in town just never really occurred to him. He thinks of the books more as really expensive and time-consuming Christmas cards.

If you just can't stand it and you really want a copy of Sumii's latest picture book, Geoma, contact Boise Weekly. Maybe with a little pressure we can get the recluse to release a few in the area.